Nepali Times
Moving Target
Holiday in Kenya’s tarai


Kenya's rich cultural tapestry, wonderful scenery, and astonishing wildlife had been calling us for years. Why fate dictated we'd arrive just before a stolen election plunged the country into chaos is another matter altogether.

Perhaps I'm drawn to such crises after so many years of bad politics in Nepal. Holidaying in a country sans political turmoil might be like going cold-turkey. Worse still, there's reason to suspect civil strife follows the Hand around, as riots erupt with disturbing frequency wherever he goes. If word of this got out I could be banned from entire continents.

Arriving in Nairobi ten days before the event initially seemed lucky. With Christmas, elections on 27 December and the New Year in the air the mood was festive and upbeat. Political rallies looked like celebrations and while touring the central highlands, a landscape so lovely as to insure optimism, any chance of violence seemed very remote indeed. Kenyans are a mature, engaging people, sophisticated in their social dealings and proud of their country's diversity and stability. Many went to great lengths in explaining that no matter which side won, violence was a thing of the past.

Such charming if ultimately misguided idealism reminded me of Nepal in the early 1990s, when folks still trusted their leaders. Later on, as the election went terribly wrong, Kenya looked ever more familiar.

Kibaki Thani, the incumbent, won the country's first free vote five years ago, unseating the classic African Big Man, Daniel arap Moi, who had clung to power for 24 years. Kibaki's achievements include a booming economy, better roads, greatly improved security (the capital is no longer referred to as Nairobbery) and free primary education. Meanwhile, rampant cronyism favoring his fellow Kikuyu, increased taxation, and skyrocketing commodity prices had badly tarnished his image. Pre-election polls indicated a dead heat with the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe from western Kenya. His promise of a more inclusive polity had caught the imagination of many who resent the Kikuyus' political and economic domination.

A nagging sense of d?j? vu took hold as we arrived in the port city of Mombasa on Election Day. The coastal areas are infused with strong Omani Arab and Indian cultural influences, adhere to Islam, and despite bringing in much of the country's revenue, are far removed from political power concentrated in the Christian highlands. We soon fell in with some highly motivated citizens who frequent the hotel bar (these are African Muslims, after all), and their tales of unbridled nepotism and corruption in the Kibaki cabinet had me feeling right at home.

Strident demands for equality between Kenya's 42 tribes sounded eerily familiar, and after a few cold Tuskers it was obvious Coast Province is the local tarai, with a long list of grievances against highland domination.

Initial results showed a lead of almost 1 million votes for Raila Odinga and our friends began celebrating imminent victory. Meanwhile, everything was on hold as tallies from districts north of Nairobi, a Kibaki stronghold, were suspiciously delayed for three long days.

Skills gained on the ground in Nepal served me well. Anticipating civil strife, finding a quiet place to ride out the storm, and staying one step ahead of disaster are second nature by now. Above all else, appreciating the kindness of strangers and taking their advice is a key part of the Moving Target Strategy. As markets shut down and tensions rose, our drinking buddies insisted we flee before all hell broke loose.

They agreed our next destination, remote Lamu Island, was far enough removed from everywhere to be safe but fiercely opposed our plan to go by road. Late-night calls to their friend, the pilot, ensured we got seats on the tiny prop plane leaving the next day. One of our mates drove us through deserted streets to the airport (Kenya Bandh?) and sure enough, Mombasa blew up within hours of our departure.

Mellow Lamu was the right place to be as Nairobi's slums burned, highways shut down and riots engulfed the country. In Africa it's called tribalism, in South Asia casteism, two names for the same grim reaper of ethnic violence that hangs over both regions. Innocent Kikuyus living outside the highlands were the first victims of the backlash against their president's deceit.

When it became obvious the election was being scammed the dismay reminded me poignantly of similar betrayals endured by Nepalis. Highlanders who arrogantly believe in their god-given right to rule is an all too familiar theme around here, and once again an elite, short-sighted and contemptuous of their subjects, was willing to gamble it all to retain power.

This election was supposed to bolster Kenya's role as a beacon of stability in a troubled region. Instead the country has suddenly joined the likes of Nepal teetering on the edge of calamity. God knows we all deserve better.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)