As we flew into Kisumu in western Kenya I couldn’t stop looking down at my Blackberry. The coverage was sweeping. As we rolled through a thoroughly burned, looted and desperate city centre, that Blackberry just kept chugging along at breakneck speed. This came to typify for me the utter irony of this Kenyan crisis. This nation was as modern and plugged into the 21st century as African countries get. In parts of Kisumu and the Rift Valley there was no food or water, but the Blackberry coverage was outstanding. After a survey of the city we headed further west and just over the border to Busia, Uganda where we met some of history’s first Kenyan refugees.
For days we had been speaking to homeless Kenyans who described the sheer terror of their ordeal. They told us their homes were burned and looted and they were driven from communities they’d been living in peacefully for decades. The tribal laws now ruled, they told us; they wouldn’t be going back. We set off once again towards the Rift Valley, a place now so violently living up to its name. The whole scene was startling. This was no rampaging mob in the heat of violent protest as we had seen in Kisumu. The homes and their occupants were clearly targeted, their neighbours for miles around left to watch in horror, spared because they were of the ‘right”blood.
Last night we were told of more rioting and more roadblocks; our local producer warned us that all the roads in and out of Kisumu were barricaded by angry, young protesters. Kisumu is Raila Odinga country. This is the opposition leader’s home town and even talk of a compromise coming from their own leader would not silence this crowd.
The night before they said they were provoked by president Mwai Kibaki’s announcement of a new Cabinet. We got to the barricades where the protesters picked up stones, bricks, and canes and yelled over and over again ‘No Raila, No Peace”. The longer we were there, the angrier they became. And their message was clear and unequivocal: they would not accept any mediation or middle way, Odinga must be declared president. As we visited with locals who were shot in clashes with police, Danny, still nursing a bullet wound to the chest, told us he’d be joining the protests the minute they released him from hospital.
We rode to the airport in Kisumu and headed back to Nairobi. We witnessed the scramble at the airport as hundreds angled for scarce spots on the airplanes. It was hard to leave Kisumu behind because you knew it would eventually become just another footnote in this still developing crisis, and it will take years more for Kisumu to recover economically and socially. Nairobi was truly depressing as word broke out that the first appointed mediator, African Union President John Kufuor, was already on his way out of town and declaring an impasse. Former
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was being called in. Meantime, the capital Nairobi was back to some semblance of normality. Again, I couldn’t help but be cynical. Every twist and turn in negotiations was felt in blood and tears in the west of the country, as Nairobi cautiously came back to life.
By this time I couldn’t keep track anymore. One minute both sides are talking peace, the next, the opposition is declaring more days of mass protest. While in the capital, most times, protesters are greeted with tear gas and water cannons, in places like Kisumu and Eldoret, the army and police respond with gunfire. In speaking with the opposition, they say they must keep up the pressure and keep up the protests, but the prospect of mass demonstrations makes many Kenyans shudder.
It is Saturday and I’m in London. As I feared, the news agenda has moved on, and Kenya is no longer leading most publications and news programmes. I’ve been here before, feeling this same nagging regret after more conflicts than I wish to count. As the media tribe moves on, the lives of many Kenyans will, in a strange way, come to a virtual standstill. Some will permanently move to traditional tribal homelands, changing the face of Kenya forever. Others will stay put with no jobs or education.