Food, Balloons, and Chairs

Those who read Glenn Greenwald will have experienced a sense of déjà vu on reading Macharia Gaitho on the promulgation day. Gaitho writes,

The starters included cucumber yoghurt and dill salad, followed by roasted pumpkin and ginger soup. The expansive buffet featured items such as kikwetu sauce, marinated rock of Molo lamb, tossed mchicha, roast Meru potatoes and stewed matoke.

To conclude was the tamu tamu, which included delicacies such as arrow root cake, sweet potato cake and assorted fruits.

The State House luncheon served by President Kibaki and First Lady Lucy Kibaki was washed down with a selection of wines. I settled for the Valdevieso Cabarnet Sauvignon, and a very attentive waitress ensured that my glass was never less than half full.

The food was excellent. Unfortunately, I am unable to provide any learned view on the promulgation wine because I am not a connoisseur in that field. I only settled for the wine after finding no beer on offer.

Anyway, in between the chicken and nut carrot raisin and the passion shiffon pie, I was able to ruminate on the events to welcome the new Constitution.

I am not a puritan.

Gaitho has a right to enjoy free food. That is not the problem. It is that the promulgation, the contentious, debatable promulgation is evaluated by someone who has just filled his belly with a meal provided by the State. Having outlined his intimate ties to State House, intimate enough to get him invited and fed, it is difficult for me to understand how Gaitho can write anything critical. And, indeed, much like the Washington Press Corp, who fret and fuss over rubbish, Gaitho writes about the balloons that were not filled with helium, the dais that did not have enough chairs, the invited guests who showed up with too-large entourages.

He writes the living history of the promulgation as a history of petty events. The failure of the promulgation was the failure of the event planners, who clearly did not know how to plan an event. On a day when human rights activists were arrested, ostensibly because the promulgation taking place had not yet taken effect—Constitutions have lag effects, we are discovering; and on a day when Kenyan leaders decided that international treaties are not worth enforcing; and on a day when Kenyan politicians compromised their positions, Gaitho chose to write about food, balloons, and chairs.

Whispers from reliable sources have hinted that “powerful forces” want the Bashir story killed. And it is striking that most of the articles written on his presence in Kenya have not been penned by regular press members, but by ad hoc opinion columnists. We should not forget that this is the same mainstream press who chose not to run many pictures of the post-election violence, who chose not to provide us with historical evidence of the atrocities we enacted on each other. And while it is nowhere near as sycophantic as it was at the height of Moi’s power, its intimate ties with political leaders compromise its ability to stand for anything truly progressive.

In fact, Kenya continues to run on secrets and rumors, nurtured by the tributaries carefully cultivated under past repressive regimes. It continues to be a country of favors and trade-offs, where affiliation with “big men,” so-called “munene” and “boss” figures, lubricates one’s social world. Our favor culture permeates every single social interaction, from the most petty to the most consequential.

Our press sit at the heart of this favor culture. Stories about balloons and chairs grant them access to secrets. Lavish meals and occult handshakes keep those secrets locked away from the public.