It’s raining in Nairobi, on Friday, during rush hour. Time extends in auto and human traffic. Burst sewage lines block pedestrian paths: we are all cars now, or pedestrians, depending on how one gauges being from speed. The four-minute ride that takes me home takes half an hour. All of this is normal rain-panic.
Still, there’s an edge.
The complex where I buy groceries has instituted “car checks.” Trunks/boots are being opened, subjected to ineffectual scrutiny. A forty-second search by a barely-trained security officer. The mall I use for wifi has instituted personal searches: a man runs a wand over me, looks inside my bag; there are lines to go into the mall. Inside, it is quieter than usual—that means nothing, though I am told malls and pubs are emptier than usual. At the mall, the power goes out twice. Quiet conversation continues—this is nothing new. A friend tells me that a major mall was evacuated. A few days ago MPesa was down. Money is being lost.
Quotidian modes of interruption—cuts to power, excessive traffic, fireworks at Diwali—become newly threatening, sources of edginess. After all, the action films we love so much in Kenya have taught us how to watch for signs of trouble.
We are watchful.
Other reports swirl: Somali and Muslim-looking men being denied access to public transport, women in buibuis being spat on, incidents of physical harassment (beatings and so on). These live in the realm of the witnessed, the observed, the barely documented.
Unwholesome appetites are being cultivated. Listen to Jerry Okungu from the Nairobi Star fanning the flames:
For so long, Kenya had adopted a dangerous attitude towards the war in Somalia. We allowed an influx of undocumented refugees into our borders. We allowed questionable investments into our economy. Right now many parts of Nairobi have become mini Mogadishu. The Central Business District is a no-go area. Every hotel and restaurant you go to is full of this ethnic community who idle all day drinking coffee when other Kenyans are busy working. The Jamia Mosque is no longer a Kenyan Muslim Mosque. It was taken over by foreigners a long time ago. If you go to Eastleigh, Embakasi estates and up market suburbs of Nairobi including South C areas, you would be forgiven for thinking that you are in Somalia.
Right now, 80% of Forex Bureaus are owned and manned by foreign Somalis with some starting a 24 hour business. Is Kenyan planning to vet all the millions of Somali nationals it allowed to move here with ease just a few years ago? What will it do with these foreigners that it gave Kenyan ID cards and passports?
The dilemma Kenya has is that it cannot differentiate between Kenyan Somalis and Somali Somalis. They look alike, speak the same language, same religion and share the same clan naming system. Any mass screening of all Somalis will definitely raffle the feathers of genuine Kenyan Somalis.
Therefore in fighting the Al Shabaab militias inside Somalia, Kenyan authorities must appreciate the fact that an arm of the enemy that may be equally dangerous is actually within our borders, has become our business partner and even enjoying sensitive and influential leadership positions here at home.
While it is gratifying to see genuine and peace loving Somalis in Somalia embrace Kenyan forces, the same cannot be said of Kenyan Somalis, some of them even members of the Kenyan Parliament that are always too eager to oppose any security measures against militias that may be Somalis themselves.
The lazy, idle, and somehow very wealthy Somalis who exploit Kenya. One wonders if Okungu has been reading Mein Kampf. One wonders what this kind of incitement to hate is doing published in a national newspaper.
It is not that these sentiments are new—to believe that is to erase longer, volatile histories. It is that they are newly available, having moved from casual bar chat and whispers to the forefront of a war effort. Sentiments are being massed, herded in the direction of ethnic cleansing. It feels unrelenting.
And it is raining in Nairobi.
Since the PEV, many of us have wondered how to build and sustain a kind of Kenyan-ness strong enough to support political dissent. Many Kenyans vested faith in the new (already compromised) constitution as the instrument that would help create a sense of “We the People.” Still, ethno-political tensions continued to simmer—rumors of weapons being bought and stocked, of clandestine, well-funded ethnic cabals developing strategies to stay in power. Something like the PEV felt inevitable—this time shifting from “panga power” to automatic guns. Ethno-fissures in a precariously sutured national façade.
Over the past week, these ethno-fissures have been less apparent, not healed, but filled in by an intensified Somali-phobia. The not-yet-ethnic (in the magic 42 and the sacred 5) and never-national (too border-town) Somali have become the target of a powerful ethno-nationalism, a strange ethno-nationalism in that it is not simply one major ethnic group against another—so, not Rwanda or Bosnia—but an aggregation of ethnic groups massed into an affect-nation.
We are Kenyans because we are “not-Somali” and we “fear,” “hate,” “despise,” or are otherwise “suspicious of” the Somali. One could add other ways we feel toward the Somali. Even the milder sentiment, “there is good reason to be cautious of,” with its bureaucratic register, lives in the same affect-compound as the rest. Just as Najivunia Kuwa MKenya imagines a nation into place through pride, the complex of negative sentiments around Somalis stitch together an ethno-nation. It is not that we have resolved, finally, the ethnic divisions among us, but a strategy has been found to manage them.
I thought that Al Shabaab named the killable, but I might have been premature. In Okungu, Somali names the killable, the destroyable, that which, to use Mathiu’s terms, can and should be hammered. Ironically, this war has finally included Somalis in Kenya’s nation-building project, only as that which must be ejected violently.
It continues to rain.