Despite the guards who routinely search us as we enter Sarit Centre, Yaya, Westgate, but not Junction (curious, that), these being high-end shopping places, and despite nervous titters about bombs and terrorists, Nairobi feels indifferent to the war. Mainstream newspapers barely cover it—a recent article in the DN, treats an excursion into the “Somalia jungle” as an experiment in camping. Even though Somalia is “next door,” reports from the war are scarce and truncated, and none are available from independent, non-government-sanctioned sources. We hear very little about Somalis in Somalia, whose “hearts and minds” we have already won—our U.S. accents grate. And, by now, it has become common to use Al Shabaab to name those who, in U.S. parlance, might be termed “enemy combatants.” Much like our trigger-happy police who shoot first and ask questions later, our police who are unable or unwilling to distinguish between real threats and their (perverse) desires to stage extra-judicial executions, Kenya’s armed forces report stories of bodies, always deemed Al Shabaab, always culpable. We have no way of verifying what is happening.
Worse, we don’t seem to care.
It’s not clear to me that there’s space for dissent or reflection. I remain struck by the many who recognize the illegality and immorality of U.S. actions across the world, but are willing, too-willing, to give Kenya a pass. Those of us opposed to the war, no matter our grounds, are dismissed as too-soft liberals—a friend invokes “yoga” to dismiss my arguments, yoga, that ultimate marker of soft liberals.
We cannot spare a thought for “over there” because we are dealing with our own crises over here.
The inflation rate continues to climb; my banker tells me that bank interest rates on loans will probably hit 40-50%, perhaps slight hyperbole, but they are at an average of 24% now. Symptomatically, an article in the DN purporting to tell us how to manage an impossibly expensive Christmas had no advice to offer. Fuel prices continue to rise—I suspect fuel companies will have the “best year ever,” as did U.S. companies when gas hit $4 a gallon. There are shortages of cooking gas. The executive is in a prolonged, unrelenting war with the judiciary. We are still waiting to find out whether the so-called Ocampo Six will be charged by the ICC, even as the executive attempts to wriggle out of its obligations under the Rome Statute. While there is no Kenyan dream equivalent to the U.S. dream, the possibility of owning land and building a home carries a lot of weight, and now we are learning, or confirming, that the corruption by land officials in Kenya is so massive that, quite possibly, few of the many land transactions carried out over the past many years are valid.
Kenya is messy.
And at war.
Concerned with our abilities to “survive,” and still in a mode where, to use Lauren Berlant’s language, we misrecognize survival as freedom, we remain unconcerned by what happens “out there.” Or, more precisely, we want results from out there: body counts, towns captured, success. Anything but something else to trouble our minds. We do not have space or time for mental reflection. We do not have space or time for moral questions. We do not have space or time for ethical questions. Questions are “details.” And we would prefer not to deal with “details.”
But the war is not simply out there.
We continue to demolish houses, to render Kenyans homeless, and to argue that we are doing so to uphold the law. We continue to act unthinkingly, only to turn around and wonder why men with names like “Onyango,” “Kamau,” “Mutua,” and “Wekesa” are being “radicalized” by Al Shabaab. We are urged to be patriotic—striking workers and those threatening to strike have been urged to be “patriotic” and to consider that we are at war, so there’s no “extra money”—but shown that loyalty to Kenya and public service have no value to those in power. I hesitate to use the language of relationships: but we are in one hell of an abusive mess. Although the equivalent of Kenya’s 1% continue to thrive and to reap massive profits, just as they did under Kenyatta and Moi, it’s difficult not to feel familiar pains returning: the bile and acid that characterized the Kenyatta and Moi eras are once again working on barely-healed ulcers.
We have accepted too readily and too easily and too conveniently that we are at war. We continue to act as though war is a necessary abstraction that will secure our borders and, through some magical act, heal our economic and cultural and social fractures. To some extent it has. We are Kenyans united in war. Our Kenyan-ness is sutured by this war—by our rage, our anger, our indifference, our apathy. The color of the sutures is varied, but it is trying to sew together a Kenya even as that Kenya splits along multiple lines.
Arguably, nowhere is this splitting more evident than in ongoing debates around the new constitution. At its promulgation, Muthoni Wanyeki warned that it would be attacked, that those in power would attempt to defang it. And, indeed, on the very day of its promulgation, the constitution was deemed irrelevant as we hosted President Bashir. Under our obligations to the Rome Statute, we should have arrested Bashir. We didn’t. Since then, we have learned that the gender provisions in the constitution cannot be implemented; the election date in the constitution cannot be followed; the continuing extra-judicial executions against young Kenyan men in slums have demonstrated that nice-sounding phrases about equality and due process are worthless; the cults of personality around Uhuru, Ruto, and Raila suggest that we might as well give up on the idea of elections that are in any way free and fair; the immense corruption underway as politicians gear up for the next election cycle does not augur well for us. And still we have IDPs. Or, as I prefer to call them, Internally Displaced Kenyans, whose numbers increase with each new demolition.
Given everything that is happening in Kenya, it is tempting to dismiss the war as unimportant. Tempting to get caught up in the details of how to survive, not thrive. Tempting to say that what is immediate and familiar is urgent. What will we do should doctors go on strike? Against such an urgency, how can we care about what happens in already and always “lawless” Somalia?
Indeed, since our military has already won “hearts and minds,” we can rest easy about the war and focus on our own country. Better, we can celebrate when we get news of our massive victories out there. We are winning. We will crush Al Shabaab. We will prove that Kenyans are winners: we can kill just as well as the next country. And we can secure our borders. By which we mean, we can protect our tourist industry, that wonderful revenue earner that is anchored in racism and sexual exploitation. Yes, we really need to secure our borders for tourism.
We are at war.
Somehow, it does not seem to matter.