At War?

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.

10 thoughts on “At War?

  1. On the embedded Kenyan media, a telling piece in last week’s Pambazuka, by Henry Makori.

    This passage verifies your “War As Viagla” posting.

    “On the day the military incursion was launched, the military held an
    off-the-record briefing for senior editors in Nairobi. Did they hammer
    out a secret deal about how the coverage should be handled? That
    appears to be the case. Casper Waithaka, a senior reporter at Nation
    newspaper, says that announcement of the invasion generated a lot of
    excitement in the newsroom. Money may have changed hands as well.

    “‘I remember clearly that day. There was a lot of excitement in the
    newsroom. Some of my editors have been in the industry for 30 years
    but they have never had the opportunity [to cover war]. So they were
    saying, ‘why not?’ They were given a lot of money and they gave their

    And what our soldiers are actually attacking:

    “Patrick Injendi, a journalist with Citizen TV, spent three weeks with
    the soldiers. The media has been reporting that the Kenyan army has
    ‘captured’ or ‘liberated’ town after town in Somalia apparently with
    little resistance from al shabaab as the soldiers make their way to
    the militia’s stronghold in the port city of Kismayu. But Injendi says
    the only ‘towns’ he ever saw were settlements with two or three

  2. The DN story about “embedded reporters” really got to me: it really was a safari to Somalia, but nothing, nothing about the war. Nothing about who it has affected or how. The reporter cared more for his smelly clothes than for Somali lives!

    I’m still hoping your wonderful poem sees the light of day.

  3. I think most of Nairobi is too used to news of Kenya vs Somalia and once again we are waiting for the next exciting thing to come our way. Things are back to normal – going into Eastleigh to market my 100 bags of porridge oats, in the hustle of day to day business, the ‘suspicious people’ are less ‘suspicious’ than they were say 5 weeks ago; the ‘suspicious people’ are back in town in their usual numbers (there was a sudden and visible drop in their numbers in October, I couldn’t ‘smell’ them in the matatus) and it’s like nothing ever happened. The ‘war’ happens only on TV and in the newspapers and it’s is starting to bore us now. Busted on Classic FM gives the late afternoon occupants on the Mombasa Rd – Uhuru Highway – Waiyaki Way jam a bigger kick than stories of ‘suspicious people’ chewing miraa on the streets of Ras Kiomboni or African Union ‘plans to combine forces in the campaign against Al-Shabaab/suspicious people.’

    I think we are looking forward to the upcoming ICC announcement to
    give us the next kick outside Busted and President of Sudan. Maybe a second grenade attack somewhere in the city will also do the trick.

    I think a fog of boredom has stealthily spread over Nairobi. Maybe it’s been spreading since independence. The predominant daily routine for all classes of city people is waking up very early, going to work, forcing oneself to do work one does not like for hours on end, getting used to this, spending a couple of hours inert inside a car or matatu during the traffic jams, getting home and seeking out some entertainment on TV or a get-together-of-friends-and-neighbours, catching gossip to kill the life of the day and be born again as someone else between the few hours to bedtime. After bedtime is over the cycle starts again. The problem is the entertainment on TV and radio is low grade. And because all the friends and neighbours are also exposed to the low grade entertainment something in the gossip juice is tainted. And day after day, night after night this keeps happening. A fog wafts in. That’s why I think ‘our internet cafes are always full’ and why we ‘talk on our cellphones all the time’ and why ‘we walk too fast, walk too slowly, pause, stop, speed up, slow down, talk too loudly, talk too softly’. (As you put it in an ealier post). A million miles deep into the World Wide Web we could find something to enchant us forever, who knows? So we keep searching.

    Then comes the ‘war’ against the ‘suspicious people’ and we like it.
    And just as quickly we have had enough and are out looking or waiting for some other fix. You can’t keep watching the same Kenya vs Somalia movie all the time. Sometimes you want to get a change and go for a 7-0 Kenya vs Seychelles massacre at Nyayo Stadium.

    Or if Nyayo Stadium is not open then Ocampo vs Six, or to equalize the diminishing returns scenario a Kenya vs Somalia reloaded (with RPG attack scene at Dormans on Mama Ngina Street complete with flying glass and heads caught on a cellphone camera and 24hrs later you get the chance to walk into downtown and see the debris).

    And I don’t think the media in any way dictates how the masses in Kenya think. If anything, it’s the other way around. The newspaper headlines are always one or two weeks/months/decades behind what’s going on in my head and in many million heads. Since I was a kid, there was always an anti-somali sentiment present. It’s like we all knew someday something like Kenya vs Somalia would happen. This ‘war’ has not taken us by surprise. We knew it was going to happen. Subconsciously we willed it. Last month I heard Najib Balala on the radio asking all of us to stick together and vanquish this Al-Shabaab enemy and even though millions of us know what a wacko Najib Balala is, strangely I felt my blood stirring in a great and instantenous bout of ‘patriotism’…Balala for a few seconds in my life spoke like a great leader into my ears. We may be in a bigger mess then we think because the real mess is inside us, not outside.

    We want a bigger kick than before always because our Kenyan arts, Kenyan books of fiction, Kenyan newspapers are just not good enough to satiate us. We want to hear F words on Busted. We want the movie right in front of us, Somalia on Uhuru Highway.

    Sorry, I don’t know if I made any sense up there.

  4. Mehul, I understand what you are saying. And it makes sense.

    I kept using “we” in this post to emphasize the collective responsibility we bear for this war, whether or not we acknowledge it. That responsibility, if we choose to take it seriously, means we cannot simply rely on the government to tell us what is happening without asking hard questions; it also means we need to consider our moral and ethical orientations toward the war.

    We are in a dangerous place if all we seek is stimulation and entertainment when lives are at risk and are being destroyed. What you’ve described as a need for ever-greater stimulation is vampiric (and not in a cute TV way) and incredibly destructive. And it augurs very badly for a collective political process if what we seek is merely stimulation. Caring is not automatic–it’s something we need to work at, even as we are encouraged not to care because we have already “won hearts and minds” in Somalia.

  5. Thank you for your timely piece, Keguro. I have been finding it really hard to try and map this indifference or apathy to what happens to other humans in Somalia in this war or even to these massive injustices taking place from the inflation and pretend gas shortages to some of the demolitions happening in Nairobi and Mombasa or all of them if the government is using “security” as an excuse for demolitions.

    I think also that people were very apathetic and indifferent when the explosions came in and killed people and injured others. This is what really beats me: there was nothing about them or their lives in the papers not the codified forms of mourning that were made into relief during something like 9/11.

    I have been trying to ask myself: why is this? Where is this mourning and is this apathy related to the support for the war? If you look at this disconnect, certainly, this is clear from where I am “looking”, we really don’t have something the binds the public to the war other than that which the government has dictated to us (tourism, sovereignty etc) and that which we have dictated to ourselves (masculinism).

  6. In my email inbox a couple of weeks ago:

    what to do in case of a grenade attack

    What to do? Lie down. Apparently remaining standing exposes large sections of your body to harm from an exploding grenade.

    The person who forwarded the email is a close friend. I think she forwarded it to everyone in her contacts list.


    The silence from the war-front is menacing. One can only imagine the horrors taking place. One can only imagine. For me, this imagining is torture.


    I really really love your image of boredom as a fog that’s been creeping in since independence. That would actually make a nice magical realist short story. On a more serious note, you say:

    We may be in a bigger mess then we think because the real mess is inside us, not outside

    I couldn’t agree more. Drawing from Lacan, I would say that our conflicts with Others (think: tribalism, us vs them, Kenya vs Somali—which sounds like a match at Kasarani, no?) do not arise because we misrecognize/misunsderstand the Other, but rather because we misrecognize/misunderstand ourselves. They arise out of the constitutive noncoincidence within ourselves.

    By extension (this is to Keguro), one could argue (very badly) that we are acting out over there in Somalia as a kind of hysteria for what’s going on—inflation and such—here. In short, the true enemy is that we can’t handle what’s going on here, in ourselves, and therefore we’re projecting it out there.

    What you’re witnessing is an I-gotta-get-mine society. Tumepoteza utu. We are more neoliberal and capitalist—we are more hustlers—than Americans themselves. So if a bomb went off somewhere in Nairobi and it didn’t cramp my style or my paycheck or even my morning commute route, a minute of silence is in order. Then it’s back to paper chasin’ (cue in Rick Ross singing “everyday I’m hustlin’).

  7. Mehul’s “fog of boredom” reminds me of a similar fog of denial, amnesia, and boredom that fell on Nairobi around about the second or third week of the PEV when it became clear that the capital itself wasn’t going to tear itself apart in a Baghdad or Kabul (or Beirut or Belfast)-like paroxysm. Atrocities became “out there”, unimagined and unimaginable even while the daily jams snarled the city and Mexican soaps unfurled their tangled plots. It became abstract and remote and kawaida: lived as long periods of unfocused anxiety or amnesia, interspersed with brief spurts of horror conveyed in sms or calls from upcountry, rumour or the internet. If Nairobians couldn’t or wouldn’t dare truly confront war at home then, little wonder that a war that the media shows us is nothing more than sitting in dusty vehicles, watching trees and eating tinned rations, cannot hold a 21st century imagination.

  8. Odiero, you remind me that part of the reason the Concerned Kenyan Writers collective assembled was precisely to offer a way through the imagination (for all the non-fiction/non-poetry composed) that would latch onto something, stimulate some kind of response. With a few exceptions, I’ve seen very little imaginative work that tries to respond to this war or even acknowledges its urgency–this might be because I am not looking. I understand the attenuated subjectivity and truncated imagination that cannot or dare not extend beyond what is immediately proximate, and I understand, or think I do, how both of these (subjectivity and imagination) have been strategies to cope with a Kenya that punishes both. Still, that reluctance to extend imaginatively and emotionally and ethically into an encounter with non-proximate strangeness worries me.

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