Kenya’s 2017 General Election has revealed demons that have long captured our souls, and unless we deal with them, it doesn’t matter who becomes the president of Kenya.
In my short stint as a reporter for the Daily Nation, I experienced many challenges. But that’s not news, being a journalist in Kenya is almost synonymous to facing challenges. Long hours, tight deadlines, elusive and uncooperative sources, covering traumatic events, working on public holidays… these are just a few of the shared struggles that come with the trade.
However, one of thing that caught me by surprise is when a few readers criticized a story I had written a few years back. This shouldn’t have been surprising, but I guess I was too naive not to see it coming. I had written a story that criticized opposition leader Raila Odinga. I don’t even remember what the story was about, I was merely quoting a press conference I had attended.
What’s in a name?
Soon after the story was published, my inbox was flooded with emails denouncing my story because “I was the wrong person to write about Raila Odinga”. The problem? My name. NGARE KARIUKI is not a name you want to see by-lining a story that even faintly criticizes Mr Odinga. My motives were questioned. My name was all the evidence needed to determine my motives.
This incident is etched in my memory because I had been so naive prior to writing that story. It never once occurred to me that I belonged to the “wrong tribe” when I went for the press conference. Ever since, I have carried the burden of my name with heightened vigilance.
I have learnt that it doesn’t matter that I grew up in Eldoret in a neighborhood surrounded by Luos, Luhyas, Kisiis, Somalis and Kalenjins. It doesn’t matter that my biggest worry during the post-2007-election violence was the fact that I could not speak Kikuyu and may have be mistaken for a non-Kikuyu when machete wielding Kibaki-supporters came calling.
All that mattered then was the fact that my name is Ngare Kariuki. That, it seems, is still what matters now. In the wake of the 2017 general election, the tribal tensions around the country are palpable. Whether consciously or not, it is almost inevitable that the people you will see defending Mr Odinga online are Luos, Kambas or Luhyas. On the other hand, those celebrating the Jubilee win will often be descendants of the slopes of mount Kenya.
Born this way
This brings to mind an important point that my friend Huston Malande raised recently in a thread on Twitter. He wrote:
“Politics is like football. People don’t choose their first team after performing a logical analysis of all available options. Even though I don’t watch football anymore, my first team was Manchester United. Why? Because my dad was a Man U fan.
And because I loved my dad, if Man U lost, the sadness I saw on his face made me sad too. One of my happiest moments with my dad was when Brazil won the world cup in 2002. We literally danced around the house!
This kind of deep emotional response and attachment is exactly what happened after the announcement last night, and it’s scary. Unlike professional football which is mostly detached entertainment, politics is very real and very close to home.
I live in Kikuyu … the whole place erupted as people took to the streets to celebrate, complete with Vuvuzelas and Akorino drums. D’you think the kids had any clue? Absolutely not! And yet, they’ll never ever forget how good it felt to join their parents in celebrating.”
You can follow this link for the rest of the thread. I have quoted the excerpt above because it hit close to home for myself and, I assume, many reading this. If we were brutally honest with ourselves, w support the candidates that we support because we were brought up by parents that supported their camp and became politically aware in a community where this political camp was normalised.
We know the camp we support “from the inside”, and we know about the other side from outside. We have no idea what it feels like to support the other side. We hold everything from the other side with lots of skepticism and great suspicion. In fact, we’d get a headache if we attempted to think of anything that the other side does right. We are simply not wired to embrace anything from the other side, no matter how reasonable or sensible it sounds.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth? John 1:46
A saint misunderstood
This is the challenge before many of us. In fact, for many of us, even if we were actually convinced of the problems in our political camp, we would excuse, downplay or explain them away, and in the event we accepted the problems, we would be quick to forgive and encourage reformation. There are no sinners in our camp, only misunderstood saints. Anything to propagate our camp.
This is why it seems almost irrelevant (and irreverent?) to point out that I actually voted for Raila Odinga in the just concluded election. You must understand that this is not even something that I can discuss with my own mother, because all through last week, she concluded every phone call with “tano tena!” So, I kept my divergent views to myself and only shared them with my wife and a few close friends who I deemed more “level-headed.”
But if I was pro-Raila, how come I am still reluctant to criticize him in public in the wake of the results? You already know the answer. My name betrays me. I already belong to the privileged camp, even if only by association rather than by conviction. I am like a white man in the US supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. My privilege renders my support inconsequential. I am a bastard in this other camp. I am here to be seen and not heard, especially if my intention is to criticize the gods of our camp.
A time to mourn…
Which brings me to one final observation. With all the heightened emotions and tension in the country, especially on social media, a narrative that has fast risen to prominence is that of “letting the losers mourn in peace.” This is a noble and gracious call. It is never good to gloat over wins. Even winners in soccer matches do greet and sometimes embrace the losing team.
There is something to be said about our human need to “rub it in” when it comes to victories. Yet, this posture is never attractive. If your candidate won, I implore you to be considerate about the feelings of those who lost. But what if you are a Luo, you voted for Raila and you are not as deeply affected by the loss? I would encourage you to be gracious still. It is possible to be on the losing team without needing to tell our more affectionate teammates to “get over it.”
… and reflect
As for me, I am still trying to navigate my precarious position. I am not so deeply affected by Raila’s loss, largely because I don’t put my hope in human leaders. I am of the disposition that even at our most calculated choices on this earth, we are all just playing dice on the future. Only God is worthy of our hope and trust for the future of this country. Even the best human leaders are human at best. They are prone to wander from the goal. That is why I am not so crushed when my team loses.
But if you are more affected than I am, perhaps this is a good chance to re-evaluate your emotional priorities. Yes, our emotions are also within our control. The only difference is that we cannot control our emotions after the triggers are set off, the trick to controlling our emotions is to determine long before what we will allow to be our triggers and what we won’t.
Don’t get me wrong. Now is not the time to control the emotions that have been triggered by the recent events, it is already too late for that. The best we can do now is bandage those wounds and nurse them. But now is the time to re-evaluate what you value, where you put your hope, what keeps you up at night, and what you are willing to lose your cool over.
Sadly, I have seen many friends who claim to be Christians but have never even batted an eyelid when someone criticized God or blasphemed His name to their face. Yet, these same friends “lost it” when there was even a hint of criticism against their political leaders. Even when the criticism was coming from someone “from their own camp”, it didn’t make much difference.
This shouldn’t be.
It reveals that our problem is bigger than the outcome of an election, or who the next president is. It reveals that our problem is an idol problem. Our hearts have been captured by an idol that is willing to wreck everything we hold dear, friendships, family ties and even our jobs, for the sake of one utterly flawed human being.
“An idolatrous attachment can lead you to break any promise, rationalize any indiscretion, or betray any other allegiance, in order to hold on to it. It may drive you to violate all good and proper boundaries. To practice idolatry is to be a slave.”
― Timothy J. Keller, Counterfeit Gods