Things are calmer in much of Kenya after a week of national hell. In Kibera, Kangemi, Dandora and all the burning slums, people are trying to get back to work and to find food. The roads in and out of Eldoret are open now -- although it is there, and in other parts of the Rift Valley, where things remain volatile.
A “third force” for peace is gathering around honest brokers like ambassador Bethwell Kiplagat, a gentle man of great empathy and intellect, trusted by all in Kenya; retired general Opande -- known in military circles around the world as a formidable UN peacekeeper; and retired general Sumbeiwo, a man of honour, trusted as a mediator by both sides in the Sudan conflict. At times like this these three men are the most valuable real estate in Kenya.
While world attention is focused now on the role of such mediators and high-level political talks -- or the lack thereof -- I want to focus this column on Kenyan society. Specifically, how ethnicity manifests itself in our country, drawing from my own experiences.
I attended Mangu High School. It was a school for nerds -- maths geniuses, all of us shabby; dirty, actually. The school gate never closed and there were snakes and fist-sized spiders everywhere. In the 1970s the Jesuits moved the school to a larger patch of land but, when the government took over, the building stopped and for 20 years we occupied a half-built school.
But it was and is a special school. The motto was not in Latin like the more pretentious former missionary schools. Our motto was Jishinde ushinde -- your battle is with yourself. It was a libertarian school: teachers left you alone, but the student ethic was, “you came alone with your box”.
Our exam results were often spectacular, especially in the sciences. One year we had 13 out of 14 As in advanced biology. Every year we took a third of the places in the medical school at the University of Nairobi. In 1988 we broke a national record and sent all our candidates to university.
Mangu got students from all over Kenya. Schools like this throughout the country produce a pan-Kenyan elite. Old and enduring friendships are made.
The two dominant communities at Mangu were Luo and Gikuyu. The school itself was in Gikuyuland. As it has always been in Kenya, there was no animosity in the personal relationships between people from different communities.
But there were larger political differences. The Romogi Students’ Union, a Luo organisation, was a fierce and emotional human-rights style students’ organisation. It would lobby for the rights of Luo students and had no problem organising and striking to effect these rights. The leadership was composed always of the most brilliant Luo students.
Whenever they “rioted”, as we put it rather dramatically, there was a clarity of high purpose that would whip them all into one body -- and behind these songs you could hear the national wounds: the death of Tom Mboya; the terrible Kenyatta years where Luo Nyanza was ignored by the government; the detention of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga -- Raila’s father.
There were a few Gikuyu district student organisations, but none with any real organising power. The Gikuyu students, libertarian in sensibility and a majority in numbers, had informal leaders -- mostly people who showed pragmatism.
Kanyenje Gakombe was one: he was a scout, had a great friendship with the headmaster and made piles of cash selling quarter loaves of bread in the dining hall. He had no title, headed no organisation that represented Gikuyu interests, but it was known that he was a man to talk to. He made things work and adjusted his politics accordingly.
Kanyenje shared a study with Nonkwe Nyaima Manyanki. They were best friends. Manyanki was a performance poet, a brilliant thinker and the bravest man in school. He had no tolerance for dishonesty and could face down the entire administration -- and our administration was quite dodgy.
As a junior I served them both. Made tea and kept them happy.
Manyanki is the most influential person in my own political ethic and in the idea of truth I was to seek as a writer. I admired his refusal to allow the low standards and petty brutality of our schooling system to be his status quo.
At some point, for fear that the Ramogi Students’ Union would start to infect the rest of us, all “cultural organisations” were banned. We are all Kenyans, we were told.
Behind this was also the fear of a force that could overwhelm with its passion. It could carry you far ahead of yourself, make you towering and triumphant. Maybe, we would speculate, it would take on a slightly negative ethnic flavour, whipped up by passion, and soon we would see the school brawling in the parade, in front of the flag, and our hidden ugliness would be exposed.
This being Kenya, it never grew strong enough for us to find out.
*Binyavanga Wainaina is a member of Concerned Writers for Kenya, a coalition of Kenyan writers for peace and sanity. This article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian.
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