James Martin, SJ | Jan 30 2008 - 4:23pm | 1 comment
I spent two years working in Nairobi, Kenya, during my Jesuit formation. During that time, I was befriended by Kenyans from a variety of ethnic groups: Kikuyu, Luo, Kamba, Samburu, Kalenjin, Maasai, and many others. They taught me a select few words in their languages, so that in addition to Kiswahili, the lingua franca of East Africa, I could honor them by saying hello in Kikamba or Kimaasai. To a person, they were eager to teach me about their backgrounds: the location of their homelands in the countryside, favorite foods, and distinctive customs. A Maasai taught me how he managed to kill a lion when he was 19. A Kikuyu woman showed me how she cooked githeri, a combination of mashed potatoes, corn and beans. One quickly learned to puzzle out a person’s ethnic background by their names, much as we do in the United States. That way you might be able to greet them in their mother’s tongue. Kikuyu names, for example, often begin with a "K," like Kinanjui. Luo names more often start with "O," like Odinga or Odhiambo. (Or "Obama." The senator’s father is a Luo.) The Irish-born vocation director for the Jesuits’ East Africa Province used to joke that he was a Luo because his name was "O’Connor." In Nairobi at least, and at least from 1992 to 1994, ethnic differences were seen as relatively secondary concerns. People were more interested in finding a job and in finding money for "school fees" for their children than they were in battling someone from another "tribe." Of course there had been flare-ups during what were known as "land clashes" in the country --- violent moves to push off ethnic groups from their plots of land, backed by the ruling party of the time, that of the dictatorial President Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin. And even then Nairobi was a violent place, replete with carjackings and burglaries. "Nairobbery" is what some expats called it. Native Kenyans used to refer to the "little thieves" (burglars) and the "big thieves" (the police and security forces). But, for the most part, Kenyans in Nairobi seemed to express their ethnic difference in an offhand way, preferring far more to talk more about their love for their own ethnic group and their hometowns, as well as their than pride in Kenya, than about their dislike of others. My time in Kenya ended in April 1994, the month the genocide in Rwanda began. At the time, and since then, I have always doubted that something like the Rwandan killings could ever happen in Kenya. The Kenyans got along too well. Worked together too closely. Plus, there wasn’t a simple divide as in Rwanda, where it was primarily Hutu-Tutsi division. Instead, at least in Nairobi, a Luo would work side by side with a Kikuyu, and if they weren’t the best of friends, they were quietly respectful of one another. At least that’s how it seemed to me. The horrific violence in Kenya, in cities like Nairobi and Kisumu, in smaller towns like Kiambaa, and in the sprawling slums of Mathare Valley and Kibera, places that I knew well, and that still retain intense memories for me, is absolutely shocking. Perhaps the countryside is simply different than the city. Or perhaps I misjudged Kenya. (It would not be the first time.) Or perhaps things have changed dramatically since my time there. But perhaps not. From what observers tell me, it sounds as if much of the current violence is being whipped up by the backers of two politicians, Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki, the former allies. It would seem that some of the violence had been planned for weeks before the elections, payback for the earlier land clashes of the mid-90s. And of course a poor populace is easier to enrage. But maybe I’m wrong about that, too. When I think about Kenya these days, it’s like thinking about someone I love, someone I pray for, and someone I wonder if I ever really understood, or even knew.