Friday, November 12, 2010


In Kenya, we see intense poverty that just does not compare to the U.S. The government provides very little in terms of public services (lack of good roads, access to secondary education, sanitation, a justice system that's actually functional and ethical, I could go on). Moreover, due to corruption (a level that would make the Mafia blush), most private companies do not want to risk investing in Kenya. As a result, 66% of Nairobians live in slums and a good portion make less than a dollar a day. Unemployment is high, especially among young people. Guess what? Young people make up 70% of Kenya's population. In addition, the government uses ethnic tension to its advantage and even sponsors massacres on various populations. Yes, you guessed it. Kenya is actually pretty violent.

Before you worry about my safety, remember a few things. First, I am a mzungu, a white person, so people leave me out of various ethnic difficulties. Second, I live in Westlands, a wealthy and high security neighborhood in Nairobi, where all the diplomats, business people, and other expats live, so they have every reason to keep violence away from us. Third, my program has strict rules about us traveling at night and, if we want to leave the city or spend the night away from our apartment, we have to text our country director. Fourth, even though we work in slums, our program monitors the areas we're in. They'd never put us in Dandora, for example (Dandora being the most violent of the slums, with high rates of Mungiki activity, Mungiki being a local terrorist group). In addition, I live in a high crime city in the U.S. and have managed to stay away from most of it. So, I'm OK.

At the same time, Kenya has rates of violence that are extremely disturbing. Those who speak out on corruption or for the rights of the people have a rate of "disappearing", of being found dead in mysterious, yet brutal circumstances. In addition, the government will play a role in covering up the crime, in hosting investigations that are slow moving if at all, in inciting violence across ethnic lines, and in ensuring that memories are silenced from the national consciousness. Many acts of violence, such as ethnic massacres (due to protests over land rights, for example), usually take place upcountry, away from the city so that they can go virtually unnoticed. The corruption I mentioned earlier aids in the silence, as Kenyans know that the police are not to be trusted. Because of this, Kenyans will also deal with crime via mob justice. For example, if someone is caught stealing a cell phone, a mob will go after that person and beat him to death. Violence permeates much of the society.

It seems almost contradictory. Losing your temper in public is much more taboo than in the U.S. and Kenyans place a high value on greeting people, smiling, and showing politeness. Their ties to their families are strong and, if they love you, they give you everything-literally, everything-to convey this. Religious faith is perceived as strong and even students in public schools receive not only religious education but pastoral instruction (depending on which clergy they need) on how to be a moral and upright person. At the same time, there is intense competition for power, for money, for survival and, in some cases, life actually is not valued as much. Friends one week can instantly turn into foes, should something happen. Rather than secure the rights of the people, the government violates them, divides them, and uses their corpses as pawns for political gain. It's disgusting.

Now, we have a population of youth who are idle, unemployed, and have a government that completely screws them over and runs on ruthless ambition. Many are educated and have the potential to turn the tide. However, if things continue as they are, I fear that one strike of a match could send this country up in flames.

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