Monday, February 2, 2009

Here Comes Johnny...

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon and a procession of dapper churchgoers are making their way home through the potholed streets of Thika. Like those bad dreams where you find yourself clinging to the edge of a mysteriously steepening slope, Thika sits on a slum-covered hillside, leading down to a valley that produces pineapples, coffee and an unimaginable stench every 2 or 3 days. After a few hasty decisions made in the huddle, we find ourselves here, at the tips of the Nairobi tentacles, at the junction of rural and urban life, smack-dab in the middle of 21st century Kenya.

Three things dominate the news here in Kenya. They are related, like the beginning, middle and end of a parable. The first and foremost is blatant, rampant corruption of the Kenyan government. Everyday it seems the Ministers of Parliament accomplish a new maneuver behind closed doors, in air-conditioned rooms, that robs the Kenyan people of either their money or some basic liberty. In either case, the hope index drops each day, while anger and desperation gain steadily. The second set of headlines is famine. In much of the country, particularly in the drought-ridden northeast and southwest, people are starving. The drought was recently exacerbated by a sudden deluge of rain that ruined good crops and then escaped unutilized. To make matters even worse, the Kenyan government is currently under investigation for the mysterious exportation of millions of dollars worth of the country’s maize reserves (see major news theme #1). Yes, it appears that a few government officials, including the “people’s man” Prime Minister Raila Odinga, actually sold their nation’s food reserve during a food-shortage, to stuff their own pockets. In related news, teachers have been on strike for a week, demanding a desperately needed wage-increase. The government response: declare the Kenyan National Union of Teachers (KNUT) illegal and give them nothing. Also in the news this past week, a bill passed to make the handsome salaries of Ministers of Parliament (MPs) tax-exempt. Then, beautifully, parliament passes the “Media Bill” to essentially give the government control over television broadcast content, extending into news coverage. That’s censorship. The doors are closing, and a train, full of thieves, is leaving the station.

The parable, though, would be incomplete without resolution and a lesson. Thus, the third, and most significant story in Kenya is the inauguration of President Barack Obama. As all of the papers here quip, and the furor on the streets indicates, one could easily make the mistake that the Kenyans had elected Mr. Obama as their own president. “A Son of Kenya” with Barry’s grinning mug reproduced everywhere, “Yes We Can” the response substituted for “nice to meet you” whenever Kenyans meet an American…what a bold, new reality we’ve entered.

Our names changed overnight from “Mzungu” (white guy) and “Johnny” (same) to “Obama”. Shoes for sale on the street became “Obama Shoes”. Fish yanked out of Lake Victoria became “Obama Fish”. For about a week, the noise about corruption in Kenya, the indignant refusals to comment by culprit Ministers of Parliament (MPs), and the rag-tag protests by teachers and farmers crying for justice, all, to the last man, changed their tune. It was time to celebrate something. A black man- however far a stretch he may be from an actual citizen of Kenya, or Africa for that matter- has seized, by opportune timing and his own merit, the highest office in the world, thereby lighting what may be the most powerful beacon of hope ever seen from this tail-spinning continent. The papers herald a new era for East Africa, placing African trade issues and disaster relief at the top of Obama’s to-do list…never-to-mind his obligation to wrap-up two ongoing wars, broker peace between Israel and Palestine, and somehow rescue an economic “downturn” with a repair bill that could have instead paid 1.7 million teachers $60,000/yr. For twenty years. Just some fun math for the future bankers out there!

“Yay Capitalism!” - Austin Powers.

Now we bring you back LIVE! To Kisumu, Kenya, for celebration, optimism, hope etc:

Kisumu is the third largest city in Kenya, sitting on the shores of Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, about 10hrs by bus from Nairobi. It’s on the map, though, because of the neighboring village of Kogelo, where actual relatives of Obama, namely Mama Sarah (Obama’s Great Aunt (?)), various uncle-types and a slew of half-this half-thats’ still live, instantly forming a new Kenyan royal family. In addition to any actual privilege their new status may bring them, they are without a doubt the newest Kenyan cash cow that must be milked! Roads have been paved to comfortably deliver the hordes of tourists they expect to come see Obama’s roots. Never-before-seen electrical power lines were strung up in hours. The airport has been expanded – probably referring to the hiring of a herder to swat grazing goats off of a runway. This new form of eco-political tourism (?) sounds a little half-baked to me. Besides one other American filmmaker from New York, visiting Kisumu to cover the inauguration, we were the only white folks to be seen. People knew why we were there, but also asked anxiously if any more were coming. The sleepless overnight bus-ride digging into our necks says “No, probably not”.

The bus ride snaked along Rift Valley cliff roads and through police spike strips –laid every 20km to create drug traffic inspection points – for about 8 hrs. We listened to Dark Side of The Moon on the ipod jack splitter. We arrived at 3am and reluctantly got into a taxi with a driver as tired as we were, in a totally foreign place. He drove us to the hotel after taking an actual short-cut through some dodgy-looking alleyways. I picked my head up from rummaging my backpack for my knife (like an idiot) when we were parked safely in front of our hotel.

In the morning, we walked into town and met a very friendly, young insurance salesman named “Wycliff” who was heading down to the fishermen’s wharf for some lunch. He insisted we join him. I had the pleasure of watching Anneliese swallow her better judgment and actually attack a juicy, stinking tilapia (eyeballs, fins, bones and scales still intact) with her bare hands. Wycliff showed us how to use mashed corn as a utensil-bowl-swap thing. So hectic. We only wish we had brought the immodium with us.

In Kisumu, the events taking place in Washington were broadcast on jumbo-tron screens made of extra large sheets attached to skinned trees, beaming the magisterial Americans 20ft high by truck-sized projector/generators. A few thousand people gathered for the party. They watched and listened mostly in a hush, cheering and affirming as people do in church when the reverend’s tone gets nice and high.

We all watched together, the odd Americans and the Luo people of Kisumu (members of Obama’s ancestral tribe), and for those minutes we were not hassled or singled-out or reminded at all that we were foreign. We were watching history take place and our imaginations were running wild. The strange new lack of anger and contempt I felt when watching this new American president speak, the wonderfully surreal images of Cheney wheeled out of his fortress, hunched over and broken, and the Bushes jettisoned away for one last free ride to Crawford…the word is glee. I imagine the sensations were probably very similar to what the Kenyans around us were feeling. Obama symbolizes so starkly a real leader – that by some magic trick seems to be raised from everyone’s own stock, both Kenyan and American, black and white, past and future. It overwhelmed the skeptic in me.

It felt very obvious that everyone watching wanted only to believe that a world like the one he described is possible. The waving of the American flags in this far away place, the dancing, the screaming joy, amidst all the despair ravaging this part of the world, is something remarkable: citizens without borders, hinting at a coming paradigm shift, taking place under the same old laws of “power perceived is power achieved”. For once, this truism may be put to use as the stuff of revolution.

The new “power perceived” was tangible in that audience in Kisumu, in Nairobi, in Lagos, in Johannesburg, in New Orleans- the perception that precedes real change. It’s the pressure drop, right before the rain. “Yes We Can” is the new African soil. How to till this soil, so that it will produce sustainably, is the next hurdle. Maybe that’s why we’re here. There is a strong possibility that we could be deluding ourselves. We’re feeling pretty certain though, that being here and trying is the best way to find out.

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