a new normal for kenya

NAIROBI How quickly it all came back. The flocks of thin men swimming in too-big suits and over-polished dress shoes are back.


How quickly it all came back.

The flocks of thin men swimming in too-big suits and over-polished dress shoes are back.

So too are the clapped out cars, the ear-mounted cellphones, the diesel smoke and the constant back-of-the-mind worry of being struck down by a miraa chewing minibus driver so spaced out on the stimulant he doesn’t see you.

Kenya wants normal to come back.

But even as former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan prepares to take the baton from Ghanian President John Kufuor in chairing the mediation efforts between re-elected president Mwai Kibaki and the man many think was elected here two weeks ago, Raila Odinga, the country that existed last month will not return.

Instead, a new normal is taking root.

Today’s Kenya is like a long-recovered alcoholic coming to after a bad relapse of smashing his car, hitting his wife, swearing at his kids and getting fired from his job.

The country can see clearly again, but the events of the past two weeks when the happy mask was lifted, blood was spilled and the country had that ghoulish buzz of ethnic violence won’t soon be forgotten.

There are now more than 100,000 people, mostly Kikuyu, who have been displaced and are living beside a police station, in a schoolyard or on a soccer field in Kenya.

Neighbours killed neighbours. Or they burnt their fields. People who had intermarried among tribes have lost or left spouses. Kikuyu reprisals against Luos have seen many men publicly circumcised.

In the Kibera slums, old normal is hunger. The new normal is a surreal mixture of hungry victims and hungry attackers.

After a week of fires and targeted destruction that destroyed the slum’s main market, the Luos, Luhyas and other tribes tied to Odinga that forced 3,000 Kikuyus to flee into a nearby fairground are now showing up at its gate, asking for food.

“I’ve seen them, even those who were beating me up,” said 36-year-old Mary Wanjiku as she queued for lunch at the fairground. She lost her home and vegetable kiosk in the flames. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Though they’re concerned about the mixing, those overseeing the displaced peoples camp can’t pick sides.

“Whether they are the killers or not, they need food,” said Steven Mbogo, with the Kenyan Alliance of Churches, which is running the camp in Kibera with help from NGOs like the Red Cross.

The desire for normal is most evident in the economy.

You feel it in the way people speak about the need to heal and get back to business.

Kenyans are artists at that kind of thing.

Talk about death one day. Talk about making money the next.

They’re nostalgic about normal in the exclusive game parks that create pretty pictures for the nearly one million tourists who fly here annually.

The industry is worth nearly $1 billion each year, so it’s easy to understand why.

Occupancy rates are down by about 60 per cent, and are also falling in Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Kenya is east Africa’s hub. Hotels have already closed in Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean coast.

All that’s needed for normal to return is a resolution between Kibaki and Odinga, said tourism official during a junket for journalists created to counter the bad press the country has gotten of late.

Bippity, boppity, boo, normal Kenya comes back.

Yes, the new normal here has a lot of denial in it.

During the flight to the Samburu game-park yesterday — during which tourist officials gave a back-to-normal message then, when the mikes were off, talked candidly about their worries of continued violence — you could see fields smoking after the property raids.

The press release bragged about the safety of the parks during the raids.

“Air Kenya has not cancelled a single flight in the last two weeks … the people of Kenya are peaceful and are keen to get back to work as usual.”

But how that can happen when a once intermixed society is fragmenting based on tribe, with Kikuyus fleeing back to their home areas as if they’re refugees in foreign countries, is anyone’s guess.

There’s a new normal in Kibaki, too.

Even those who want Odinga as president have always respected the 76-year-old.

He’s got that loveable old man charm, the look that he can’t do anything bad.

The old normal was that he didn’t.

But the new normal here is that Kibaki is as dirty as the rest of them. On Tuesday, after loads of pressure, Odinga called off a third nationwide protest of the election results that likely would have seen bloodshed.

What did Kibaki do? He appointed a vice-president and named 17 people into his cabinet, even though several foreign diplomats were trying to sort out how to make the country run after a rigged election engineered him as president.

The new normal is Kenyans growing bitter with one another as the two refuse to even speak to one another, let alone reach a deal.

Kenya had a critical political moment two weeks ago. When it mattered more than ever — because people were convinced they actually mattered — the powers in control took the road backwards into the days when a cabal ruled this place instead of an electorate.

More than 70 per cent of the 14 million eligible voters cast a ballot here. Some lined up from 2 a.m. in the morning.

The energy and desire to have a say was undeniable.

And all that has come of that is frustration, and the need to vent that energy, often with violence.

Still, in the violence, there can be hope in the new normal.

Consider that every Kenyan, even in the most remote areas, knows that his president has come to power by suspicious methods.

Before the election, many rural Kenyans believed the country was still ruled by Daniel arap Moi, the former dictator.

And the next generation appear more ready than ever to stop whining and become involved. The number of people who have said they intend to run in politics come the next election is startling.

“We need change,” said Godi, a 30-year-old actor who lives in Kibera, and who intends to run in the 2012 election even though he hates politics.

“It is us on the ground that suffer in all of this.”

Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.