It was a chance encounter with a nearly forgotten friend.
The two had bumped into one another in their home village of Molo, a blip of civilization within the massive Rift Valley that bisects Kenya like a ditch dug by a giant.
“We got drunk,” confides Kamanda Mucheke.
Mucheke suggested a beer. He wasn’t in the mood to celebrate though. Rather, he reasoned a drink would loosen his friend’s tongue.
The man had seen and done many things during the ethnic fighting that had erupted in Molo after the election, that much he was sure of. Beer would ensure Mucheke got the whole story.
After four or five, “I asked him, ‘How were you involved?’” says Mucheke, softening his voice. “He tells me, ‘When we went to the village we heard those things crying.’”
Cherub-faced and disarmingly friendly, Mucheke wins trust quickly. He gets at your secrets with your full consent. It’s likely what makes him succeed as an investigator with the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights.
He continues telling me what his friend told him. “‘We locked the house, poured petrol on it and lit it, and then we heard those things screaming,’” Mucheke recalls him saying.
A few beers later, the man modified his story, changing “things” to a tribal word for “mongoose,” he says.
Both words were being substituted for Kikuyu children being murdered.
We have met to discuss the role of hate speech in the post-election chaos that has killed more than 1,000 people — murders that, apart from work by the Commission, will for the most part never be investigated.
But Mucheke is unable to speak in euphemisms now.
What Kenya could be facing is “genocide,” he says.
During the late 1930s, they had disgustingly large noses, raped little girls and hoarded money in Germany.
They wore glasses in Cambodia in 1979.
They were communists in Guatemala in 1982.
They were “cockroaches” in Rwanda in 1994.
In Kenya, 2008, they are now mongoose, or just ‘things.’
Dehumanizing the other is the third of seven stages of behaviour that can lead to genocide, according to Genocide Watch, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank.
Kenya is demarcated into ethnically distinct regions now, another of the stages.
Listeners of vernacular radio stations have been told to root out the “weeds,” strip the “spots,” or drive the “animals” from their communities.
Hundreds of thousands have migrated to the parking lots of police stations or the grounds of churches, in areas their attackers have informed them they belong.
The logic of ethnic cleansing, as Suketu Mehta has written, is a quest for purity.
When the mood is in the air, diversity is seen as a cancer.
The patterns that arise after such a diagnosis are usually the same.
Kenya now bears all the marks. Each side sits staring at the other from behind metaphorical lines.
Such a narrative has a chapter that logically follows this one.
But we dare not utter its name.
Displaced people now living in camps in far-off places with no jobs or future are quick recruits for those bent on sliding further down this slope, warns Mucheke.
Money is being raised by fake NGOs that sell themselves as organizations to help the displaced, he says.
Their aim is not simply war, but to arm their people for protection.
Guns are being smuggled in from Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia.
Each of Kenya’s 42 ethnic tribes was exposed to the post-election skirmishes, as the police and the army showed themselves to be understaffed, complicit or morally corrupt.
With revenge burning in most hearts taken as a given, the plan now taking root is to not let the other things kill you first when the battle starts anew.
Some writers have noted that the conflict in Cote d’Ivore kills an average of 2,500 people every year.
There, the weapons used are guns.
In Kenya, in a little more than one month, 1,000 people have died, hacked by machete, pierced or poisoned by an arrow, bludgeoned by a rock or a fist, or burned.
What will we call it if the conflict erupts again with guns in people’s hands?
Would it really make a difference if we did utter the unmentionable word?
There is a cold, efficient logic to hate.
Each step taken towards the unthinkable makes it all the more impossible to prevent.
As you read this, Kenya continues along this path despite a massive international effort to divert its course.
No less than United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally came to Nairobi and said, with the weight of empire, that a resolution between President Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga — who feels Kibaki stole the December 27 election — should have happened “yesterday.”
Eminent Africans — either hoping to prevent another dark sun rising on their continent, or cynically hoping to bathe in the hollow anti-apocalypse glamour so in fashion here — have also come and in most cases, gone.
The list includes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ghanaian president John Kufuor, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, the former and current presidents of Tanzania, the head of the African Union, an emissary from Libya, the former presidents of Cameroon and Mozambique, and Ghanaian Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, among others.
Annan, doubtlessly seeking to atone for his failure in Rwanda in 1994, illustrates how important it is for a diplomatic career to be seen to be involved in saving Kenya.
His replacement, the lame-duck Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, arrived for a day and attached himself to the cause, as if only to say he still matters, too.
Shall we start screaming the word “genocide” from every pulpit now? Or do we resist, for fear saying it might bring it forth in Kenya?
Perhaps, our logic is darker.
Perhaps it goes something like this: we dislike to use such a word because it exposes bare our own powerlessness to prevent it.
“If we don’t take any steps, I think the material conditions are set for a Rwanda scenario [in Kenya],” says Mucheke.
Despite it all — Condi, Moon, Kofi, Mucheke’s use of the G-word — it is, in the end, two men drunk with designs on power and wealth, who now hold Kenya at the brink.
Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.