Recent press accounts have vividly described the savage, seeming senseless, violence in Kenya triggered by political events. They have also brought sharply back into my own mind the memory of what exactly it was like when my family and I were caught in such a riot some years back.
We had been living in Nairobi for about a year – I as visiting professor at the University of Nairobi, my wife working as a regional adviser for an American NGO, our five-year old son acquiring a Cockney accent from the Kenyan teachers at a local pre-K day school. Kenya is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and offers wonderful opportunities for short holidays. We were returning from a three-day weekend at Lake Baringo in the central valley ( at a lodge which featured Hippos strolling on the lawn at dusk) and had not seen a newspaper or listened to the radio since leaving home. We were unaware that a leading Luo politician, the sole Luo in a cabinet dominated by Kikiyus in fact, had been murdered two days before touching off political demonstrations which quickly turned into angry riots in Luo-majority areas including the suburban enclaves on the western edge of Nairobi. So, returning home from holiday, we innocently( and ignorantly ) drove our Izusu Trooper straight into the middle of such a riot The rioters evidently wanted to register their anger and call attention to their grievances by disrupting normal life, by burning or otherwise trashing all signs of authority and normality; in short, by shutting down the country for a few days, including especially the main highways,
The Kikiyu-Luo tribal enmity was never far below the surface in Kenya and we knew that some nasty riots had occurred in the past. But, this history did not come to mind when near Nairobi we encountered a line of cars and other vehicles pulled off on the side of the road; nor did we notice then the ominous signs on the roadway –broken glass and rocks; and no one was stopping traffic. So we drove on and around the next bend, where the road passed by a small collection of houses and shops, found the road blocked by a large crowd of men and women who began screaming and throwing rocks at us,
My first instinct was to step on the gas and get by the obvious danger zone but this was a very wrong decision. We did succeed in getting beyond this first group of rioters, but a few hundred yards further along was another larger, angrier mob, and beyond them still another and another evidently all the way into Nairobi. Soon all our windows including the windshield were smashed – pebbled and starred , really ( thank God for shatter-proof glass ) - and we were all covered with glass fragments and stones. After our young son took one medium-sized rock on the forehead, he calmly announced that he thought he would lie down on the floor of the backseat and we agreed that this seemed like a good idea. Angry faces and voices assailed us from all sides and the car shook and resounded from fists and missiles. No one had attempted to drag us out but forward progress was obviously hopeless so I attempted to turn around, and, as I did so, noticed for the first time a police car and several policemen off on the side of the road in front of a little shopping center we had already passed. Heedless of the crowd, I accelerated towards the police car and, as I got closer to the police car, the crowd fell back.
Catching my breath, I got out and spoke to the policemen who although armed with rifles seemed very nervous all the same. The in-charge was talking on the radio and when I asked him what to do, he said reinforcements were on the way and the road would be cleared soon. “Just wait here”, he said. For the next half-hour we waited, snuggled up against he police car, cleaning the glass from the seats, and putting a band-aid on my son’s head which had started to bleed. All the while, the now-quiet crowd fifty yards around us on all sides watched sullenly. Suddenly, the police all jumped into their car and started the motor. The in-charge shouted that orders had changed and they were leaving. ”Let us follow you,” I shouted back desperately starting my own engine. He thought for a moment and then said: “No, you go first and we will follow”. I hesitated for obvious reasons but he insisted: “Quickly. Go now,” he shouted impatiently so I reluctantly started back down the road we had just come along so perilously. After a few hundred yards we approached a crowd who, not seeing the police car, surged towards us. Suddenly the police car accelerated past us and stopped; the policemen jumped out and started shooting at the crowd. The police in-charge’s strategy then became clear – we were the bait, his stalking horse – so he could get a good shot at the leaders of the mob . I could not tell whether any of the rioters were actually hit but they melted away from the gunfire and, after several such skirmishes, we soon found ourselves safely back beyond the first settlement where there was by then a large backup of cars, trucks and busses. Our police car joined several others by the side of the road and we all waited.
It seemed a stalemate; the rioters were intent on closing the road and the police were not numerous or strong enough to force the way through and clear the road. Another hour of waiting and our luck changed. Three large canvas-topped Kenyan Army trucks came down the highway and stopped. The lead driver conferred with the police for a moment, shrugged his shoulders, got back into his truck and started forward towards Nairobi. Evidently, he was not worried about the rioters and why quickly occurred to me. Several truckloads of soldiers almost surely could clear the road. Taking on the army- which to that point had not intervened - might be more than the demonstrators were ready for So as the army trucks pulled off so did I, taking a deep breath and following only a few yards behind the last truck. Risky? Sure, but it would be dark soon and spending the night where we were would be risky too. Other stalled motorists also decided to take the gamble so we became a little bumper-to-bumper convoy right behind our army escort all the way into Nairobi and the crowds retreated to the roadside to make way. We were close enough to the open rear of the trucks to see what the crowds in front of them could not see – there were no soldiers in the trucks at all, only what looked like piles of dirty laundry. We got home a few hours late, the vehicle a body-shop nightmare but its occupants only slightly the worse for a truly scary experience. (The scar on my son’s forehead is just about gone.)
The Luo couple- Joseph and Ketsia - who worked for us expressed their sympathy and outrage at how we had been treated. I believe they were sincere. Mostly I felt relief at how lucky we had been but also I was baffled. How could our discomfort help anyone’s political cause? Joseph shook his head. “Nothing to do with you” he said. “People angry with the government.. people, they don’t think.. they just want to bust up something….not personal at you…you are not government or Kikiyu…” Then he reflected and went on in a different tone: “But, truth is, Kikiyu, and government, they have it coming to them.” His answer was troubling. The Joseph I knew was a gentle, mirthful, endlessly amiable man. Could he, under any conditions, have been part of a mob such the one which did us violence? Suppose we had been strangers to him, appearing to lend support to the government by carrying on business as usual. I did not really want to pursue that line of thought.
In truth, violence is common in Kenya. . I remember reading, more than once in our years in Kenya, in the paper of an incident on a street in downtown Nairobi: a woman’s purse was snatched but on-lookers caught the thief before he could escape. The crowd quite simply beat the thief to death before the police could arrive. Are Kenyans then more violent than other ethnic groups. I doubt it. There does seems to be a potential for violence but riots and disorder are hardly unique to Africa. Such outbursts seem to lie just below the calm surface of everyday life everywhere. They have erupted in many major European cities of Europe and in the leading cities of the US as well, often over what seem to outsiders casual events or trivial disagreements. The underlying driving force of all these temporary departures from the normal rules of civilized behavior are anger and frustration. Collective violence represents the ultimate weapon of those who have grievances and no faith in receiving a fair redress following the usual rules. To be sure, taking justice into one’s own hands is destructive of the rule-of-law and the whole notion of justice which we hold so dear.. But what if your whole life experience convinces you that there is no such rule of law? What if you distrust all authority especially legal and political authority except that emanating from your own family, kin and tribal ties? Perhaps, in Kenya riots become, in effect, supplementary elections and casual violence becomes an informal legal system. A daunting if inescapable thought.
But, it need not be this way. There is no reason to believe that Kenyans like violence. Public trust in elected leaders ( even opposition ones), a free press to get at least some transparency in government activity and honest, independent judges can create procedures for settling disagreements without invoking traditional tribal authority and enmity, making political riots and rough street justice less likely because they will seem less needed. These vital pillars of a free and progressive society were missing when the ruling party in Kenya attempted to steal the election and all the rest followed. Kenyans will become less violent when they have a political and economic system which they can count on to work. There is an old adage that people get the government they deserve. I hope this is true because Kenyans deserve better than they have gotten so far. Warren C. Robinson