I had a morbid thought in the early afternoon today. It will become clear shortly, but first, an aside.
We all have this peculiar habit, this human penchant, to place ourselves at the centre of every narrative. David Foster Wallace mentions this in his famous commencement speech This is Water. This is the reason we seek to identify with certain characters in the books we read, the music we listen to and the television we watch. It is not enough to simply enjoy something without trying to grasp at some greater meaning, an abstract notion that leads to an epiphany, large or small, however tenuous a connection to our lives that might exist. It may explain why we have the phrase “It spoke to me”, ‘it’ being the song or the book or what have you. What is in all likelihood a mere coincidence takes on a divine light.
Thus, then, with the goings-on in South Africa, it strikes me….. What if there is an element of joy, a happy malice, at the chaos? Once, and this is just my thinking, we, Non South Africa, viewed the country with an envious eye. It was everything we aspired to. Not quite so any more. They have shown us they are just like us, the rest of Africa, True Africa, as some have often described the Africa outside South Africa. They are no better than we are. It may be part of the same sinister glee we might get when we hear of South Africa’s crime statistics. They are just like us, just as crooked and as flawed, them and their high-minded ideas of inclusion, equality and reconciliation. Us. Non South Africa.
I do not know which one is worse: the evil pettiness unfolding before our eyes or my thinking that we might be somewhat happy about it on a deep dark level. I am not happy about it on any level. I was in my first year of university when the 2007 Post-Election Violence erupted. Moi University, Main Campus, in Eldoret. I watched most of it unfold from the relative comfort and safety of television at home in Nakuru. Relative, because Nakuru was also a flash point, but the uprisings were quickly quelled. The know-it-all wags say it is because any one who is any one has economic interests in Nakuru. The Moi and Kenyatta families have farms here, so they may very well be right.
A few days after the election results were announced, I took a walk to Ponda Mali, a slum on the lower side of town near the lake, for perspective and cheap polo shirts and jeans. In retrospect, there was a heavy tension and silence hanging in the air like a stench on a warm still day. I was too naive to notice anything amiss. For me, it was a welcome and unnaturally quiet day. It was when I saw the ubiquitous navy blue lorry full of armoured policemen trundle past that it occurred to me that something was off. This fact was cemented when I saw a young man being lynched, presumably because he “looked like he is not one of us”. The swiftness and the ferocity of the blows snapped me out the reverie I had been lulled into by the stillness all around and the warm sun softened by regularly passing clouds. I could not even recall the mob gathering.
I ducked into an open butchery, not being able to watch any more, barricading myself with the workers there. I stepped out after about fifteen minutes and walked hurriedly back to the main town. All the while, all the way to the town, then further on home, I noticed the mitumba sellers packing their wares in a rush. Word gets around fast. Later in the evening, I called a friend from high school, Bitta, to find out if he was alive. He lived in Langalanga, very near Ponda Mali and he is unmistakeably Luo. I went cold on imagining that he may have been caught up in some fracas, the sort I had witnessed earlier. His easy laughter on the other end of the line was one of the most comforting sounds I have heard to date.
I traveled back to school in late January, and the memory of what I saw is still just as vivid: hollowed-out burned shells of houses and business establishments and black scars on the land where the buildings were made of wood dotted the highway all the way from Burnt Forest to the turn-in at Cheptiret and beyond, to the campus. People lived and worked in those places not two months ago. What was left stood forlonly, accusingly. Where were you when we needed you? My friend Nixon told me that one of the cobblers he was close to had disappered, most likely killed. Why? Because he was different, not one of them.
There is no us. There is no them. There is only us.
The display of xenophobia is uncannily familiar. The type of violence is close to us. We have seen this before. It is supremely disconcerting. This is something that has happened here, to us. It is something we have done. We have hated and we have discriminated. If for nothing, it should serve as a reminder of how close to edge we still are.