Friday, January 11, 2008

Understanding the Misunderstandings

Yesterday, the African Union mediator, President Kafuor of Ghana, called an end to his role in the mediation process between President Kibaki and Opponent Odinga. Kofi Annan, the former head of the UN, will now head the mediation process. President Kafuor described his work as a “very hectic two days”, as the parties have not yet met face to face. He was shuttling between the two during his time here. Apparently, at one time Thursday, there was hope that a meeting between the two would take place. Even as preparations were being made to the particular building with cleaning and security, the talks fell apart. Shortly after that, President Kafuor left Kenya.

People are mostly weary of the troubles in this country. There are so many clashes in different parts of the country that it is hard to define. It is not as simple as one group out to kill another – there is no clearly defined “good” and “bad”. Different ethnic groups are lashing out at anyone different from them. This does not extend to the expatriate community, as their anger is not directed at those outside the country, just at their neighbors. Refugees are building up in churches and orphanages near Nairobi.

I have read and seen many descriptions and attempts to analyze the troubles. Kenya has been so peaceful for so long that it has left the world dumbstruck as to how this could happen. It is so complicated, I am not sure as a mzungu (white person in Kiswahili), I will ever understand. I am pondering things I have internalized living as an expatriate here, but I was not even fully aware of before this crisis. There are many things I read about the people here that make me say, “yes, I see that now”.

Let me give you an example. We have brought a few infants from a local children’s home into our house for foster care. One of them is Benjamin (pictured above). Benjamin is a 4 ½ month old abandoned baby, and his parentage is unknown. Benjamin has dark skin like most African babies and has lots of dark curly hair, but it is not the typical African hair. It is soft and silky. I had him in the changing room at a local mall once. The attendant was very kind and chatty with me and asked me lots of questions about him. At that time, he was about 3 ½ months old and only 4 kilos (which is 8.8 pounds). Being so tiny and precious, he attracted lots of attention. So, she was curious about him. One of the first statements she made was, “With that hair, what tribe could he be?”

At the time, it struck me as curious thing to say, but I did not give it a lot of thought. Her question was one of those cross-cultural moments that I guess I am supposed to “understand that I might not understand”, but it is, I think, relevant to the struggles here. It is important to the people of Kenya to know who they are dealing with and where they are from. And it is somehow less of a curiosity that I am here from another country than someone of another Kenyan ethnic group being around.

I grew up in the Southern US, and “southern pride” was talked about and is, I guess, a part of me that will never leave me. I mean, my family considers grits a food staple, and we have asked people to bring us grits from the US – they are just part of us as southerners. When I meet a fellow American here, I do ask where they are from. However, I don’t tense up at the fact that they are from the Western part or the Northern part of the US: I don’t feel threatened that they are not from the south – it is even OK with me that one of my friends thinks eating grits is the most disgusting thing she has ever heard of. I am not trying to be disrespectful to Kenya’s struggles by making a joke – only trying to explain the lack of threat that I have experienced in my life.

For many years, the people of Kenya have been lumped together to be a “nation”. They banded together to fight for independence from the British and have formed a country that has become a beacon of peace and economic opportunity in East Africa. But it seems that there have been resentments and hostilities building up all along, for there are many nations within this nation that do not wish to lose their identity. The politicians are mostly in Nairobi, and I think they may not even be aware of the feelings of the average person here. Nairobi is a melting pot of a city, and someone I know refers to it as living fifteen minutes outside of Africa. It is easy to be out of touch with the reality and the struggles of rest of the country while living in this city.

The frustrating part is that this country is supposed to be 85% Christian. Shouldn’t that lead to fellowship as believers and not by ethnic group? The churches here can help to restore peace with a message of real reconciliation through Christ. My prayer is that this message will spread to all the people that need to not only hear it, but receive, believe, and act upon it. Please join us we continue to pray for peace and healing.

In Christ,


Elizabeth Abbot said...

Hi, just wanted to let you know that I linked to your blog in mine today.

best wishes for all you do.

c said...

Enlightening post... and I'd like to say that Benjamin is a beautiful baby!