Last Friday, Kenyans were glued to their radios or TVs, waiting to hear news of a brokered solution to the election crisis that has consumed and unsettled the country since late December. With more than 1,000 people officially dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, a deal is long overdue. But the news never really came. While former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported good progress and a narrowing of the divide between the two sides, details have been scant. Negotiators may be on the verge of a breakthrough, but aren’t there yet. Stayed tuned, though: Kofi Annan has promised details in the coming week. “They [the two presidential contenders and their parties] surely must rise above it all,” a colleague writes from Nairobi.
What the weeks of strife has done is reveal the ethnic tensions that for many visitors to Kenya only become clear after spending much time in the country – generally off the well-worn tourist paths. As Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maaathai writes in her latest oped on the Kenya crisis, published in the Washington Post, tension between ethnic communities is stirred up by politicians, particularly around elections. The tensions have roots in the colonial and post-colonial eras. And, as Maathai argues, need to be addressed head-on – not papered over until the next eruption into desperate (and often well-planned) violence.
Another colleague writes from outside Nairobi: “…a lot of damage, mistrust and irreversible hatred have been developed between the warring communities” since the flawed presidential vote tallies were announced. “Historical scores based on past injustices are being scored here.” Nonetheless, now is not the time to abandon the idea of working in Kenya, with Kenyans, or writing the country off as yet another weak, benighted African state. There’s too much good that’s been created in Kenya, by Kenyans: a strong civil society, a robust free press, an emerging model of responsible eco-tourism, and a talented new generation of idealist-entrepreneurs who want to make the state work for all, not just a cosseted few. They’re called cheetahs, as opposed to the lumbering hippos of the old political guard.
A brief biological discursion: despite hippos’ reputation as stolid and slow-moving, I have heard first-hand stories of lightning hippo strikes, including from a boat captain who took me out on Lake Naivasha in Kenya’s Rift Valley a few years ago to watch a herd of resting hippos. (Sadly, Naivasha has been a site of post-election violence and displacement.) Only their ears and their eyes were visible above water in the heat of the day. But they weren’t sleeping; far from it. I listened to my guide describe a hippo breaking his boat in two, tossing him into the water, killing his colleague, and keeping him on dry land for 20 odd years (he’d only recently gotten this job, he told me). I looked into the steady eyes of the hippos. Old and very young, very large and newborn (about the size of a sheep), 15 or so, about 20 feet away. And I made a decision. This view of the hippos from the water would be enough to last me many years.
All of this makes the analogy of the old, but wily hippos and the young, fleet-footed and resilient cheetahs apt in light of Kenya’s current situation. Brighter Green is partnering with “cheetahs,” specifically on a project to increase the use of solar and wind power in off-the-grid-communities through sustainable, community-run, green energy businesses. Luckily, the recent violence hasn’t affected our NGO partners, although tensions haven’t been wholly absent. We’re planning, funding permitted, to all meet and push the idea forward in coming months at the solar-powered, composting-toileted, eco-safari lodge, Basecamp Masai Mara. Here, in the northern extension of the Serengeti, we’ll work – and if past experience is any guide, we’ll watch, too: cheetahs and hippos, in their numbers, wild. (Kenya’s tourism industry is suffering mightily and it may take years to recover; Basecamp is a fantastic place to visit. Enough said.)