Finally, after two months of tumult, and more than 40 days of mediation by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Kenya’s two rivals for the presidency have signed a peace deal. They’ll share power in a coalition government, with Mwai Kibaki remaining president (despite the flawed voting process that appears to have been subverted in his favor) and his opponent, Raila Odinga, taking on the newly-created post of Executive Prime Minister. These two have tried to share power before and it didn’t work, so Kenya’s civil society and political leaders will have to work hard to make sure the deal sticks and the new government functions effectively.
Kenyans and many around the world have breathed huge sighs of relief — after more than 1,000 deaths, hundreds of thousands of displacements, and uncounted numbers of homes, businesses and community ties destroyed. The recent violence has dealt a severe blow to Kenya’s $1 billion a year tourism industry; safari lodges stand empty, camp workers and guides sent home on furlough.
The new government is set to launch a multimedia campaign to draw tourists back to Kenya; at its center: the country’s spectacular wildlife. And yet I hear from a colleague that the animals have been so relaxed, even as much of Kenya’s human population was experiencing turmoil. The lack of visitors, it seems, makes them happy. For the past few weeks, at least, cheetahs haven’t been tailed by 10 or more white tourist vans, most violating rules to keep a decent distance away; elephants haven’t been disturbed at the watering holes by the click of tens of camera shutters; and lions, perhaps the most unflappable of Kenya’s mammals, have been free to laze and doze and laze some more out of sight of the beetling vans.
But Kenya wants its tourists back. And in truth, the animals need them, even if their lives, unobserved, have a certain richness. After all, Kenya’s wildlife, like that in nearly all the world’s protected areas, needs to “pay its way” in the words of a native American chief I met several years ago in Wyoming. He was referring to bison, who’d been reintroduced on native grasslands. But if they don’t generate revenue, well, he said, explaining the calculus, they may as well not be there.
Expect the tourists slowly to return to Kenya. It’s an extraordinary place to visit and will remain so. As they do, I imagine the animals will return to a more wary stance, a little less content to share their environment with the tourists. But they make accommodations, often surprising ones. When I was last there a female lion, surrounded by four of the standard-issue white vans seemed to shrug: she lay in the grass, surveying the horizon. At one point, she stood up and walked into the shadow of one of these very vans and plonked herself down, not two feet from the wheel axles. She rested there in the semi-cool for a good, long time.