Kenya keeps its lid on


Kenya is struggling back to its feet as questions scorch to and fro around the charred remains of the Westgate mall.  Shopping malls are understood in most parts of the world – here in the UK it is all too easy to imagine the vulnerability and the fear.

The deliberate violence of Westgate was personal and shocking – unspeakable.  It must have been awful for Kenya to have to watch as its guests, its residents, and some of its youngest citizens were slain by a handful of fanatics, possibly citizens themselves.  For it to happen on such a cruel stage adds to the humiliation.

Now Kenyans, fuelled by outrage and alarm, wait for the answers that will help them move on.

There are around 44 million people living in Kenya.  It has seven main ethnic groups of its own and then a range of cultures and faiths from across Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.  The mix is dynamic – a turbulent confluence of homo sapiens.

This latest assault on the country (they’ve happened before) was done in the name of al-Shabaab – an al-Qaeda linked group who had been making gains in Somalia until the Kenyan army stepped in to try to stop trouble overflowing on to Kenya’s soil.  The intervention has provoked al-Shabaab into vicious retaliation – this September’s strike at Nairobi’s sweet spot – the Westgate Mall.

Unsurprisingly feelings are high.   Amnesty International is appealing to outraged Kenyans to stay calm, to not send home the Somali refugees they have living inside their borders.  Amnesty is particularly concerned about the refugee camp at Dadaab in the north-east of Kenya.  The camp, with over 500,000 mainly Somali occupants is the largest refugee camp in the world.

It must be tempting for Kenya to blame its troubles on in-comers.  The truth is that it is this free range flow of humanity that is also responsible for much of the country’s success.   Kenya has always welcomed the world – it might have made her vulnerable but it has also brought her strength.  In Westgate alone amongst the dead were nationals from:  India; Britain; France; South Africa; Canada; Ghana; the Netherlands; China; the United States; New Zealand and Australia.

There is no doubt that Kenya, cradle of mankind, is holding a very difficult baby.  It doesn’t look any easier whatever your viewpoint and we all have a viewpoint thanks to technology.  We are all witness to this televised, targetted brutality and we may be tempted to despair but there are some who think there is hope.   One such person is Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.  He believes that mankind is moving away from violence.

In 2011, as Norway’s terrible Utoya tragedy was unfolding, Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence has Declined had already gone to press.

In his TED talk entitled ‘The surprising decline in violence’ filmed in 2007 Pinker argues that men today are far less likely to die at the hands of another man than they ever were.  He says societies have understood the benefits of cooperation and that much of this change is down to the communication and inter-connectedness which have made us less likely to see others as sub-human.  You may feel, having watched Westgate unfold, that the theory doesn’t hold but the statistics Pinker produces are interesting.  It seems we just might be heading in the right direction.  We have to hope he’s right.

As for Kenya may its lid stay tight and may it build bridges from the brutality.

The photograph at the top of this article was taken on a trip to Kenya at the time of the 2002 elections.  My thanks to all who have helped provide insight for this piece. 

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018

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