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Archive for July, 2012

I have spent the last eight weeks in Kenya, as an intern with the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) for an MSc Africa and International Development dissertation. My research is focussing on using bioenergy to help with local-level climate change adaptation, and is taking place in Nairobi (the ACTS HQ), with fieldwork in and around Kisumu. Kisumu is described as a ‘sleepy town’ on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. I suppose that by comparison to the hectic, cosmopolitan and crazy Nairobi it is relatively quiet. However, this description fails to take into account the generally riotous nature of Kenya, in which peace and quiet can be rare commodities. Kisumu is famously the home of Barack Obama’s grandmother, an elderly woman who receives enough visits per month to have been, at one point, issued with a US Marine guard. This guard was reportedly repeatedly frustrated in his duties by the villager’s social habit of popping in and out of homes and using other people’s houses as thoroughfares. The town has local fisherman’s bars where you can watch the sun go down and look for hippos in Lake Victoria, and is home to a large proportion of the country’s Luo tribe. According to local stereotypes, Luo’s are the country’s romantics and ‘ladies men’! Kisumu is also something of an ‘NGO central’, ranging from large UNDP programmes to local start-ups which operate out of tin shacks.
It is a very interesting time to be in Kenya, and in Kisumu. Four years ago, Kenya hit international headlines for a shocking outbreak of post-election inter-tribal violence between the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008, which resulted in several hundred deaths and internal displacements across the country. Kenya’s tribal affiliations are part of what makes the country so enduringly fascinating and diverse (the first question on meeting someone is generally “which tribe are you from?”), and since independence the multiple groups have lived in, if not quite harmony, then at least peaceful co-operation. The eruption of violence along tribal lines, in protest against disputed election results and social inequalities must have been terrifying for ordinary citizens. Kisumu was the site of some of the most shocking incidents, including over 50 deaths, allegations of police firing into unarmed crowds and the systematic targeting of Kisii businesses and homes by other local tribes. Most people that live in the town willingly recount their experiences. As one friend described “when the police ran out of tear gas, they started on rubber bullets, and when these ran out, they switched to real bullets”.
Kenya’s new constitution, a direct result of the conflict, focusses on equal rights for women, a citizen’s bill of rights, and sweeping reforms to check political corruption and improve accountability. The women I have spoken with feel that equal property inheritance and employment rights are long overdue. With elections looming again, it will be interesting to see if the ‘one Kenya’ rhetoric adopted by politicians after the violence, along with frequent TV adverts from young, trendy Kenyans speaking out against tribal division has had the desired effect. The country also faces new challenges in the build-up to this election, most noticeably the threat from Al-Shabab, a Somali militant Islamic group protesting Kenya’s involvement in military action in Somali, which has claimed responsibility for several grenade attacks on public places. Since I have been here, these have included public places like bars, shopping centres and churches in Nairobi, Mombasa and Garissa.
Alongside this new threat, there are still large question marks over the accountability and credibility of many of Kenya’s leading politicians. Public debate is raging over the prosecution of three senior figures for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court at The Hague. At least two of these, including Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta have confirmed they are running for senior office in the forthcoming elections. Understandably, Kenyan citizens are closely watching progress of the trials. In addition, the public are outraged over MP’s plans to hugely increase their wages and backdate these raises to 2002. They are already amongst the country’s leading earners, often from significant private business interests in addition to their public roles, as well as being proportionally among the best-paid parliamentarians globally. There remain the most outrageous income inequalities, and Kenyan’s often display a profound cynicism with the political class as they are perceived to be primarily motivated by personal gain.
My time in Kenya has led me to reflect on these inequalities and divisions, but also to try to understand the place of development in Kenya’s future. If you believe the electioneering politicians, the country’s future is very bright indeed. With an educated, ambitious and able middle class, Kenya’s Vision 2030 sees the country developing into a middle income country built on IT technology, kind of an African silicon valley, and growing its economic and social lead in the East African region. In several prosperous areas of Nairobi, you can certainly believe that this is well within the country’s grasp. But this glossy vision is in danger of obscuring challenging realities. Every gated, air-con, high-tech compound is matched by an informal settlement where basic livelihood challenges make the 2030 vision seem a million miles away. Kisumu, for example, is the country’s ‘HIV capital’, with some areas of the town suffering a shocking 20% infection rate. Yet, according to local NGO staff, the government often fails to provide ARV drugs, support to families, or adequate hospital treatment. If Kenya successfully progresses towards its 2030 vision, where does this leave international development? Will development’s primary role be to fill the gaps left by the seemingly unaccountable political class? It seems that, despite the new rhetoric, Kenya’s politicians are failing to get the basics right. This failure to tackle the country’s gaping inequalities will surely threaten its ambitious economic transformation.

Kate Symons, MSc Africa and International Development

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