Every traveler has this experience, even when the journey is not geographical. You come to an event so far outside your comfort zone, so different from what you’ve known the world to be, that the very color of the sky seems change. What I want to relate is not unique or ground breaking. It is simply my attempt to begin to process the past two months.
East Africa is stable. That is the belief I rested in as I contemplated God’s call to serve in Kenya. There is poverty and disease. But Kenya is a beacon of civility to its war torn neighbors: Rwanda, South Sudan, and Somalia. So, I was slightly taken aback by the violence surrounding the 2017 presidential election. Taken aback and conflicted. Peace makes my job easier. But, as a history teacher I am hard pressed to find a time in history when change was brought about without a show of force.
The best description of Kenya I’ve heard is that it is not a unified nation but rather a collection of tribes banding together. Tribe will always come first. It’s a twist on racism that is far more obtuse than modern racism practiced in America. Just today a neighbor on my own compound said that if a member of a rival tribe came to our town he would be, “killed like chicken”. I laughed, but my gut twisted. Because after the last two weeks, I know it wasn’t a turn of phrase.
August 8th was the date of the first election. The incumbent president was running against a long-time rival who was taking his last shot at the highest office in the land (he’s too old to run again based on Kenyan law). As an organization we sent missionaries back to The States and all of the sites closed as a precaution. On September 1st the Supreme Court of Kenya ruled the election invalid and ordered new elections within 60 days. The missionaries returned, slightly chagrined that our safety plans had been foiled. The election was rescheduled for October 16th and then postponed to October 26th. On the 25th of October, we weren’t sure the reelection would take place. It did, after a fashion. But the rival party insists it, too, was invalid and calls for continued protests until true elections can be held.
I hid. Literally, we sent the kids to guardian homes and ran to the shelter of Nairobi where we ate better food than we get normally and I fed a giraffe from my hand. I went for walks every morning or did yoga. I binged Netflix on the free 4G internet and got ahead on grad school assignments. I had trouble sleeping. We talked several times about an emergency exit strategy. We waited for results and announcements and news with shallow breathing that betrays anxiety.
Meanwhile, our friends and neighbors experienced the horror we only read. A man who cooks and sells food at a road-side stand was beaten by *police in front of his daughter. The police said the food was giving nourishment and energy to the protestors. His daughter fled, thinking he was dead. The police ate the food that is his livelihood. The seamstress who made my curtains put her phone on silent and refused to take calls because the police were right outside her door. She locked the door to make it look like no one was home. She heard one give the order to “shoot anyone you see”. An employee of ours heard the police raping women just one compound away from her. As a single woman, she was terrified and helpless. Reports of police breaking windows, tossing teargas into homes then beating, raping, and robbing the escaping occupants are prevalent.
Alternatively, these protestors who attracted the police blocked the roads in and out of town. Threw rocks at people and cars. Burned dogs alive. Beat up the elderly. Ruined the economy of the town by disrupting commerce. Charged their own people a toll for trying to get through town. Then they rested on the weekend, because revolutionaries typically take time off… In the capital city, it was mentioned again and again that, “they are only hurting themselves.”
Several times in the two months, discussions have circled around the evidence that the government doesn’t care about the people. Infrastructure is minimal, education is one hundred years behind at least, three day funeral parties communicate that death is more honored than life, yet the politicians live large. While having dinner in Nairobi, a Kenyan friend made this point: “If an American went missing Rambo, Stallone, Van Damme, and the marines would be out searching the next day.”
We returned to our site yesterday. It’s both an acknowledgment of ignorance and confidence. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. But, we do know God called us here to care for kids who have immediate needs to be met and we can’t do that well from Nairobi.
I’m so aware that I’m only degrees less ignorant than I used to be, that my skin color has always given me privilege, that my God is the one protecting me. I don’t know what I’ll see or experience tomorrow. But, I remind myself that if I’m here, it’s for a reason. I try to stop asking, “why?” and ask instead, “what am I supposed to be learning?” and “God, how have you called me to love in the midst of this?” I think answering this question is my life’s work.
*no one can tell us for sure if the men in police uniforms are actually police.