Yesterday was Epiphany. Epiphany means appearance or manifestation; in the Church, the appearance of Jesus, his manifestation as Messiah, and the revealing that He is not for Israel only, but for all nations. The last week in Kenya seems to demonstrate the reverse, a sort of Devil’s Epiphany, the appearance of killing and burning and chaos, the manifestation of evil. It’s been bad.
I think there has been an epiphany here, but of a different sort. The question near the surface of so many commentators is, “We expect this sort of thing in Somalia or Liberia or Congo – but how could this happen in Kenya, a country with a stable democracy and such a strong economy?” In fact, the election itself was remarkably close, and orderly – until the tallying. What happened?
One Kenyan commentator said these events exposed Kenya’s “thin veneer of civilization”, and I think the comment points us in an interesting direction, depending on what we mean by “civilization”. If by civilization we mean a strong (Western-style) democracy, then Kenya had that: political parties, free press, campaigns, pre-election polls, elections, the works. All the things we in the rich West have said make up a strong democracy. Were all these just a “thin veneer” in Kenya? What happened?
There is a clue in Kenya’s other piece of civilization, the “strong economy”. I have been struck by news reports that speak of Kenya as “an east African economic powerhouse with an average growth rate of 5 percent” – and in the same sentence tell us the country still struggles with poverty, without noting the contradiction. Another news report explains: “Although the Kenyan economy grew at a rapid pace, so did economic inequality, resulting in a concentration of wealth in a small oligarchical elite, while most Kenyans earn less than $1 a day.” A strong economy that has not confronted and addressed poverty is in fact not a strong economy; it is a “thin veneer” of economic strength. The epiphany is that this has now been revealed.
So what about democracy? The real question is “what about Western-style democracy”, the sort we keep insisting on. And again, we sense a “thin veneer” – but we must be careful about concluding that democracy is only a thin veneer here, and that underneath people are fundamentally undemocratic. Quite the contrary. “Kenya,” a friend wrote, “has borrowed bits and pieces over the past century or so from the West, and has pasted these fragments together with a glue that does not withstand high political temperatures. It conforms, generally, to all modern sector fragility…” What is being revealed in this epiphany is the fragility of Western political and economic “solutions” for Africa.
So where does that leave us? Not with a grand “solution”, but only the logical working out of the above epiphany that Western-style political and economic civilization is a veneer here. The obvious question is: a veneer over what? I don’t think it’s a veneer over the violence we are seeing this week; that violence is simply a sign of the veneer cracking and breaking. Our question remains: what is under the veneer, under the violence? Has it ever occurred to us to look?
By “us” here I mean those Westerners who have worked here, and others who will undoubtedly flock into Kenya now to help: peace teams, negotiators, humanitarian feeding efforts, disease fighting specialists, and the like. There is a clear script for how to help: make sure the displaced people have food and shelter, help them return home when it’s safe, document the atrocities, bring those responsible to justice… Yes, that is all important. But I think we have a unique opportunity now to look under the veneer, now that is has cracked. And there are these startling starting-places:
- In a community near here torn by ethnic violence, why would a Luhya woman shelter in her home a Kikuyu woman who had just delivered a baby – knowing that if some in the community found out, her house would likely be burnt?
- When we sang Kenya’s National Anthem in church on New Year’s Day, my first response was that national politics don’t belong in church – until I realized that the Kenya’s National Anthem is a prayer set to a traditional African melody.
- And this: why has there been no killing yet in Webuye, where we live? Why, in this Luhya town deep in the heart of western Kenya, are Kikuyu shops remaining open? Why, when some youths from another ethnic group came trying to incite violence, did the youth here refuse?