Archive for the ‘kenya’s violence’ Category

Empty Beaches

February 13, 2008

We’re in Kenya: Hat, husband and I. And the dogs.

We’re on the coast: the same stretch of beach that my mother-in-law enjoyed as a child, the same one my children and their father before them played on. Everything about it is familiar: the trees, the shade they cast, the sounds, the curve of the sand and the heads of coral, landmarks identified by a great grandmother for a trio of children who still refer to them by the Famous Five names she chose: North Bay, South Bay, Swallow Pool, Starfish Gardens, Crocodile Rock. But something this year has changed: the faces of the fishermen, and their demeanour, are more somber now. They greet us warmly though – the same men from whom we have bought prawns and red snapper and calamari for years – they are relieved to see that some of the regulars are coming back; they are relieved to find somebody who’ll buy their catch. They enquire after us, after the older children who, for the first time, because of school, are not with us. When I explain they smile encouraging approval, ‘it’s good for children to go to school’, they tell me (my big kids wouldn’t agree: they’d rather be here, body surfing the waves or sprawled on beds in sleepy afternoons with good books, than facing mock exam results).

How’s Tanzania? they want to know, are you getting rain?

(Rain and its debut is an integral part of any conversation in Africa)

Tanzania is fine, I say, the rain has been good.

Not here, they say, here it is late. 

Its tardiness threatens to exacerbate existing problems.

How is Kenya? I ask gently.

They shake their heads sadly, ‘two men have bought a lot of bad things to Kenya’, they say.

The tourism sector, Kenya’s golden egg, has been shattered by the post election crisis.  Beach hotels, those that remain open, are operating at less than 20% capacity (at this time of year they ought to be almost full). Charter flights from the continent have been cancelled until mid year. Over 30,000 people in the hospitality industry have lost their jobs. And the rock that the politicians hurled with such violence into the peaceful pond that this was has manifested more than mere ripples: tidal waves of uncertainty wash over Kenya’s people, threatening to engulf them. The collapse of tourism means that the taxi drivers have no passengers, the restaurants no diners, the curio vendors no buyers and the fishermen no hungry customers to haggle a morning’s catch with.

Early this morning I sat with my coffee watching the sun slide above a watery horizon, buffing the sea bronze so that it hurt my eyes to hold my gaze.  Strung along the precipice of my view were dozens of ngalos, the local fishing boats, their sails pulled tight to catch the breeze so that they skimmed the oceans surface, small keels ironing out the choppiness and tossing it nonchalantly behind in frothy wake. Such determination. Such single-mindedness in the face of prevailing adversity: who will buy their fish I wondered worriedly: I can’t cope with more than a few kilos.

Later I walked on a lonely beach and watched the waves stroke the sand so that it shivered in delight, tiny bubbles rising like goose-bumps.  Palm fronds rattled a tune in response to faint instruction from the wind. The sea receded with the tide leaving behind rock pools wriggling with myriad tiny marine creatures. And the occasional enormous breathtakingly bright star fish.

It’s still beautiful here.

Come now.

Before the madding crowd returns.

And buy kingfish for your supper from the fishermen.

Picture This …

January 30, 2008

A village.

A small African village. It is dawn. The sun clambers up over a distant eastern horizon, stealing the darkness from the sky so that cotton-wool clouds blush at its audacity. Shadows dance out from beneath the shade to enjoy the early caress of warm rays. A cockerel crows, hoarsely now; he’s been announcing daybreak prematurely, incessantly, for hours. Smoke begins to drift, ribbons of dove-grey, into a brightening sky. Somewhere a child cries the plaintive, impatient cry children make at breakfast time.

A woman ventures out of her hut. She stoops as she steps through her door and into the morning. She rubs her eyes against the brightness, stretches and smiles, enjoying this fleeting moment of peace before her chores, and her children, begin to clamour for her attention. She pulls her vivid kanga more tightly about her against dawn’s brief and surprising chill.

There is kuni to be cut for a fire; water to be collected; a maize field to weed; a market to attend; a basket to weave; a friend’s hair to braid, whilst she sits, back poker-straight, in the cool cast by a spreading fig. There is washing to be done on the banks of a river where she will gather with the other women, where they will gossip and giggle and sing and stretch brightly coloured laundry to dry on rocks so that the river’s bank is awash with rainbow puddles. But first there are children to feed: uji from a cup, or bread dunked into sweet milky chai.

Her day meanders peacefully, its pace set by the march of the sun as it slips across the arc of a huge sky. Laughter and dogs and the shrill ringing of bicycle bells subside briefly at noon when the heat breathes somnolence into our small village. All we can hear is the interminable hot hiss of unseen cicadas. Even the goats, Africa‘s effective refuge disposal teams, are quietly still, the blue Marlboro bags upon which they were banqueting forgotten for now.

But as squat shadows lengthen and the worst of the sun’s heat evaporates as it collapses syrupy in the west, our village stirs in readiness for night fall: fires are stoked, kerosene lamps lit, men gather to share cigarettes and contemplate their good fortune: the rains were kind to them this year. Women collect children and crisp sun-dried laundry up. The blanket of darkness is punctured by the orange glow of the lamps and cozy glow of camp-fires. The air perfumed with the scent of cooking.

There is peace here. Quiet peace and predictability. Tomorrow will be the same: the business of living – building fires, tending crops, milking cattle, raising children – will resume with its reassuring, uncomplicated pattern.

Now picture this: a gang, high on dope and stolen hope, machete wielding, flame throwing, hatred hurling, steals into our village. Rampage. And screams. Confusion and terror.  A mother cannot find her small son, her face stricken with panic and loss; a father is cut down as he tries to bundle his family to safety. Dogs are kicked, they howl in pain and run, tails between legs, to seek cover. Cows pull at their tethers, wild eyed.  

It’s over quickly.  And then there is suffocating silence. And smoke. And ash. An abandoned shoe lies, on its own – one blue child’s shoe – in the dust. A bucket hastily dropped, so that its precious contents have leaked and bloodied the earth. A dog whimpers softly. A child’s sobs subside slowly. The hush is deafening, it fills the air which so recently beat with the unbearable din of war and fear. African villages are never this quiet: there is always laughter and bells and radios and song and cockerels and dogs and market vendors shouting their wares.

Even the cicadas have been startled to deathly silence.


Picture this. And don’t, please don’t, allow, Kenya’s peace be reduced to implausible archived history, an unbelievable illusion.