Sunday, January 13, 2008

Shailja Patel's Open Letter to Samuel Kivuitu‏


Mr. Kivuitu,

We've never met. It's unlikely we ever will.
But, like every other Kenyan, I will remember you
for the rest of my life. The nausea I feel at the
mention of your name may recede. The bitterness and
grief will not.

You had a mandate, Mr. Kivuitu. To deliver a
free, fair and transparent election to the people of
Kenya. You and your commission had 5 years to
prepare. You had a tremendous pool of resources,
skills, technical support, to draw on, including the
experience and advice of your peers in the field -
leaders and experts in governance, human rights,
electoral process and constitutional law. You had
the trust of 37 million Kenyans.

We believed it was going to happen. On
December 27th, a record 65% of registered Kenyan
voters rose as early as 4am to vote. Stood in lines
for up to 10 hours, in the sun, without food, drink,
toilet facilities. As the results came in, we
cheered when minister after powerful minister lost
their parliamentary seats. When the voters of Rift
Valley categorically rejected the three sons of
Daniel Arap Moi, the despot who looted Kenya for 24
years. The country spoke through the ballot, en
masse, against the mind-blowing greed, corruption,
human rights abuses, callous dismissal of Kenya’s
poor, that have characterized the Kibaki

But Kibaki wasn't going to go. When it became
clear that you were announcing vote tallies that
differed from those counted and confirmed in the
constituencies, there was a sudden power blackout at
the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, where
the returns were being announced. Hundreds of GSU
(General Service Unit) paramilitaries suddenly
marched in. Ejected all media except the government
mouthpiece Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

Fifteen minutes later, we watched,
dumbfounded, as you declared Kibaki the winner. 30
minutes later, we watched in sickened disbelief and
outrage, as you handed the announcement to Kibaki on
the lawns of State House. Where the Chief Justice,
strangely enough, had already arrived. Was waiting,
fully robed, to hurriedly swear him in.

You betrayed us. Perhaps we'll never know
when, or why, you made that decision. One rumor
claims you were threatened with the execution of
your entire family if you did not name Kibaki as
presidential victor. When I heard it, I hoped it was
true. Because at least then I could understand why
you chose instead to plunge our country into civil

I don't believe that rumor any more. Not since
you appeared on TV, looking tormented, sounding
confused, and contradicting yourself. Saying, among
other things, that you did not resign because you
"did not want the country to call me a coward", but
you "cannot state with certainty that Kibaki won the
election". Following that with the baffling
statement "there are those around him [Kibaki] who
should never have been born." The camera operator
had a sense of irony - the camera shifted several
times to the scroll on your wall that read: "Help
Me, Jesus."

As the Kenya Chapter of the International
Commission of Jurists rescinds the Jurist of the
Year award they bestowed on you, as the Law Society
of Kenya strikes you from their Roll of Honor and
disbars you, I wonder what goes through your mind
these days.

Do you think of the 300,000 Kenyans displaced
from their homes, their lives? Of the thousands
still trapped in police stations, churches, any
refuge they can find, across the country? Without
food, water, toilets, blankets? Of fields ready for
harvest, razed to the ground? Of granaries filled
with rotting grain, because no one can get to them?
Of the Nairobi slum residents of Kibera, Mathare,
Huruma, Dandora, ringed by GSU and police, denied
exit, or access to medical treatment and emergency
relief, for the crime of being poor in Kenya?

I bet you haven't made it to Jamhuri Park yet.
But I'm sure you saw the news pictures of poor
Americans, packed like battery chickens into their
stadiums, when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana.
Imagine that here in Nairobi, Mr. Kivuitu. 75,000
Kenyans, crammed into a giant makeshift refugee
camp. Our own Hurricane Kivuitu-Kibaki, driven by
fire, rather than floods. By organized militia
rather than crumbling levees. But the same root
cause - the deep, colossal contempt of a tiny ruling
class for the rest of humanity. Over 60% of our
internal refugees are children. The human collateral
damage of your decision.

And now, imagine grief, Mr. Kivuitu. Grief so
fierce, so deep, it shreds the muscle fibers of your
heart. Violation so terrible, it grinds down the
very organs of your body, forces the remnants
through your kidneys, for you to piss out in red
water. Multiply that feeling by every Kenyan who has
watched a loved one slashed to death in the past
week. Every parent, whose child lies, killed by
police bullets, in the mortuaries of Nairobi,
Kisumu, Eldoret. Everyone who has run sobbing from a
burning home or church, hearing the screams of those
left behind. Every woman, girl, gang-raped.

Do you sleep well these days, Mr. Kivuitu? I
don't. I have nightmares. I wake with my heart
pounding, slow tears trickling from the corners of
my eyes, random phrases running through my head:

Remember how we felt in 2002? It's all gone.
(Muthoni Wanyeki, ED of Kenya Human Rights
Commission, on the night of December 30th, 2007,
after Kibaki was illegally sworn in as president).

There is a crime here that goes beyond
recrimination. There is a sorrow here that weeping
cannot symbolize. (John Steinbeck, American writer,
on the betrayal of internally displaced Americans,
in The Grapes of Wrath)

Haki iwe ngao na mlinzi....kila siku tuwe na
shukrani ("Justice is our shield and defender....
every day filled with thanksgiving" Lines from Kenya
's national anthem)

I soothe myself back to patchy sleep with my
mantra in these terrible days, as our country burns
and disintegrates around us:

Courage. Courage comes. Courage comes from
cultivating. Courage comes from cultivating the
habit. Courage comes from cultivating the habit of
refusing. Courage comes from cultivating the habit
of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions. (Aung
San Suu Kyi, Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner).

I wake with a sense of unbearable sadness.
Please let it not be true.....

Meanwhile, the man you named President cowers
in the State House, surrounded by a cabal of
hardline power brokers, and a bevy of sycophantic
unseated Ministers and MPs, who jostle for position
and succession. Who fuel the fires by any means they
can, to keep themselves important, powerful,
necessary. The smoke continues to rise from the
torched swathes of Rift Valley, the gutted city of
Kisumu, the slums of Nairobi and Mombasa. The Red
Cross warns of an imminent cholera epidemic in
Nyanza and Western Kenya, deprived for days now of
electricity and water. Containers pile up at the
Port of Mombasa, as ships, unable to unload cargo,
leave still loaded. Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi,
Southern Sudan, the DRC, all dependent on Kenyan
transit for fuel and vital supplies, grind to a

A repressive regime rolls out its panoply of
oppression against legitimate dissent. Who knew our
police force had so many sleek, muscled,
excellently- trained horses, to mow down protestors?
Who guessed that in a city of perennial water
shortages, we had high-powered water cannons to
terrorize Kenyans off the streets?

I am among the most fortunate of the
fortunate. Not only am I still whole, alive,
healthy, mobile; not only do I have food, shelter,
transport, the safety of those I love; I have the
gift of work. I have the privilege to be in the
company of the most brilliant, principled, brave,
resilient Kenyans of my generation. To contribute
whatever I can as we organize, strategize, mobilize,
draw on everything we know and can do, to save our
country. I marvel at the sheer collective volume of
trained intelligence, of skill, expertise,
experience, in our meetings. At the ability to rise
above personal tragedy - families still hostage in
war zones, friends killed, homes overflowing with
displaced relatives - to focus on the larger picture
and envisage a solution. I listen to lawyers,
economists, youth activists, humanitarians; experts
on conflict, human rights, governance, disaster
relief; to Kenyans across every sector and
ethnicity, and I think:

Is this what we have trained all our lives
for? To confront this epic catastrophe, caused by a
group of old men who have already sucked everything
they possibly can out of Kenya, yet will cling
until they die to their absolute power?

You know these people too, Mr. Kivuitu. The
principled, brave, resilient, brilliant Kenyans. The
idealists who took seriously the words we sang as
schoolchildren, about building the nation. Some of
them worked closely with you, right through the
election. Some called you friend. You don't even
have the excuse that Kibaki, or his henchmen, might
offer - that of inhabiting a world so removed from
ours that they cannot fathom the reality of ordinary
Kenyans. You know of the decades of struggle,
bloodshed, faith and suffering that went into
creating this fragile beautiful thing we called the
"democratic space in Kenya." So you can imagine the
ways in which we engage with the unimaginable. We
coin new similes:

lie low like a 16A (the electoral tally form
returned by each constituency, many of which were
altered or missing in the final count)

We joke about the Kivuitu effect - which turns
internationalists, pan-Africanists, fervent
advocates for the dissolution of borders, into
nationalists who cry at the first verse of the
national anthem .

Ee Mungu nguvu yetu
Ilete baraka kwetu
Haki iwe ngao na mlinzi
Natukae na undugu
Amani na uhuru
Raha tupate na ustawi.

O God of all creation
Bless this our land and nation
Justice be our shield and defender
May we dwell in unity
Peace and liberty
Plenty be found within our borders.

Rarely do we allow ourselves pauses, to absorb
the enormity of our country shattered, in 7 days. We
cry, I think, in private. At least I do. In public,
we mourn through irony, persistent humor, and
action. Through the exercise of patience, stamina,
fortitude, generosity, that humbles me to witness.
Through the fierce relentless focus of our best
energies towards challenges of stomach-churning
magnitude. We tell the stories that aren't making it
into the press: the retired general in Rift Valley
sheltering 200 displaced families on his farm, the
Muslim Medical Professionals offering free treatment
to anyone injured in political protest. We
challenge, over and over again, with increasing
weariness, the international media coverage that
presents this as "tribal warfare", "ethnic
conflict", for an audience that visualizes Africa
through Hollywood: Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of
Scotland, and Blood Diamond.

I wish you'd thought of those people, when you
made the choice to betray them. I wish you'd drawn
on their courage, their integrity, their clarity,
when your own failed you. I wish you'd had the
imagination to enter into the lives, the dreams, of
37 million Kenyans.

But, as you've probably guessed by now, Mr.
Kivuitu, this isn't really a letter to you at all.
This is an attempt to put words to what cannot be
expressed in words. To mourn what is too immense to
mourn. A clumsy groping for something beyond the
word ‘heartbreak’. A futile attempt to communicate
what can only be lived, moment by moment. This is a
howl of anguish and rage. This is a love letter to a
nation. This is a long low keening for my country.

Shailja Patel

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