A bitter wind of grievance

By now, the question of who won the election is almost beside the point. Neither "President" Kibaki nor Raila Odinga should be allowed within sniffing distance of the presidency. The country is imploding, people are dying and destitute, and these two great men have to be coaxed to the negotiating table.The idea of Kenya belonging to all Kenyans and Kenyans having the right to live where they like is dead in the water. For some of the victims of the violence in the Rift Valley, this is the second or third time they have lost everything. Many have vowed never to come back. The message being telegraphed by the violence is that the only really safe place to put down any roots is among your own kind. Rift Valley for the Kalenjins, Central Province for the Kikuyus, and so on.

As a child, my family and I travelled at least once a year to visit my grandparents via the western reaches of the A104, the road from Mombasa to the border with Uganda. The journey was a bone-jarring eight hours, but pleasant enough, through the Rift Valley province. We would stop periodically for bathroom breaks or food in Naivasha, Nakuru, Kericho and finally Kisumu. My parents would buy produce from local farmers, all of which ended up in the cabin of the pick-up truck. And so we would continue, ankle-deep in potatoes, carrots and cabbage.

In 1992, when the violence in the Rift Valley first reared its head in the run-up to the elections, the signs of trouble were everywhere. There were burned-out houses all along the road. The farmers who sold produce by the roadside were gone - at least the Kikuyu ones were. Long stretches of the countryside were emptied out.

The Rift Valley is the largest of Kenya's eight provinces and, bar Nairobi, the most populous and ethnically diverse. People from all over the country have flocked to its urban areas and rural plantations. So in addition to the indigenous Kalenjin, there are large numbers of Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kisii and others. Nothing wrong with that. Kenya, we were told over and over, was for all Kenyans. We were free to go where we wanted, live where we wanted.

For years this rhetoric concealed abiding anger surrounding land and its distribution: who had it, who didn't, why some had so little and others so much, how the land-rich had come to own what they did. But the lid was mostly kept on this disaffection until, in 1992, with the real possibility of losing power, Arap Moi cynically gave that anger a murderous outlet. Non-Kalenjin, we were told, were only visitors in the Rift Valley. They were welcome to stay as long as they toed the line, which meant voting for the right candidates.

In the event, few "outsiders" got a chance to vote in the Rift. Most were driven out in an outbreak of slashing and burning and killing that shocked us to our core. With the elections over and Moi back in office, the violence lost its intensity. The "visitors" trickled back to rebuild their lives and homes, although many did not return, and in some places it was years before things returned to normality. But that Pandora's box of violence has never been successfully shut. It has simmered under the surface with occasional outbreaks and has now exploded once again into life.

Fool me once, goes the saying, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. There must be a lot of Rift Valley Kikuyu ruing their lack of sense in returning to live among people who had so violently communicated their dislike. And there are, no doubt, many Kenyans watching and wondering what it all means.

Will any "outsiders" ever again stake their livelihoods on the existence of a country called Kenya and buy land in the Rift - or anywhere outside their districts of origin? Will we all retreat to the safety of our homogenous ethnic enclaves? Will we ever again be able to look each other in the eyes, to suppress the knowledge of the things we have done and are capable of doing to each other? And if not, what kind of country will we become?

The national memory is very long, and injuries are not easily forgotten or forgiven. The Rift is evidence of that. But now we are sowing a bitter wind of grievance, and unless we handle this cataclysm judiciously and with more courage and honesty than we have ever before mustered, we will certainly reap the whirlwind. National memory is long indeed. Let us never forget that our so-called leaders sold us all down the river.

Andia Kisia