By Binyavanga Wainaina, editor of Kwani magazine; his memoir, Discovering Home, is to be published by Granta in 2009 (THE GUARDIAN, 05/01/08):
I was in Lamu 10 days ago, a slow gentle place, cut off from most of the muscular and modern tempers of the rest of Kenya. I was telling off Patrick, a young Giriama man, for vanishing with my money for a whole day while I remained without mobile phone credit. He was partying somewhere. He finds it very difficult to understand why such a thing would make me so upset. There is a rhythm to things in Lamu, and why do you upcountry people and white people, who to us are really the same people, move so aggressively against the tide of things?
While we were talking, a young Kenyan woman, a doctor, came and joined us for a beer and we started talking politics. When she left, he asked me if the woman was a Gikuyu (often spelled Kikuyu). I said no. He said, "Yeye ni mjanja sana". I told him she was a Luo. He was confused for a second. Then he nodded, and said again, "Ni mjanja kama mzungu."
What he was saying was, "She is very 'cunning' or 'clever', like a white person". And his association with this "cunning" is that this is a very Gikuyu thing, and a very upcountry thing. He did not say, or mean, "wise", or "educated" or even "intelligent".
In the 1960s, when the coastal strip was parcelled out to Kenyatta's cronies, the Giriama - Patrick's people - found themselves squatters in their own land, as Swahili families took over their traditional lands. As the coast stagnated, the flood of upcountry people began: educated, aggressive and entrepreneurial, they have come to dominate the economy of the region. Now things are rumbling, as the Orange Democratic Movement proposes a more devolved government - and people in the area interpret this as upcountry people being sent back home, so they can occupy the economy. When Mwai Kibaki rigged himself into power last Sunday as we watched on television, the violence began, against Gikuyu and other upcountry tribes, as people took their political aspirations into their own hands.
A few days later I try to buy some more credit for my phone. I stop at a Gikuyu woman's shop, and she does not have enough mobile phone credit. Her assistant laughs at me when I ask for a cold coke. "Have you any idea how we got supplies today? People were landing here shell-shocked with bicycles stacked up with bread and sodas ... don't even ask how they got them." He turns to chat with the small group of customers around him, talking about the day, sharing really, in a very warm way, a thing we are all involved with. There was nothing partisan in his talk.
He turned to his boss, a woman in her fifties, conservative with an angular face and a no-nonsense expression, and says to her: "He! Mama, kesho nitakimbia town mzima nitafute Celtel yaa ndugu yangu hapa." ("Mama, tomorrow I will run around all over town to find Celtel credit for our brother here.")
There is something jarring. I don't know what for a moment, then I realise he is speaking to his boss, a fellow Gikuyu, in Kiswahili. She replies to him in Kiswahili. This is unusual. They both laugh at something, nervously. She turns to me and says something she has never said before. She tells me, in Kiswahili, to go to our neighbour, he has some Celtel credit. She says this, as we all know Gikuyus are being killed in Rift Valley and Kisumu. ODM and Kibaki's PNU - the protagonists who have split the country in half after a close and badly counted election - have removed all goodwill, and we find we are tentative with each other.
I try to examine some of these interactions. Different languages represent different aspects of the national character. Every Kenyan is a split personality: authority, trajectory, international citizen in English; national brother, in Kiswahili; and content villager or nostalgic urbanite in our mother tongues. Our mother tongues live in an imagined past and occupy an incoherent present, and when a threat seems to come, and the state seems to be part of the threat, we are able only to activate other nationhoods as acts of war - the Gikuyu, my ethnic group, do not meet as a nation to examine their economy; they start to agitate, often provoked by the political elite to get the "nation" ready to encounter "the other" out there. In this part of town, all kinds of Kenyans live - city English people making their way home, villagers and their produce on the streets, and the crowds of people being gentle to each other in Kiswahili.
So many times you hear about somebody who was living another life in another language, and when he died, whole families came crawling out of the woodwork. Widows fighting next to the lowering coffin.
In the future, when we are looking back to this short season of hell, and are either relieved or in exile, we will ask ourselves if the shutdown of all media was the right thing. For more even than the symbolic beheading of the state by Kibaki on live television, the ceasing of live broadcasts on all our media was an announcement that Kenya was closed. And the text messages that followed were announcing that we are on our own, and that in the dark, your neighbour is coming to get you.
What we are seeing is simple. The state as we know it has run out of steam. The winner-takes-all Westminster system we have cannot carry our aspirations. Even as blood is shed in Eldoret and Mombasa, Kenya's various ethnicities are now stranded in their own paranoia for lack of a viable national structure and process. We have known it for years. This is why a new constitution has been on the top of the list of political priorities for most Kenyans for 10 years and more.
We are 45 years old this year. Like many nations, this is our moment of truth. There is a way out of this - if both leaders act like statesmen, sit together and do what is necessary legally to have an interim power-sharing arrangement whose sole task is to create a structure that can carry us along into a new election, with a new or amended constitution that ensures that, whoever wins or loses, the whole country and all its minorities and interests are carried.
We are a strong economy in this continent. We have a well-trained army, and police force and civil service. We have some of the most competent technocrats in any developing country. We even have a lot of goodwill across ethnic and class lines, and if we act now, things will improve quickly. All the foreign correspondent stuff about "atavistic hatreds" and such is not true. For every place where there are things burning, there is a recent historical problem that has got to do with big political games, by big political leaders.
We all want peace, and all civil leaders should speak loudly to their own constituencies. Baying from across the bridge does not do much. Nations are forged through situations like this. Leaders are made. We have maybe been play-acting nationhood. Do we want a common state? Do we really want this? The time has come to decide.