Kenyans have just finished voting on whether to approve a new constitution that would limit presidential power and devolve power from the centre. I did not vote. Since the early 1990s when Kenya was emerging from a single-party, authoritarian period, I have mostly lived and worked abroad. Referendum day finds me watching CNN or the BBC, laptop at hand and my phone bill rising precipitously as I call for news of the mood, the winners and losers. I worry for the safety of family and friends since elections have almost invariably been followed by violent conflict. A complex politics pits ethnic blocks against one another in ever-shifting allegiances, led by the same class that has mostly been in control since independence.
Yet, from Washington DC, I am voting on the future of Kenya. This week I completed an application for a mortgage from a Nairobi bank to purchase a house in the city’s outskirts. The bank is also voting on Kenya’s future, and my future life there, every time its loan officer responds speedily and generously to my emails. We are joined in this effort by more than self-interest: we have a faith that the fragile experiment that is Kenya is heading to firmer ground.
A century ago there was no referendum on whether there would be a Kenya. It was the invention of a brutal colonialism that we took over and have fought to make our own. Our shortfalls are blared out on headlines the world over. Kenya is filled with injustice, poverty and a large dignity deficit. But what many foreign pundits too easily forget is that Kenyans cast millions of votes daily for a brighter future.
Every investment in a business or home represents a prediction that Kenya has a tomorrow worth investing in. The same is true of every book by increasingly ambitious Kenyan writers, by the tens of thousands of adults enrolled in evening classes, and those fighting to expand the reach and integrity of civil society with new, innovative NGOs. The dollar statistics cannot keep up with the many investments Kenyans make to build supportive communities alongside, and often in opposition to, the ethnic politicking that is the most malign inheritance from colonial rule.
In the aftermath of the post-election violence of 2008 I attended a fundraising event in a New York art gallery hosted by a group of Kenyan artists, academics and business people who had decided to “Re-imagine Kenya”. More than $50,000 was raised to assist the thousands violently ejected from their homes. Artworks were auctioned to an audience that turned up not only to raise money but to see how artistic and intellectual effort could add to the carving of a Kenyan space characterised by generosity and optimism.
The powers that be mostly speak of the two million-plus Kenyan diaspora in terms of remittances and investments; we send more than a billion dollars a year to Kenya and are its greatest source of foreign exchange. But this vision fails to see the networks of affiliation represented by the monetary flows.
I am buying that house to raise a family in, despite fears that the next election or some other will send flames its way. Like every other financial investment, it represents a powerful response to these fears. The constitutional referendum is critically important in its details and the political dispensation that will emerge from it, but the real vote is in: Kenya is a going concern. Faltering yes, struggling for sure, violent, tough and competitive – but persistently learning and growing.
Martin Kimani, deputy director of the Ansari Africa centre at the Atlantic council in Washington DC and associate fellow at the conflict, security and development group at King’s College London.