“I had a farm in Africa…”

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills…..”

Thus begins Karen von Blixen-Finecke’s book of her time in Kenya, famous also as the film of the same name: Out of Africa. The area close to Nairobi is still called Karen (though possibly not after her – see link) and some of the remaining “white Kenyans” still live there. Nearby is the slum area of Dagoretti corner and, a bit beyond that the small town of Kikuyu (the same name as the tribe) and there the Presbyterian Church of East Africa Hospital Kikuyu. Here a number of Presbyterian Church in Ireland missionaries have worked and many students and volunteers from Northern Irish Presbyterianism have been for short periods including for amongst the most hard working, exhilarating, blessed and moving few months myself.Kenya was once seen as a model of stability in Africa. After the end of the Mau Mau Uprising Kenya gained independence from Britain in December 1963. Not for the white Kenyans a doomed last stand of UDI like Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, equally not for Jomo Kenyatta the expulsion of the white farmers; most left but a few remain. Following Kenyatta; came Daniel arap Moi. Neither of these men were great democrats just as before them the whites were hardly given to one person one vote. However, the country remained stable and, by African standards prospered, though corruption was endemic with Kenya once described as the second most corrupt country in the world after Nigeria (no link available) and there was some repressive legislation.

Moi (whose portrait once by law hung in every business premises and who appeared younger on the Ksh 1,000 banknote than on the previously issued Ksh 500 one; both personal observations) was defeated in a general election in 2002 by Mwai Kibaki. He was elected amid great fan fare and hope that corruption would be reduced and that increased prosperity would come to the poor, the vast majority of whom though usually avoiding starvation, were still rarely that far from it. Unfortunately there appears to have been little progress in stopping corruption with Kibaki’s government in its own turn implicated. As has been documented over the last few days, however, things have deteriorated considerably with Kibaki “winning” the presidential election against Raila Odinga in extraordinarily dubious circumstances. Odinga unsurprisingly refused to accept the result of the election and oragnised a rally which was forcibly prevented by the police.

Widespread violence then broke out and in a chilling reminder of Rwanda a church in Eldoret was burned down with people in it resulting in at least thirty deaths.

One analysis of this situation is that it is tribalism and there is a danger of another Rwanda with genocide and ethnic cleansing. However, others have suggested that the situation is actually much more complicated with tribal differences being stoked in an attempt at power grabbing by politicians. Whatever, it is to be hoped and prayed that the situation will calm and that violence will end. Exactly how the crisis will be resolved is, however, unclear.

The relevance of all this to Northern Ireland? Personally I would submit none but I think it is still worth mentioning. Maybe you disagree regarding relevance or worthiness of mention?

  • Stability? What about 1992, 97, the extreme poverty that most people still suffer under, and frequent, though on a much smaller scale, inter-community violence. I think the shock about the new violence in Kenya is that most people have thought of Kenya as an ”africa-lite”, where they could go and look around, without fear.

  • Turgon

    Abdul Rahim,
    Your criticism is valid. I was, however, trying to give a brief background, not an exhaustive history lesson. Compared to many African countries, however, Kenya has been and, rather as you imply, been seen to be stable. Still thankyou for commenting on something which is an interest of mine but not really related to “Northern Ireland politics and culture” with or without the comma.

  • susan

    Turgon and Abdul Rahim, I would be curious, if your time allows, to get your reactions to a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post which would seem to bolster Mark Doyle’s arguments that the unrest is more rooted in political corruption and power-grabs than purely in tribal/ethnic divisions. (I must have inadvertently signed up for the Post’s newsletter when I registered with the paper after the Iowa caucuses).

    The two American academics, who are publishing a comparative global survey of national legislatures, argue it wasn’t ethnic tensions and divisions that caused this most recent round of violence in Kenya, but rather an ineffective parliament.

    They go on:

    “We recently conducted statistical analyses showing that countries with weak legislatures are at greater risk of civil war. It’s easy to see why. Where the legislature is strong, opposition groups can hope to affect policy through their representatives in parliament, without the need to resort to violence.”

    It’s significant to me they are attempting to look at civil wars in a global context, far from the tried and true “these people are animals” reactions you tend to get from daily newspapers and news programmes reacting immediately viscerally to violent outbreaks, wherever they may be. Obviously their thesis seems highly relevant to some hot spots, far less to others, but I would be very keen to hear others’ reactions to it.


  • Peadar O’Donnell

    Well done for posting this.

    But the following is a bit of an understatement:

    ‘After the end of the Mau Mau Uprising Kenya gained independence from Britain in December 1963. Not for the white Kenyans a doomed last stand of UDI like Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, equally not for Jomo Kenyatta the expulsion of the white farmers; most left but a few remain. Following Kenyatta; came Daniel arap Moi. Neither of these men were great democrats just as before them the whites were hardly given to one person one vote.’

    The British put down Mau Mau with extreme brutality, defending the expropriation and ethnic cleansing of Kikuyu from large areas of their homeland. Kenyatta was brought on precisely to keep the remaining whites safe and to keep Kenya as a loyal ally of Britain and the US.
    He also reigned with great brutality – Kenya had all the stability of a police state – but that sort of thing doesn’t bother tourists much as long as they don’t see it. The price of this stability was paid by poor Kenyans especially non-Kikuyus. There was always ethnic tension – Nairobi is in some ways like Belfast – no one is just Kenyan, everyone checks everyone else out for ethnicity. These days the whites keep their racism generally to themselves – religious groups like those you mention not included, they are admirable people.

  • CW

    An excellent post, Turgon and certainly a breath of fresh air from the all too common “Prods v Taigs” posts. As you say Kenya has had its fair share of problems since independence, but was never (at least as far as I’m aware)on a par with Amin’s Uganda or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. In terms of tourist numbers it must be one of the most visited countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The current violence must be having a devastating impact on the tourist industry, just like Mugabe’s tyranny effectively ruined the once highly successful Zimbabwe tourist industry.

  • Greenflag

    Kenya is a mix of ethnic tribes . There is no such tribe as Kenyan or for that matter Nigerian Zimbabwean or Zambian . The Kikiyu make up about 21% of the population with the Luo 14% . What appears to have happened is that the Kikiyu (or elements within the ruling party) have grabbed most of the benefits of economic growth in recent years. The reason it has taken so long for the ‘other tribes’ to revolt in Kenya is that there are so many of them .

    The same phenomenon has happened in other African States particularly in the aftermath of decolonisation . Usually it’s the majority tribe if there is one, that grabs most of the loot ( Zimbabwe’s Mashonas for example ). In other cases it’s the best educated tribe or the one favoured by the former colonial power e.g Rwanda’s Tutsis .Europe has not been immune to the same phenomenon – Northern Ireland’s ‘Unionists’ and Yugoslavia’s Serbs being two recent examples that come to mind. In the latter examples the difference between the cadaver end count in both states was due to the fact that NI being part of the UK had a strong parliamentary tradition (Westminster) as a final guarantor and a neighbouring State (The Irish Republic) that supported the political process . Yugoslavia had no guarantors and resorted to ethnic mass slaughter in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism.

    In Africa where there is ‘less democracy’ and a relatively small middle or educated class as compared to Europe then the ‘grabbing’ of government jobs is the main ‘loot’ available to the newly independent politicos . These jobs also give access to local ‘predators’ to the lucrative international donor trade 🙁 Because former European colonial masters paid little or no attention to ethnic/linguistic differences many of the new African States are ‘artificial’ constructions and in many states tribal allegiance is much more important than official ‘nationality’ per se. Thus in the absence of significant economic growth tensions increase between ethnic groups .

    ‘far from the tried and true “these people are animals” reactions you tend to get from daily newspapers and news programmes reacting immediately viscerally to violent outbreaks, wherever they may be.’

    When people as a tribe/ethnic group/individual are desperately poor or feel discriminated against there will inevitably be ‘tension’. In western societies people have the ‘safety net’ of the welfare state although in some cases that does not suffice. In Africa there isn’t any welfare state. Those States which tried to model themselves on socialist europe back in the 1960’s and 1970’s have all been dismal economic failures. Zimbabwe’s experiment with Marxist Leninist Scientific Socialism and Haile Mariam’s Ethiopian Marxist revolution being IIRC the worst examples in recent decades.

    It’s too easy to point to weak legislatures as the prime cause of instability leading to Kenya like situations . What’s needed in Africa is steady economic growth which exceeds population growth and a rising standard of living . Botswana has achieved this whereas it’s formerly much wealthier neighbour Zimbabwe now has negative growth and a declining standard of living. Could Zimbabwe be accused of having a ‘weak legislature ‘ ?

    As for the ‘these people are animals’ just look back at some of the atrocities committed in NI/Yugoslavia over the past 40 years ? No African dictator has yet emulated Europeans in the mass slaughter of people . Even Idi Amin came nowhere near Stalin’s, Hitler’s or Pol Pot’s cadaver count ( 20 million, 6 million and 3 million respectively)

    During my time in Africa I came across some missionaries from all denominations who were doing wonderful work in training the local people . I also came across many ‘charlatans’ who should never have been allowed on the African continent .

    Africa will make it despite the Aids pandemic . All Africa needs is good government , some steady economic growth and for western governments to stop handing out aid to African Governments only to see the money invested by revolving door in Swiss bank accounts !

  • Jon Juan

    The Presbyterian Mission in Kenya is something I know too little about – thanks for reminding me of a significant strand of Ulster internationalism. The Qua Iboe Mission (now Mission Africa) in Nigeria and the Elim Pentecostals in Zambia and Zimbabwe are two more groups which have touched the lives of many in Ulster (inside and outside the borders of Northern Ireland – indeed the Qua Iboe Mission fundraised as far south as Tramore…).

    Together with the Society of African Missions in Dromantine, and numerous Catholic missionary bodies in the Republic which recruited in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, missionaries have done much to enrich and internationalise the lives of many in Ireland, the UK, and Africa in the past hundred years.

    So of course, Kenyan news does link to culture and politics in Ireland, north and south – Eldoret, home of the church where the most startling of the recent Kenyan atrocities took place, has been a significant site of Irish missionary enterprise, contributing greatly to the rise of Kenyan athletics. While religion is not routinely invoked in these developments (positive and negative), ethnicity is, and it often approximates to religious cleavages, thmeselves often almost historical accidents of missionary placement and domain.

    As Susan suggested, these cleavages reflect more systemic problems of governance, a point not without relevance in just about any European context at some point over the last century or so. The point, and its cultural and political ramifications, can’t be entirely lost in Northern Ireland…

  • susan

    I deeply appreciate this thread and the backgrounder information on Kenyan history and culture from posters who know far more about a place I know far too little about. Very, much including yours, Greenflag, with one caveat. In my post I was careful to say that I found the global context a challenging and worthwhile contrast with the ““these people are animals” reactions you tend to get from daily newspapers and news programmes reacting immediately viscerally to violent outbreaks, wherever they may be.” I very specifically said “wherever they may be” because of course I was not just thinking of violence in Kenya, but the former Yugoslavia and points closer to home.

  • Greenflag

    ‘The point, and its cultural and political ramifications, can’t be entirely lost in Northern Ireland…’

    Nor should it be . Having lived and worked on several continents with every ‘ethnic group’ bar Australian Aborigenes – people are very much the same the world over and respond to their political and economic environment in similar ways . Ghana had the same GDP per person as Taiwan in 1966 . Fast forward 25 years and Taiwan’s GDP was 20 times that of Ghana . Why the difference ? The former had 25 years of political instability with ruinous economic policies which ‘ignored’ human nature . Look at the Germanies West and East or the Koreas North & South ? Zimbabwe and Botswana are also a good working example of how having the wrong politicians /ideologues in power can ruin an economy (Zimbabwe) whereas having the right mix of policies (Botswana) can effect major change . We have seen a smaller transformation here in Ireland as between the Republic and NI over the past generation. A similar transformation has taken place in Belgium as between the Flemings and Walloons with the latter now ‘deposed’ from their former preeminent economic spot in the Belgian pecking order . Which is why there is now ‘talk’ of the two ‘Belgiums’.

    I remember working with an Ibo (Nigerian) in Germany whose first name was Patrick. He spoke excellent German . Our German colleagues were much taken aback by the fact that the Ibo and I could talk about our second level educations as if we had been to the same school . The same Order ran both schools and the Ibo had to play football and woe betide them if they did not defeat their local foe (An Anglican School ) in regional competition . The threat of extra homework for losing was I thought a bit unfair 🙂

    There is a natural human tendency among all peoples to react viscerally to an attack on one’s own . I can recall how a now deceased relative at the height of the NI troubles demand that the Irish Government send the Army across the border to support the IRA and stop Unionist atrocities . Fifteen years later the same relative wanted the Irish Government to shoot the IRA on sight (this was after the Enniskillen atrocity in which Gordon Wilson’s daughter among many others was murdered).

    In advanced democracies one tends to take it as a matter of course that elected Governments do not act ‘viscerally’ at least in recent decades whatever the popular press of the ‘Gotcha’ variety might demand . Everyone on this island can be grateful that for the most part the vast majority of Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland never allowed their ‘visceral feelings ‘ to spiral totally out of control.

    In an underdeveloped economy such as Kenya or Zimbabwe it is too easy for those ‘visceral feelings’ to be worked on by tribal leaders for their own selfish ends .

    In the aftermath of 9/11 the world had great sympathy for the USA . Since then there has been a waning of support for the USA position in Iraq probably because it’s now seen that in the rush to exact ‘revenge’ the USA wandered or allowed itself to be dragged down the visceral path . Now that 151,000 Iraqis have been killed and two million refugees have fled the country and 4,000 Americans are dead the people (Americans) are calling for an end to the ‘insanity’.

    It’s happened before and will probably happen again somewhere else on the planet .

  • susan

    Aidan Hartley has a beautifully written first-person account of the violence from his farm in Kenya in today’s New York Times, which I read with heightened interest this morning thanks to Turgon’s thread and the additional background from Peadar, Abdul, Jon and GF.

    The pain and ruin in Kenya is an unfolding tragedy in its own right, of course, not a looking glass for considering civil wars and civil strife elsewhere. Yet some of Hartley’s words couldn’t help but resonate with other discussions here:

    “Kenyan democracy has failed because ordinary people were encouraged to believe that the process in and of itself could bring change. So Kenya’s leaders — and often international observers — interpret democracy simply in terms of the ceremony of multiparty elections. Polls bestow legitimacy on politicians to pillage for five years until the next depressing cycle begins.

    In the campaign rallies I attended, I saw no debate about policies, despite the country’s immense health, education, crime and poverty problems. The Big Men arrived by helicopter to address the voters in slums and forest clearings. When they spoke English for the Western news media’s benefit, they talked of human rights and democracy. But when they switched to local languages, it was pure venom and ethnic chauvinism. Praise-singers kowtowed to the candidates, who dozed, talked on their mobile phones and then waddled back to their helicopters, which blew dust into the faces of the poor on takeoff.”


  • Greenflag

    ‘In my post I was careful to say that I found the global context a challenging and worthwhile contrast with the ““these people are animals” reactions you tend to get from daily newspapers and news programmes reacting immediately viscerally to violent outbreaks, wherever they may be.”

    There are many reasons why any society/polity might ‘collapse’ or implode or become enmeshed in civil/sectarian /inter tribal war and obviously ‘governance’ is critical . Jared Diamond’ the American anthropologist whi wrote ‘Collapse’ , Guns,Germs and Steel , and also The Third Chimpanzee includes governance but also includes two other factors that you might think would be ‘obvious’ to most intelligent observers i.e population density and poverty . These three factors can negatively impact on any ‘them and us’ perceptions which for historical , economic or ethnic /religous reasons may be already present in any society . The importance of ‘governance’ seems to be primary in that if ‘government’ passes wholly into the hands of one of the groups and is then used as a ‘weapon’ to promote the interests of that group over all others then inevitably societal conflict becomes a question of when not if . In this scenario the relative percentages of each tribal/ethnic /sectarian group and the degree of poverty/and population density between the groups will determine the ‘extent’ of the slaughter.

    In a society like Papua/New Guinea where no ‘ethnic’ group makes up more than 3% of the population and competition /conflict is restricted to small tribes/groups attacking their near neighbours – no single group will try to ‘dominate’ all of Papua/New Guinea. In Switzerland the Swiss Germans ‘dominate’ being 70% of the population, but because there is no major disparity in terms wealth between the groups and their form of governance is ‘agreed’, the possibility of Switzerland ever descending into a ‘Northern Ireland’ situation is remote. Countries like Rwanda and Burundi which are densely populated and poor and where inter tribal conflict has been endemic even prior to ‘colonialisation’ then a descent into chaos is probable sooner or later . Throw religious or political ideologies onto the already prepared bonfire of the ‘basics’ , add in a weak ‘dictator’ or government and you end up with the “these people are animals” headlines etc etc.

    In societies where a large minority(cultural, economic , tribal , religous is excluded from political power and it’s perceived that the exclusion will be permanent then the factors of population density and relative poverty come to the fore and usually spark off riots, protests, rebellions etc.

    When you look at NI in the above global context it can be seen in hindsight that all the factors were present to a greater or lesser extent for a
    ‘bloodbath’. The fact that it took 50 years to explode can be attibuted to the long tradition of British Government in Ireland, and the in retrospect naive belief of Northern Ireland’s Nationalists, that the 6 county State would prove to be a temporary arrangement. The demographic breakdown between both groups in 1969 i.e 65 to 35 was large enough to ensure one party domination but not large enough to give Unionists complete assurance of it’s long term ‘future’. Thus the incipient ‘Unionist’ paranoia and then the inevitable Unionist Government overreaction in 1969 when changing economic and social circumstances proved beyond the capability of traditional ‘unionism’ to manage . Thus Direct Rule for the last 40 years .

    some of Hartley’s words couldn’t help but resonate with other discussions here:

    Back in the 1950’s the comment was made that the that the USA would have a Catholic President long before Northern Ireland would ever have a Catholic Prime Minister . Fast forward to 2007. The current joke in Kenya is that the USA will have a Luo President before Kenya .

    Barack Obama’s deceased father was a Luo (their ethnic group represent about 14% of the population and are mainly in western Kenya

    Plus ca change . Lets all hope the present Kenyan President responds with more ‘intelligence’ than the NI Unionist political leadership did back in 1969.

    I read Obama has made contact with the Luo leader of the opposition Odinga but that so far he has been unable to connect with the Kikiyu President.
    🙁 Presumably the latter would rather not have a Luo about the place .