Thursday, January 03, 2008

Unrest in Kenya

If you've been watching the news over the past few days you've likely seen some coverage of the tensions in Kenya following the December 27th election in which the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was re-elected by a small margin. Amidst accusations of corruption and election irregularities, pockets of the country have erupted into a kind of violence which is hauntingly reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Having been to Kenya twice in the last few years and with friends currently living there - several in Nairobi where much of the violence is centered - I've been paying careful attention to news reports.

As we watch the scenes from the safety and tranquility of our comfortable living rooms, it's hard for us to imagine how neighbors can turn on one another so brutally. Many of us may be tempted to conclude that such scenes could never happen here... that we simply are incapable of such brutality... that Canadians are far too reasonable and "nice" to be caught up in such atrocities.

Last week in our adult Sunday School class we talked for a few minutes about the situation in Pakistan following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Again, there was a surreal sense that those people are just not like us. And one of the more senior members of the class - a woman who years ago visited her son while he was living in Bangladesh - pointed out very matter of factly that "they have nothing". There were some quiet murmurings of concurrence but I really don't think we can understand what it's like to live - day in and day out - with the uncertainties of poverty. And then, when you add to the mix, tribal or other linguistic or ethnic differences - well - let's just say that it's a powerful mix that can be very easily ignited...

It's become fashionable these days for us to talk about our "tribe". It somehow has the effect of "connecting us" to those from places like Pakistan and Kenya. It's like saying - "yeah, we know about tribes. We're part of a tribe too...". And we are. But maybe our view lacks depth.

A little over a year ago I happened to be in Vancouver, British Columbia when there was a boil water order in effect. It was pretty inconvenient for people who are used to being able to turn on the tap to get perfectly potable water. Bottled water was hard to come by because the demand went up dramatically, literally over night. There were reports of scuffles breaking out at the local Costco over bottled water. It was pretty bizarre - people in Canada actually fighting over water! A colleague who lived in Africa for a time noted the irony and said something like "we wonder why Africans resort to violence and we're inconvenienced a little bit and we're up in arms!".

I live in a small fishing community and over the last 10 years or so, we've had some "migrant workers" from another province arrive to work at one of the fish plants. At first the newcomers were welcomed. When summer came, however, and the newcomers had all the low-end jobs tied up and it was hard for local students to find work, the atmosphere changed pretty quickly. Yeah - we have our tribes all right, but we really don't know how strongly we're attached to them until push comes to shove - until there isn't enough to go around. Scarcity does strange things to people.

So let's not think too critically of our global neighbors in Pakistan or Kenya - some people may be behaving badly - even brutally - but let's not think our "tribe" is any more virtuous than any other, at least not until we have faced the same kinds of scarcities and insecurities.