Mount Kenya

The Western news this summer oscillates between the suffocating heat in Europe and the political heat in America, with occasional forays into the military heat of the Ukraine.

Elsewhere, though, things are happening.

Last Tuesday, August 9th, Kenya voted—a general election in Africa is always a momentous occasion, since it invariably reflects tribal rivalries—far more than it portrays policy or promotes peace.

In some nations, such as the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, the incumbent party is so rooted to the power structure that change is as unlikely as uprooting a baobab with your bare hands.

The mighty baobab, called imbondeiro in Mozambique. The photo from early 2020, just before the pandemic paralyzed the planet, makes me dream of the vastness and peace of African big skies.

But Kenya is not a dictatorship and the tribal balance is different—it’s now the weekend, and they’re still counting votes.

In an article published earlier this year, I described my journey to Kisumu—the town is flagged as a spelling error in WordPress—home to the people of the lake.

The Luo, to which Obama belongs, are the ‘almost there’ tribe. Raila Odinga—the man who almost won the 2007 election—is of course a Luo, given away by the first letter of his surname. I couldn’t find the meaning of the name, but that didn’t stop me having a merry old time with Obonyo (born during locust infestation), Odek (born when the mother had picked up traditional vegetables from farm), and Okongo (born during celebration especially where alcohol brew is plenty).

In 2007, Odinga’s defeat by the Kikuyu incumbent Mwai Kibaki led to a de facto civil war—Odinga had been declared the winner until a Trumpian dream occurred—elections were held on December 27th, Odinga called victory on the 29th, and the next day two hundred and thirty thousand votes magically appeared, tipping the scales back to the Kikuyu candidate.

Like the Indian rain dance—it works because it only stops when the rain starts—it’s possible that in Kenya the vote count only stops when the Kikuyu candidate wins.

However, this time round, there is no Kikuyu running.

The man opposing the veteran Luo is called William Ruto, and he’s a Kalenjin.

The funny thing about Ruto is that he backed Odinga in 2007, while Uhuru Kenyatta backed Kibaki.

The two backers had at the time been charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with crimes against humanity after the 2007 election. In a marriage made in political heaven, Kenyatta and Ruto ran for office in 2013 and won the presidency—but now Kenyatta has served his two terms.

By the time the 2022 race came up, the Uhuru and William bromance was long gone, and now Kenyatta is backing the Luo candidate—who knew…

Right now, it looks like Ruto might make it—the Kalenjin are long distance runners—Daniel arap Moi was president for twenty-four years. But we’ll have to wait until Tuesday to know for certain.

If Odinga wins, he’ll exorcise the old saw that a Luo cannot become president in Kenya—only in the United States. It will be his fifth attempt, at the ripe age of seventy-seven.

From Reuters to the BBC, any mention of tribes is studiously avoided—in Kenya itself, it’s almost taboo, like a dark family secret. Nevertheless, the tribal narrative is key to determine political outcomes.

Kenya is beautiful, dangerous, and troubled.

May its future be as tall as the African skies.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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