Focus: Kenya view.
I come from a quaint little country [The Gambia] where, because illiteracy rates are high, we vote with marbles. The candidates’ faces are plastered on the sides of the ballot boxes, and a special tube, a mini marble run really, winds its way in, allowing each marble to drop in with a solid thunk as it joins the nest of others within. This marble trick means our spoilt vote rates are exceedingly low. But I guess it also means that vote rigging with marbles is a lot easier than trying to do so with sheets of paper.
Yet that did not stop the ‘They’ we refer to in Kenyan politics from doing exactly that – playing around with people’s carefully ticked ballot papers, churning the precious one paper one vote, one citizen one tick into a backdrop for unverifiable election results.
There are several ways to take over a country without a fair ballot box. Before last year, I’d only been personally exposed to one method – a terrifying coup d’etat during which my father sat tense in our living room, all of us forced to stay home and save on water for drinking for washing for cooking. He sat with his revolver settled on the stool beside him. To match our national defining adjective, we had a few quaint pieces of furniture in our house at the time. The stools in the living room were shaped in one of the four card suits, clubs or diamonds all carefully etched out of thick plywood, and topped with a faux marble formica top – black with traces of grey. All my childhood, I could choose what shape to put my diluted orange squash on and I would set drinks for visitors on one of the assorted set in our living room.
But with that gun, my father sat, face tense, radio on. And told us, ‘They’d have to kill me first’, even as the gun lay on the stool made by the prisoners in the prison he ran.
My mother’s way of dealing with the tension was to busy herself cooking down the contents of our fridge, and resurrecting stored meals from our deep freezer. It’s funny how hungry you get when you have nothing to do. All of us children were busy being ravenous, and scavenged for fruit in the garden. Green mangoes stoned down from our tree to munch on with salt and pepper. A local variety of plum – Salone plum – plucked before they were full enough, that we would keep nestled in the rice bin so that they would eventually ripen into yellow alongside more stubborn avocadoes which persisted for long in hard green shells, even as we eagerly awaited their softening into a purple skinned softness.
That first coup did not succeed, but precedent had been set. We now understood what bazookas were – not some vague Russian invention, but things that thumped the ground with sonic waves, and swept muffled booms across great distances. We heard of bodies piled in open trunks. A family friend was too bolshie at the bridge and was shot dead. As these tales came in, we understood that political unrest could mean death. In the end, our family, the country, the citizens were rescued. Friendly neighbourly interests brought in their soldiers, quashed the coup, and for a while left some well built, and surprisingly good looking soldiers to keep the peace. Soldiers who, on their days off, clustered around our favourite hotel pool, ogled us and started tam-tams of romantic hope in our teenage chests.
That was in 1989. And a different country.
This is 2008. And a different kind of coup. We now know the extent to which power is loved by those who are powerful. We now understand the extent of the betrayal they are willing to subject us to. We now know that votes, marble or paper, can count for nothing.
The precedent in The Gambia made it easier for the next coup to succeed, bloodlessly. Yet the machinations of manoevring into power is easy compared with the trouble of governing afterwards. It’s the pesky people who won’t understand that they are now ruled under different skies. The ones who won’t stay down and be governed with batons, bullets and jail threats. The ones who keep writing, and gnawing and bothering. The ones who the president of my native country indicates must be dealt with and if necessary buried six feet deep.
Now, in my adopted country, other pesky people are demanding their rights.
This time I am the mother hen, checking on how much water is in the tank, how much frozen milk is coating itself in frost, deciding on what food is easiest to cook and uses the least number of ingredients and requires the least amount of water to clean up afterwards. This time, I am the one who’s explaining to my children why they can’t go to school just yet, why all of us grownups are always muttering about something or other – why we sound angry, disillusioned, sad.
In Kenya, other kinds of precedents have been set. And the memories of those successes lay the foundation for what is possible. The Kenya in 2002 that got used to choosing a new president and going out into the streets to celebrate victory. The ballot boxes in 2006 that rejected a badly written constitution. That is the precedent that reminds us that though the voice of each of us, alone, singly, counts for little, it’s the collective, the pressure of many that can declare that we have tasted a new way of choosing our leaders that we want to hang on to. The taste that has laid a wondrous, powerful precedent. Which in order to keep our souls hopeful, we must follow.