Monday, 9 April 2012

Under the flame trees, in Kenya -- David Millar

Enroute to the Friends World Conference, in Kusumi, Kenya. I’m unable currently to post my photos, but will add them when I can.

Apr 5-6 in the air, Montreal-Amman-Nairobi

Followed the Great Circle route from N.Ireland to France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and the crowded neighbourhood of Lebanon / Palestine /Israel / Jordan. Overcast Couldn’t help thinking of the mountains of corpses, rivers of blood that soaked all those grounds over the centuries: tribes, clans, mercenaries, creeds vs ‘heretics’, nations, world wars, ideologies. The forgotten Bogomils (people of God, aka Cathars, known only by their enemies’ propaganda in the First Crusade). The sky cleared over the Aegean as we passed Miletos (slaughtered by Athenians to the last man woman and child), Rhodes, Cyprus. Spring greening the hills of the Holy Land (to many religions, all busy killing themselves and each other, Jesus wept). A Sunni lady from Baghdad on the plane said, all my family in danger, can’t go back, scattered – touching her heart – but I tell my children God speaks to you here, the greater jihad is with yourself. Temperature -71 C at 35000 feet, almost out of the thin skin of atmosphere that lets us live, precariously.

Amman, the white city. Spring ploughing in the fields, olive orchards, vine & fig trees, purple desert flowers blowing in the wind. Browsing photos of Jordanian folk festivals, I see Cossacks (no, Circassians) a whole people displaced from the Caucasus. Empires like to do that, shift the troublesome mountaineers around so they can fight on other borders. Picts, Franks, Vandals, for instance. Canadians in Afghanistan. Scots-Irish in the British Empire (devils in skirts, the Germans called them). Isn’t it nice that so much of the map is red? said Victoria.

Queen Alia airport (Queen Noor is now history?). Indiscreet luxury everywhere, cheap booze, gold watches and Dior. Saw a tall black with a full Islamic beard, black dish dash to his polished toes, enroute to Mecca; salaam aleykum, says I, do you speak English? Albert from Augusta GA, says he; converted to Islam after reading Malcolm X’s autobiography. All men are really brothers, Allah Akbar. It changed his life. Introduced to his friend Ali from NYC, a prevent proselytizer who asked if I was a Unitarian Christian. Many names for God, many roads, say I. You are asking an ant to describe the earth’s Creator , a speck to explain the maker of the Universe? Without charity (sadaqah) we are nothing, says the Prophet (PBUH). We talked of Sunni, Shia, Sufi ways and parted friends. Though Ali hopes I will convert, enter the Dimma and avoid the eternal fire.

Night flight to Kenyatta airport – I talk to two Kenya-born aid workers, James of UNICEF who tries to improve child nutrition and life expectancy in the Maghreb, and Dr Paul who works with torture and trauma victims in the refugee camps. Paul has to exchange a ‘nzuri’ (fine, cool, awful, you on’t wanna know) before starting each trauma interview – now we can talk truth. Dadaab refugee population is half a million, now in its 2nd generation. Also from the 2007 violence, 600,000 IDPs, no one knows how many were burned alive in W Kenya and Kigeri. Corruption, political gangs, religion, ‘tribal’ violence – but any excuse serves land hunger. I learn some Swahili: jambo! Nzuri! Asante! Tutaonana… We alight in torrential rain. (0200 in Nairobi, it is now 8 am in Canada and I don’t feel very sleepy). Fortunately Anglican Guest House did send a driver (without telling me) so I offer Paul a ride. On the right, in the British tradition. The driver gets an extra fare. Nzuri sana. Streets unusually empty. When dawn breaks, I am on the Bishop Street hill, amid tropical flowers and birds. The million strong Kigeri slum is a mile away. I get a good breakfast, walk across Uhuru Park (safe in daylight) into downtown, get money (after 3 ATMs fail me), local cellphone $20, airtime, stamps, postcards. Lots of heavily armed security around, to protect the money, the suits and the mzunga (me). At breakfast an aid worker tells me, if the politicians don’t cause civil war again, the middle class is exploding. Kansas in 1870? Food, land, the dangerous poor fenced in, money to be made, praise Jesus, and may God keep us healthy and safe. I later hear there are lots of orphans. Some get cared for. The rest must beg. Religion, education, professional status, business and connections are the way up. The gospel of prosperity, as South Africa calls it. Every little biz dreams bigger biz. This place is not going to reject capitalism.

In the Guest House, Christian Professional magazines; one article says, if you’re jobless, emigrate and burn your boat; you will have to succeed. Christian music with a reggae beat, Pentecostals rub shoulders with Anglican bishops and Lutheran aid workers. Everybody is saved, saving or about to be – very American evangelical, there is always English in the prayers, hymns and Godly injunctions. The Christian university in Kabarak tells of four grads hired by a big businessman, who overpaid their salary the first time: only the Christian KU grad reported it. Whom to trust? seems to be a question everyone asks. By their fruits you know them. Lots of good guys and selfless women (like the nurse, wife of local Quaker Church clerk, who trains women volunteers for healthcare in Kiberi), lots of conmen, thieves and carjackers. Leave your computer at home, don’t flash jewelry, keep windows closed, don’t walk at night (except on Bishop Road). Trust, credit, godliness, blessings – and some fear. That’s what the razor wire is for. Nature is abundant here, amazing flowers, trees spring up, birds, where the land is not rubbed raw by man. Greenbelt Movement plants more trees in Uhuru Park and all over. Little left of the ancient forests – the poorest of the poor are charcoal burners, everyone uses charcoal to cook. Ngama choma, grilled meat, the national dish. Food is abundant. If you can afford it. Schooling is excellent. If you can afford it. A Scots couple, sunburned from climbing the Rift escarpment, tell me about the little boys, still in school uniform, carrying huge wood loads home at noon in the blinding sun, smiling and speaking excellent English (and Swahili, and several other of the 42 recognized languages – an aid worker tells me more like 100 but colonial bureaucrats ‘simplified’ the tribal map while eradicating ancient cultures and taxing huts to force migrant labour for the plantations). And several varieties (Allah’s or Siva’s own plenty) of Levanters, Ismailis, ‘Indians’ for shops and railway building. That’s how Gandhi started in Durban. Brought great cuisine, charities, sharp business, mosques, temples, some Christian-Muslim-Bahai etc interfaith efforts I hope to find out about.

Kenyans don’t need to be told what to do. All the talents are here, says Ken, a 20 year aidworker from the coast. They don’t need fly-in experts or white teenage volunteers, they need respectful partners for small home-grown local initiatives. It takes years to know whom to trust. On both sides.

UNCD Sustainability and Equity report (Mar 2012) takes issue with the neolib Washington Consensus: what the world needs to stop climate chaos and advance Millenium Goals (now renamed SDGs) is educate girls (they will plan their families, thank you) and raise minimum wage (a social floor for quality of life, instead of a desperate struggle to survive). Both measures would improve things for the 99% in the rich world, whose floor is being chopped up and thrown away.

We see o clearly here the insecurity of ‘security’: the private guards with Kalashnikovs, the wands searching for Al Qaeda (or Shabab) explosives and guns, the razorwire scrolls on the fences. All this means here must be a Dickension subclass, diseased, dirty and depraved, ready for anything from armed robbery to truckstop prostitution (thus spreading AIDs – maybe to 75% of men?). By contrast the conmen and schemers seem almost beneficent. And here am I, a pinko-grey child (ill-trained and ill-spoken, by local standards) in need of constant protection. There is even a law, I hear, against hassling wa-mzunga.

Day 2: Wake again at 0630 to the songs, jokes, banter of young men in the parking garage next door. Why are men so noisy? Boys at soccer. Businessmen in the bars. TVs blaring everywhere (you turn them up when guests arrive). Then – despite a taxi driver who lost his way -- celebrated Easter with the singing, dancing, hot-gospel (5 preachers) Quakers of Friends Church at Nakumat Prestige bus stop on Ngongo Rd (meeting has 11,000 members). Christ is risen! Jesus will bless, protect and prosper us all! Beat the Devil! Men in shiny suits. Women in amazing hairstyles, bangs, braids, squiggles, frizzles, feathers and headbands. A 3 hour lollapalooza of a worship service, complete with a whole section getting the Word by sign language. I make lots of new friends, get invited to the clerk’s home, get taken care of. Hospitality plus. Asante, wewe rafiki.

More to come...

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