A sojourner's impressions, from Kenya to KC
The Kansas City Star
The press fellowship that brought me to Kansas City has two main objectives: to expose journalists from countries with emerging press freedom to American media practices and to immerse us in the culture of the United States.
When I told an American friend in Washington, D.C., last March that I was heading to a class on U.S. culture, she laughed, saying she found “culture” lacking here.
She was wrong. Apart from what the university professor told the four of us — a Pakistani, a Malaysian, a South Korean and a Kenyan — Americans do have a culture. Some people might celebrate Cinco de Mayo and others St Patrick’s Day, but, yes, I discovered there are shared Americanisms.
Patriotism is one, demonstrated in celebrations on the Fourth of July. It was, I noticed, not only about fireworks, hot dogs and alcohol but about the freedoms so many here enjoy and are ready to protect with their lives.
As far as grabbing back freedom from the British, Kenya has also been there — accomplished 49 years ago.
Unlike the United States, however, our freedom was a mirage. The leaders who took over were not much better than the British. Rather than heal the divisions exploited by the colonizers, they helped deepen them, sowing the seeds of the violence that followed the 2007 general election.
When the leaders were not messing things up, countries such as Kenya were suffering from neo-colonialism that made it impossible to pursue happiness.
Africans are frequently disappointed to meet Americans who lump them all together and cannot tell Dakar from Dar es Salaam or Mali from Mauritius. It was a relief to find that was mostly not the case in Kansas City. Kenya, to Kansas Citians I have met, is best known as where Ernest Hemingway went, attracted by the legendary savannah and wildlife.
Meanwhile, “birthers” believe it is the country where President Barack Obama was born.
Kenyans often see America as the land of opportunity, where their relatives go to work hard so they can send some money back and help lift them out of poverty. Many of those who came here on airlifts organized by John F. Kennedy went on to become illustrious in their fields.
But less known by Americans are the Kenyans who see the United States as a bully, talking down to other governments, imposing opinions on developing countries and, in some cases, pushing the country to fight unnecessary wars.
In Kenya, two cases serve as examples.
The first is terror. The biggest terrorist attack on Kenyan soil occurred on Aug. 7, 1998, when a truck bomb went off outside the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi. It was Osama bin Laden’s announcement to the world of his evil intentions, and 207 Kenyans and 12 U.S. citizens died that day.
In the latest incident on July 1, 17 Kenyans were killed in the northeastern town of Garissa when terrorists attacked two churches.
Al Shabaab, an Islamist fundamentalist group operating in Somalia, claimed responsibility for the deaths. The group arose in Somalia in 2007, a year after U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia to uproot the Islamic Courts Union, which had made some progress in bringing about peace in that famously lawless state.
About a week ago, it was reported that the Kenyan government entered a deal to buy 4 million tons of crude oil from Iran. But then at an event at the American Embassy to mark the Fourth of July, ambassador Scott Gration suggested such an action would attract sanctions from the U.S.
On Tuesday, Kenya withdrew from the deal.
It gets more complicated. Two foreign men were arrested last week. They had no identification documents, and 15 kilos of explosives.
They are believed to be Iranians. Suggestions are that Israel’s Mossad, the FBI and Britain’s Scotland Yard helped identify the men said to be members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
These events are the reasons I fear that Kenya is caught in a deep rut, one carved by others’ interests, which could see innocent citizens suffering as pawns in a conflict forced on them by others.
John Ngirachu is an Alfred Friendly Fellow from the Daily Nation in Nairobi, Kenya. To reach him, call 816-234-4366 or email email@example.com.