Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Poor Like Me

Posted in class divide, United States by allisonkilkenny on January 21, 2008

Poor Like Me

After the election on December 27th, all hell broke loose in Kenya. The chaos was because of the disputed victory of Mwai Kibaki over his political opponent, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Party (ODP). It was like the 2000 Gore/Bush Florida debacle, if the RNC and DNC were armed with machetes and liberals actually possessed the discipline and drive to meet at rallying points on time.

In Kenya, horrible things happened, and are happening. Women are being raped. Babies are being killed and children are watching their families die. This sort of corrupt election aftermath is foreign to people in the United States. During Bush’s inaugural drive to the White House, someone pelted his limousine with an egg, but no one launched a grenade into his convoy. Protesters booed Bush and his CIA bodyguards, but no one lit Laura Bush on fire.

In terms of societal violence, it’s difficult for Americans to relate to Kenyans. We were fortunate because our corrupt election didn’t spawn terrible violence. However, Kenya should serve as a warning to the dangers of class war.

And I hate to burst the U.S. media’s bubble, but this is a class war. This isn’t just my opinion, but it’s also the opinion of Rasna Warah, a Kenyan journalist for the Daily Nation, and a host of other Kenyan activists and journalists.

Oftentimes, the United States media dismisses all African violence as “tribal,” which in addition to being wildly racist, immediately distances the story from the American scope of understanding. It’s like if Swedan called all acts of American violence “Yankee trouble.”

Imagine, you’re a big, blonde Swede, watching your evening news, and your local Swedish news covers two stories from America: the L.A. riots post-Rodney King trial and the WTO riots in Seattle (in this parallel universe 1992 and 1999 happened in the same year). The big-toothed anchor says something about “regional violence,” “Yankee trouble,” and Sean Penn (America’s Kofi Annan) being sent in to spark negotiations between rival factions. “Yankee trouble” gives a poor, ignorant Swede zero background into the racial tension in L.A., the historical context of the Rodney King trial, the history of NAFTA, free market policies, etc.

Oh yeah, not to mention the fact that the United States is a country, just like Kenya is a country, and they can’t have their histories explained away with the oversimplified phrase: “tribal behavior”. The L.A. riots and WTO riots were two separate issues in America’s history, and to understand any violence of a region, it’s important to examine the history of the country. A short-sighted Swede might look at this hypothetical story and think, “That’s some fucked up tribal violence,” but it’s more than that. It’s a story about race, economics, and social injustice.

On the surface, the Kenyan violence looks like hostility between tribes: the Luos and the Kikuyu. In fact, what is happening in Kenya is less tribal and more symptomatic of class warfare, a concept that should feel very familiar to the typical American.

Rich Like Me

It’s difficult for Americans to examine international policies without using the Western framing of Good Guy Versus Bad Guy. We like picking sides, and in a way, we like opposing dictators. We like knowing who we’re fighting and why. Hitler was a bad guy and the Nazis were bad news in well-tailored outfits. They marched in perfect rows and spoke guttural German. They were a freedom fighter’s wet dream: murderous villains, out to destroy the fabric of goodness and sunshine. We understood those guys, and we liked understanding them, which is probably why we’ve given them their own time capsule on the History channel. In life, rarely are there such perfect enemies.

Kenya is not like Nazi Germany. There are two dudes: Kibaki and Odinga, bickering over who won. According to independent international investigations, there is strong evidence of vote tampering. Like a spoiled fat kid hogging the sandbox, Kibaki has thus far refused to share his power with Odinga, but Odinga has done little to curb the violence of his Luo people, who initiated much of the violence in the country.

What’s an American to do? Who do we blame? Where’s my bad guy?!

Mukoma wa Ngugi, Chairman of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission says the violence in Kenya must be blamed on both Kibaki and Odinga:

Now, the shooting of unarmed people, as we have seen–there’s actually a very disgusting video on YouTube of a Kenyan policeman shooting an unarmed protester–is definitely wrong. But we also need to go back and look at the role the opposition has played in fueling this violence. It’s not fair for Raila just to blame the government on the violence, while we have had what most people would consider–what most people would consider organized massacres of innocent Kenyans by ODM supporters.

Many American media outlets have dismissed this as tribal rivalry, but really it’s much more than that. Naturally, populations of people tend to fracture along lines like ethnicity and language, but the violence in Kenya is multifaceted. Like America, it is a country run by rich men, who use tribal differences to first divide their poor people, and them unite them behind false promises of bettering their lives if they vote for change. As though it’s been the poor people all along who were the ones rejecting change, and not the rich elite.

Does it Feel Rich in Here?

Raila Odinga is Kenya’s John Edwards. He’s a rich man with a Populist message. In 1970, he received his degree in mechanical engineering from East Germany. Afterwards, he made his fortune the same way everyone does: he kissed up to the Saudis, namely the Al Bakri Group, and started his very own oil firm, Pan African Petroleum Limited. Now he is worth four billion KSHS, a bank savings hardly representative of his starving populace. Unlike John, Odinga was born into politics. His dad is the political god and awesomely-named Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice-president after Africa yanked their independence from the sniveling British.

In a post-apocalyptic world that had been overrun by zombies, a basic survival tip is to groan and walk very slowly just like the other zombies in order to camouflage one’s self among their undead ranks. Well, Odinga has seen the writing on the wall and now he’s crying “DAMN THE RICH!” with his people as though he was not part of the caste system. He’s just hoping no one notices he’s not one of the walking dead, or one of the 31.3 million poor people, or 7.5 million living in extreme poverty.

Like his competitor, Mwai Kibaki is a man of means. In the 1960s, Kibaki was an economics professor, trained in London and Uganda. Kibaki enjoys passing the time with traditional African sporting events like golf. I’m just kidding. He’s incredibly corrupt and just as elitist as any other politician, and now he owns a lot of land and troughs of cash, though he’ll swear to you that he got every penny honestly, instead of through corrupt governing as so many groups have accused him. According to BBC news, Kibaki’s government cost Kenya $1 billion, which is nearly a fifth of its state budget. Sounds honest enough to me.

Like most human beings, both Odinga and Kibaki began their lives as idealistic, passionate men, who longed to see a free Africa. However, over time they allocated wealth, and that horded income pushed them apart from their people. Then the poor Kenyans (like poor Americans) had to choose between Rich Guy #1 and Rich Guy #2. They voted for Rich Guy #2, and Rich Guy #1 stole the election. Sound familiar?

The class divide in Kenya has been building for decades. Despite the government’s massive overhaul in 2002 and the help of the World Bank and the IMF, Kenya’s economy is in the toilet. There are a whole lot of pissed off, poor people. Their one hope was that their Populist leader, Odinga, would keep his word and bring them prosperity and jobs.

Like ruffled Floridians, poor Kenyans felt the vote was rigged. They had been promised great things for a long time by both party leaders, and this final injustice was too much. Stealing votes in a “Democratic” society is the worst kind of insult. It’s worse than telling poor people they don’t matter or they don’t even exist. It’s telling them they don’t deserve to exist.. It’s promising them a voice in their system of government, and then stealing their voice.

It’s easy to get corralled into tribal warfare when, say, genocide is happening outside your front door, and yet Kenyans have been calling the outbreak of violence a class struggle since December. The classification seems obvious to Kenyans. After all, what else do you call warfare between poor and the rich? It’s strange that Americans don’t see their reality in the same light.

All three United States presidential candidates are rich, just as Odinga and Kibaki are rich, and we too struggle with poverty, even though our poor citizens face no where near the struggle of Kenya’s poor. According to the United States Census Bureau, around 36.5 million American live in poverty. Meanwhile, in the last 20 years, the amount of billionaires in the U.S. has grown ten-fold and yet the U.S. is one of the only industrialized nations that does not guarantee health care to its citizens. Our unions are weak and workers have less rights and protections under our shell government that is being increasingly privatized and sold overseas. The rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer.

All politicians are aware of the imbalance of power, which is why rich candidates like Edwards and Odinga run on a Populist message. They know the poor are getting more desperate, and they feel a Populist message is their tickets to power.

All that being said, the violence in Kenya is outrageous. The best way to bring about social change is not with the blade of a machete, but rather with debate and negotiations. Any violence against innocent civilians is inexcusable. Odinga should have demanded his Luo supporters cease their initial outbreak of violence immediately, and for not doing so, he is accessory to murder, as is Kibaki, who turned a blind eye to the poorly managed, trigger-happy police.

However, Americans should feel a commonality with the poor of Kenya. In fact, we should feel more connected to the poor of Kenya than either Odinga or Kibaki do because we too know what it’s like to struggle beneath the repressive rule of the wealthy.

They too are at the mercy of an unrepresentative oligarchy. All the power and wealth rests in the hands of a few, and it’s not right that so many global citizens are starving and dying because the elite are better skilled at manipulation and theft. This is not a matter of survival of the fittest. This is a matter of survival of the cunning and corrupt.

Now, we’re witnessing the most expensive Presidential election year yet, estimated to top $1 billion to campaign for what is effectively a pageant show: Do you want Rich Guy #1? How about Rich Guy #2? What if Rich Guy #3 is a lady? If that isn’t a permanent caste system built to keep political power from the grasp of the poor, I don’t know what is.

Imagine a new map of the world, where no boundaries are drawn for countries, but rather regions are color-coded according to income. Let’s give the color “red” to the rich, and the color “blue” to the poor (just off the top of my head). This new map wouldn’t deal with the average wealth of countries because, let’s face it, Oprah refuses to give me cash even though I’ve been asking her very nicely. Oprah’s money is Oprah’s alone. If these individual incomes were charted on a map, what you would see is an ocean of blue far expanding past the natural bodies of the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, etc. What you would see is a world of poor, surrounding a few, measly dots of red, like obnoxious pimples rising from an otherwise healthy visage.

In that new world, Kenya is America; America is Kenya, and the poor are finally united.

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