In the past few weeks, Kenyans have taken to social media to condemn the odious xenophobic attacks that have recently engulfed South Africa. The reactions elicited by Kenyans paints a picture of a civilised, united and enlightened citizenry that appreciates that xenophobia in any form has no place in the 21st century.
The discussions revealed Kenyans cannot comprehend how a black man can attack another black man just because the other person is from another part of Africa. They find it appalling that black South African youth can burn, stab and loot from fellow melanin abundant Homo Sapiens. In the wake of the attacks, Kenyans have declared “South Africans have forgotten their unique history, suffered amnesia on the role other African countries played in the struggle against apartheid, and altogether abandoned Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation…”
From the buzz in the air, and videos being shared on social media, one would think that hundreds if not thousands of innocent “foreign black Africans” had been slaughtered just for wrongfully being south of the Limpopo. However, reliable sources indicate that only seven lives have perished as a result of the violence. I don’t mean to belittle human life, but in Kenya, we are not used to such meagre numbers when it comes to targeted violence.
Xenophobia can be defined as an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers, or of that which is foreign or strange. This unreasonable fear usually leads to stereotyping, and when it boils over, an orgy of violence, murder and destruction targeted at the perceived foreigner or stranger. The last round of xenophobic eruption in South Africa took place in May, 2008, where 65 people lost their lives. It is noteworthy that 65 is still a fairly conservative figure by Kenyan standards. In fact, a few days ago, 70 people including women and children lay dead in two separate attacks in the borders between Pokot and Turkana, and Turkana and Samburu counties respectively.
Which begs the question, in Kenya, who is seen as the foreigner, stranger, and one who does not belong? Do we also have our own brand of xenophobia? Does unreasonable fear and hatred sometimes lead to an orgy of violence? Can clanism and tribalism be interchangeably used in the place of xenophobia?
In the aftermath of the disputed general elections in 2008, about 1,500 Kenyans lay dead, thousands more injured and hundreds of thousands displaced for being from elsewhere, or at the very least for being from where one’s political leader’s nemesis was from or affiliated. The violence was characterised by fighting in city slums, looting, burning of houses and business premises belonging to perceived outsiders and revenge attacks. Most of the reported deaths, however, took place in the Rift Valley province.
Just like the orgy of violence that would engulf South Africa four months later that year, the world witnessed unsettling accounts of atrocities and arson, but unlike the South Africa, women and children would be burned alive in a church in Eldoret and a house in Naivasha. Neighbours who had lived together for years would turn on each other with bows, arrows, machetes and petrol bombs; and a woman in Kibera would be raped in front of her daughter by a gang of youths, and then an hour later by three police officers in the same night.
As we condemn and criticise the senseless xenophobic attacks taking place in South Africa, let it not be lost to us that we are guilty of similar if not worse absurdity. In our nuanced xenophobia, instead of the South African excuse of “they have taken our jobs”, it is often, “they have taken our land… they are all thieves… they are stupid… they are terrorists… they are not real men” among other groundless generalisations.
Even today, more than 25,000 residents of Baringo South mainly from the Ilchamus and Tugen communities continue living as refugees in their own county fearing attacks from Pokot raiders who have over the years killed hundreds of people including police officers, made away with tens of thousands of livestock, destroyed schools, set people and houses on fire, dismantled boreholes, destroyed irrigation systems and shot unarmed civilians. We erroneously choose to call it cattle rustling yet we fail to see that the attacks are actually calculated to obliterate the ‘foreigners’ hope for a meaningful existence, so much so that they opt to disappear.
Bearing in mind that most if not all divisional, district, county or state borders in Africa were demarcated by colonialists based little or no meaningful considerations, I opine that at least in Africa, there is no distinction between tribalism, clanism and xenophobia. There is only misinformed blame, hate and mistrust of perceived outsiders fuelled by leaders who use the blame, hate and mistrust as a subterfuge from their own failures in securing development for the people.
Let us not be too quick to point out the peck in someone’s eye yet we have a log in ours. What has been happening in South Africa is inexcusable. But before we interrogate how they can carry out those heinous attacks, let us look at our national fabric and find lasting solutions to our homegrown barbarism.