Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Trees for Peace" - a letter from Petra Allmendinger, Mount Kenya

Dear Environmental Friends,

This month's meeting will be coming up on Friday, the 28th of March.

We had already two previous meetings to this one. And of course there is no meeting any more where our current problem of Kenya is not in one or the other way discussed. In our last meeting we realized that there is a lot of hatred, jealousy and also remorse for what has happened most receently amongst Kenyan people.

A lot of our group members are accommodating displaced people. Members who are hard up and find it very difficult on top of the additonal economic disaster to feed, clothe and accommodate extra people. But they do it, because lots of people in this country are still suffering very much, as you know.

We decided that we try to join hands and do some fundraising in form of clothes, food and money to assist our friends who are displaced and the ones who help already so much. We will meet on Friday the 28th March in CCF Building, Naro Moru, and would like to apeal to anyone who is able to give something towards this project.

We are not so keen to take money, but have decided that we would use the money towards school uniforms for the Naro Moru Primary School. Most displaced people have no money to afford uniforms and the kids at school stick out at school just for that reason.

And of course for our treeplanting projects. What has this to do with the environment, you might ask? A lot. Peace in this country will be a long process, since peace has to enter the hearts of the people again. With what happened here, this is very difficult, especially when you are the one who has lost, witnessed and experienced all this misery that other people might just have seen on the news.

We would like to make a point from our side of the country and ask for a countrywide tree-planting action. We would like to plant trees for each other. We call our action "Trees for Peace". We would like to unite the people of Kenya through tree-planting. Maybe one small way to do something towards Kenya's peace process.

We are aiming to spread our plan over the next few years throughout Kenya and will plant wherever we can. In order to achieve all this we need some assistance. Please help us with a small donation. With 25 Euros (2500Ksh) for example we can plant at least a 100 trees. But also one tree counts, 25 Euro cents or 25Ksh.

On Friday 28th March we will plant a demo tree in Naro Moru and if you have time and are in the country, please come and join us. Otherwise you can make your donations to myself, Sarah or Ian. Thanks so much for your help!

Looking forward to see you at our next meeting

Time, 9.00 am, end 1 pm

Petra and Sarah

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Upper Hill Campsite has moved

Mark Fairweather emails news about Upper Hill Campsite (p.119):

"The campsite is closing on Saturday 1st March 2008 and re-locating to Othaya Road (up Argwings Kohdek Rd, buses 46 to Othaya Rd/Valley Arcade. Matatu 48 to Swedish Dental Clinic)"

Our review says:
A small, relaxed campsite, very popular with overlanders. There are dorms and double rooms, hot showers, a kitchen, a bar and a restaurant. Tent rental is inexpensive and security is good.

Kitui and Nzambani rock

A nice email from Peace Corps volunteer Nick Demille, based in Kajiado in Maasai-land, about a recent trip in the Akamba country, east of Nairobi. His thoughtful blog Salamu Kenya! is well worth a visit.

"If you're looking for "deluxe accommodation" in Kitui, head for the Parkside Villa. You'll find sprawling grounds, several bars, a playground for the kids, a great sound system and Kitui's best nyama choma [roast meat]. The rooms are small but clean, and they have mosquito nets and hot showers when the electricity is up. A room for the night cost 700 shillings (£5/$10), but if you need a quiet break from the road, this is it. The grounds are on the north side of town past a school for the blind, but simply asking locals will get you there as it's tucked back on a side road. If you're feeling a bit more adventurous, and want to rub elbows with the local crowd, head down the hill from the end of the tarmac surface and across from the Pastoral Center to Kitui’s own Tourist Hotel. This is a clean and comfortable guest house where 400 shillings buys you a bed with a mosquito net and hot water for bathing. They also have a rather nice garden patio bar area where lively locals, Akamba music and a pool table can be found – as well as Kitui's coldest Tuskers. They also serve breakfast her, included in the rate, and the staff are friendly.

Approaching the Tourist Hotel, you can see an enormous, oddly sited boulder on the eastern horizon – Nzambani rock. This prized local attraction makes a great half-day excursion. If you have a few hours, head out onto the dusty Mombasa road, just down from the Kitui Medical College, and catch yourself a matatu headed east to Chuluni. On the way you pass through the town of Wikilili (several small stores, and some good places to catch a quick bite to eat – not gourmet cuisine, but cheap and with exceptionally friendly service). Once you're in Chuluni, ask the matatu tout to drop you at the road to Nzambani rock, where, you should be able to see the conspicuous landmark. From the road – a wide, dirt single track heading into the bush – you get the most stunning views. Once you get nearby, you see that you have to pay to climb the boulder, but but it's very much up for discussion – haggle like you would for anything, and don't pay more than Ksh200.

There's a final ¼ mile to walk to the base of a rickety metal staircase scaling the rock. The concrete and steel supports are loose and decaying, and the entire structure sways in the wind, so take care. Once on top, you can wander freely, soaking in the panoramic views across the district. To the west you look towards the hills of Machakos, and to the east is the South Kitui National Reserve. This is Wakambani at its best, scattered with small villages and chiefs' camps. The boulder isn't a must-see, perhaps, but it makes for an unforgettable little back roads adventure.

Local Akamba legend has it that if you run round the top of Nzambani seven times, you will change sex – fortunately, there's no danger of accidentally performing this unappealing feat. More prosaically, there's a small snackbar on the summit, but it doesn't offer much and is often closed. As well as bringing plenty of sunscreen, glasses and hats then (there's no shelter from the equatorial sun, and you will want to linger for photos), you'll want to bring snacks and drinks."

Photo © Nick Demille

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Kenya: anyone got a vision?

What a disaster. What a self-inflicted nightmare.

There's too much to say and too much backstory already for any sort of "commentary" here, now, but the former anti-corruption tsar, John Githongo, now based in Britain and apparently an angry and disgusted man, has written this succinct piece in this week's Time magazine. Who knew that Gordon Brown had been so active in helping to broker a compromise?

Photo: Mombasa highway, near Makindu

It's not the first time it's happened. Kenya has never been an "oasis of stability and peace" as the mainstream media kept reporting (there were few headlines when hundreds were killed by the police in a gang crackdown in Nairobi last summer). For forty years it's been a seething mess of contradictions, held together, and even made to prosper in parts, by some of the nicest, most forgiving, most patient people in the world. There was an explosion of ethnic tension in 1992 in the run-up to the first "democratic" elections, which Daniel Arap Moi managed to win. I remember driving one evening back across the Rift Valley, from Kakamega to Naivasha, and the fires of burning huts were clearly visible out on the plateau, especially south of Eldoret. I didn't feel personally threatened. There were no barricades - the violence was happening in the countryside, not in the towns. It's reckoned at least 3000 people were killed in ethnic clashes during the 1990s, and around 300,000 displaced. So the recent violence isn't quite so bad (though it happened very quickly, very brutally, and under a lot of media attention which wasn't there to the same degree in the 1990s), but the refugee problem is much greater this time – as many as half a million people – and the political/ethnic demarcations much more starkly mapped.

Meanwhile, although the country is suffering terribly because the tourist industry has collapsed, it's clear that tourists themselves are not in any danger, and I've not heard any reports of tourists physically harmed during the recent troubles. In fact, people who have been visiting, seem to report a better time than ever, with very quiet conditions. Have a look at this feedback from recent guests at one of my favourite camps, Kicheche in the Mara. If there was ever a time when a country needed you to visit on holiday, it's Kenya, in 2008. Now if the Foreign Office travel advisory would just catch up. . .

Photo: staff at Il Ngwesi lodge, Laikipia

If Time pull the article at some point, here's the text:
Kenya: From the Ground Up
March 17, 2008 By JOHN GITHONGO

The ethnic political violence that convulsed Kenya after disputed elections on Dec. 27 shattered the nation's image as an oasis of calm in a turbulent corner of Africa. Perhaps no one was more shocked — or had more to lose — than members of Kenya's middle class, who seemed comfortably ensconced in Westernized modernity after more than 40 years of economic growth without major political trauma. They watched as ethnic clashes left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, and as those decades of hard-earned economic progress threatened to unravel. The violence had assumed an unsettling ethnic character that saw neighbor turn against neighbor with machetes and other crude weapons. As militia mobilized on both sides, Kenyans began to self-segregate along ethnic lines.

It took an unprecedented concert of international diplomatic pressure, united behind former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to force Kenya back from the precipice. In a power-sharing deal, opposition leader Raila Odinga will now serve as Prime Minister while the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki will remain in that post. All of Africa and Kenya's friends abroad breathed a sigh of relief when the deal was signed.

If the peace is to hold, however, it is important to understand the forces underlying it — to recognize that Kenya's near-death experience was caused not by ethnicity alone, but by its toxic mix with politics. Because Kenya's constitution vests disproportionate powers in the presidency, the ethnic group to which a President belongs — in Kibaki's case, the Kikuyu — has typically been seen as the beneficiary of unequal access to justice and economic opportunity. Combine this with a corrupt political élite given to extravagant displays of consumption, and it is no wonder that powerful resentments have built up in Kenyan society, not least among the Luo who backed Odinga. In this environment, even Kenya's booming economy — with growth surpassing 6% in 2007 — adds fuel to the fire. Many Kenyans felt that this prosperity was passing them by while others were getting more than their fair share. Ethnic inequality is a dangerous and highly effective tool for politicians keen to whip up resentment.

Annan's mediation process did two critical things: it temporarily stopped the violence and it created an opportunity to resolve some of Kenya's fundamental problems. We now have a coalition government that was forced on the Kenyan political élite by the international community. Had it not been for the vigorous intervention of Kenya's neighbors, and of the wider world — particularly Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who worked the phones ceaselessly — the belligerents would not have set aside their differences. The upside of this is that the Kenyan crisis has empowered the region and the African Union to intervene robustly when things go badly wrong in an important member country. The downside is that the giant sucking sound when the Annan deal was signed was Kenya's sovereignty being flushed into the global diplomatic ether. As a Kenyan, I worry that it could take a long time for us to regain our confidence in our ability to manage our own affairs without robbing ourselves silly, turning on each other along ethnic lines, and practicing a politics of brinkmanship. For our leaders, we can only hope that the humbling experience of international intervention will prove instructive as well.

In order to work, the new arrangement first has to remain in place — no mean feat given the pressures it is meant to dispel. A critical test will be what the coalition government does to facilitate the speedy return home of more than 300,000 displaced Kenyans from all ethnic groups — women and children in particular. The title deeds they hold to land now occupied by others must be honored; if they are not, the viability of the Kenyan state and the rule of law itself will be called into question.

The new situation carries with it risk and opportunity. Cynics can argue that the coalition government has pooled all of Kenya's rotten political eggs into one noxious basket, and is therefore bound to fail. On the other hand, Kenya stared into the abyss and was finally pulled back. That presents a chance to refashion the Kenyan state itself and to address the systemic issues — inequality, land rights, corruption and the constitution — that gave rise to the crisis in the first place.

John Githongo is Kenya's former anticorruption chief and a fellow at Oxford University
© Time magazine