A weathered taxi pulled up to the gas station. The slightly disheveled, middle-aged driver stepped out into the early morning drizzle and straightened his hat. One of the pump attendants recognized him with a broad smile and the two men greeted each other.
“Eh, Kenya mpya!”
An odd greeting for a Saturday morning.
” … tutaona”
“… eh, pole pole.”
They exchanged a few gentle words before the cab driver bade farewell and ducked into the station store.
Kenya mpya. New Kenya. Not good morning, not how are you, but “New Kenya.” “We will see. Yes, little by little.”
On August 4th, Kenya voted in a constitutional referendum. The proposed amendments had been part of the public debate for the last six months and part of the political maneuverings for much longer. Many feared that the vote would spark violence simliar to the massive post-election violence of 2008. In fact, the debate already had triggered some clashes. In May, a small bomb went off during a “Vote NO” rally in the central park. Both backers and detractors had strong voices urging the people to vote. When the referendum day came, the people voted quietly in favor of the constitutional changes. Voted in peace. It was a hopeful and tentative step. The government discouraged any particular party from celebrating in the week immediately after the referendum. Carry on as usual – treat the losers with respect. On August 27th, it was time to ratify the amendments. An official ceremony complete with speeches, music, and cameras was planned to take place in the central park. The government declared the day a national holiday and thousands of people showed up downtown. That was yesterday. The day passed in peace, and this morning the greeting was not “Jambo,” but “Kenya mpya!” – New Kenya.
Later in the evening, I went for dinner at a friend’s apartment. A handful of others had been invited. Except for one, we were a roomful of outsiders – long-term visitors to Kenya. We represented a smattering of countries from multiple continents: Asia, Europe and North America. Inevitably the subject of the referendum came up in conversation and the tone was cynical. “They voted in the amendments, but what does that mean? The politicians are corrupt anyway so there are bound to be loopholes. And do you think they will actually enforce it? Now there’s the real question. Yeah, it’s bound to be more of the same.”
Sitting there, sipping my drink by candlelight in a room of fellow foreigners, I was struck by the grim cynicism in their words and my thoughts. I looked at the one Kenyan in the room and wondered, but he sat quietly and didn’t contribute. I realized in that moment that cynicism is ugly – especially on an outsider. Who am I to condemn the future of a community based on its past? Or even on its present. Hope is powerful, especially when it comes from within. Perhaps today will indeed be the start of a new Kenya, but the change cannot be seen until it has happened. Like all births, the eventual reality takes time to unfold. As the men said: little by little, we will see.