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Doug: “A state of war”

September 21, 2011

This is how one governmental leader described the series of events over the last week here in Kenya on the news last night. Though a formal conflict has not broken out in the country, the seemingly endless death toll that has emerged in the last seven days has been heart wrenching. But even more frustrating than the series of events themselves is how preventable each accident could have been with better regulation by the Kenyan government. Many of the Kenyans that I’ve talked to, rather than showing sympathy, have expressed more of a weary resignation, saying things like, “Us Kenyans, we never learn…”

Tomorrow is the official mass burial for the 100+ victims of the Sinai gas pipeline disaster. This horrific accident occurred last Monday, at around 9AM, and even made it onto international news stations. Essentially a gas pipeline running underneath the residential slum of Sinai (near Nairobi) burst, after which residents rushed to get containers to collect the free fuel. Tragically, something (people think possibly a cigarette) turned the scene into a blazing fire pretty quickly. The images were almost post-apocalyptic looking, with houses near the gas leak incinerated in seconds. As more bodies were found, Kenyans demanded justice (relatives of victims are now suing both the Kenyan Pipeline Company and the Kenyan government). But one question kept emerging: Did Sinai need to happen? Articles resurfaced from as early as February 2009, in which residents in the slum were told of the dangers of where their homes were located, but refused to move. Also the pipe that burst was over 30 years old, way over the life expectancy for pipelines. One of the major differences I have noticed after living for a month here in Kenya is the lack of effective governmental regulation in so many different sectors in life. In America, despite how much we complain about partisan politics, we place a huge amount of faith in our government to get things done. And oftentimes they deliver. If there is a huge pothole on the highway, usually it is repaved over within a week or two. If there is a water main burst, someone is there to repair it within the day.

But in Kenya (which is considered one of the more relatively advanced African countries) oftentimes those people never show up. Like in the case of Sinai, why was the pipeline not replaced after 30 years? Moreover, how could the Kenyan government not know that this pipeline was due to burst soon? Or if they did know, why did they not move residents away? After all, isn’t one of the sole roles of a government to protect its people?

But the tragedy did not stop at Sinai. Earlier this week another thirteen people lost their lives as a bus lost control trying to pass another car in Mwingi. This is just another addition to the long list of causalities resulting from one of Kenya’s most pressing problems at the moment:  failure to control road safety. Earlier, I wrote a blog post about how crazy matatus (essentially small vans used for transportation) are to ride in. At the time, I thought it was kinda scary but fun, an exciting new experience in Kenya. But now I am realizing how dangerous transportation in Kenya truly is—claiming so many unnecessary lives every year. Many roads are falling apart, while some (those built by the Chinese) are brand new. Seatbelts? Who needs ‘em. Speed limits? Hardly ever even seen a sign for them. Traffic lights and stop signs? Why even bother to obey something if you know you won’t get a ticket for failing to? This is the mentality that the government of Kenya is struggling (failing) to control.

Then, to make matters worse, a few days ago, four more people died in Kiambu after consuming the illicit Chang’aa brew, a cheap, illegal, alcoholic beverage (oftentimes containing ethanol) that has been blinding those who consume it and even killing others. Kibaki (the President of Kenya) ordered an official crackdown on the brewing of the drink last week, but what does that actually mean? The communities affected by this brew are usually those living in poverty, since the drink is so cheap, and they are fed up. These poor areas, the slums, are often the ones who pay the penalty for governmental oversight. Huge crowds (mainly women) stormed suspected pubs, smashing bottles, outraged that some of their husbands suffered the consequences of this unregulated drink.

As an American student who has just started learning about Kenya in the past year, I’m trying to understand why Kenya continues to have these problems after 60 years of independence, and what led to them; but it’s not easy. I’m starting to understand how immensely complicated this field of development is, and how many different factors play into a country’s attempts to alleviate poverty.  But amidst all this sorrow there is still great hope. I went last week with several friends to donate blood at Kenyatta Hospital—the main hospital where many of the burn victims from the Sinai fire were receiving treatment. The number of Kenyans who had showed up to donate blood was inspiring. And though that experience (though perfectly safe) probably banned me from giving blood in the US ever again, it was uplifting to see the support Kenyans had for other Kenyans.

And so life in Kenya pushes onward. Only time will tell what the next 3 months will bring, but undoubtedly it will continue to open my eyes to this country that is, for now, my home.

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