The trek from Mombasa to Nairobi is ten hours by bus. You’ll be driving every now and then through small towns and cities in between long stretches of mountains, plains, and trees. At the beginning of the drive, you’ll pass through an African wild park, maybe even see in the far distance some brownish-red objects that someone will note are elephants. You’ll probably pause at a rest stop where flies buzz over open-roasted chicken and water is hawked alongside your bus window. You don’t want to go the bathroom at a rest stop. You’d rather just wait to go in the bush at some point.
You’ll be awe-struck by the beauty of the Kenyan countryside — the reddish-brown earth, the locally raised farm crops, the sun setting over uninterrupted plains of wild grasslands. It makes you feel that the world is small; after all, the scene passing before you could be some drive in America, except in America you wouldn’t find people jay-walking the freeways.
The most striking part is when you bump through towns. Open-air markets line the roads; fruits, vegetables, shoes, necklaces, souvenirs lay stagnant in the beating sun before men and women sitting behind their wares, waving fans and hands at the flies and heat. Pooled, dirty water is reflected in the ruts in the ground, run through by the wheels of wagons, bicycles, and motorbikes. People stand in the doorway of small shops crammed together, decorated with advertisements from global companies; Coca-Cola screams at you from every corner; signs for MPesa, Safaricom, and Zuku plaster the walls. People sit on doorsteps, people run along the road, people run through the road paying no heed to oncoming traffic. People, people, everywhere.
Tusker, the Kenyan beer, is ubiquitous. It’s precisely what you need. You get a four-pack at a rest stop and sip reflectively as you rush past stark poverty. You are here with good intentions. You are an American wanting to give the world some positive karma. But as you drive through the country, you are not inspired. You are overwhelmed.
You are privileged. You are humbled. You are thankful for Tusker beer.
You have always identified yourself as an American. But here, they insist otherwise. There is a certain stigma attached to the color of your skin. You are still treated as a mzungu, a white person, simply because you are non-African. You can walk right into nice hotels because you look “elite.” You are reminded, as you duck into a ritzy-ass bathroom, of your privilege. This whole trip is an experience in privilege. At the same time, you experience a weird form of discrimination. Nothing too serious, but nonetheless disconcerting.
You roll around in Matatus, vans that serve as buses. They’re ridiculously cheap and efficient. Some of them blast loud music and are decorated with lights. So basically, you pay pennies and change to bump through town in a party bus all day. The youth speak Sheng, a slang language that is a mix of Swahili and English. It cuts you off from any hope of understanding.
Ethnic lines are more starkly drawn than you expected. What football team do you support? you ask one young man. “I am a Luhya, and I support the AFC Leopards,” he tells you proudly. You wouldn’t support the Gor Mahia? you ask. NO. That team is for Luos. You must always support your home team. Say, you are from California. You would not root for a Seattle team, no? As a die-hard SoCal fan, you nod that this is true. Ethnic identity in Kenya has just been equated to regional identity in the States.
You realize identity is arbitrary. Identity pride, especially when you’re young, is irrational. And yet, identity rules politics here. Increasing urbanization has led the youth to lose their identities, laments one older man. “They are losing their mother tongues,” he tells you. But students at the university say otherwise. Perhaps inter-tribal marriage will diffuse ethnic tensions. Perhaps urbanization and “losing culture” is the answer to ethnic troubles in Kenya. You hear reminders of the 2007 elections. We shall never repeat that, they vow. We shall not do like our parents. The nation shall not hurt like that again.
You have hope. This is why they say the future lies in the youth. They are eager for change. It may be because you are talking to students in a university setting. You have not gotten the average person’s perspective. But still. You have hope.