My interest in Africa began at age of eleven, when I met a Kenyan who was studying at Antioch College. Alphonse Okuku was living with the Ernest Morgan family, the founders of the little boarding school, The Arthur Morgan School (named for Ernest’s famous and influential father), I was attending. Ernest and Elizabeth’s son Lee brought Alphonse down to the school sometime in the fall of 1963. I was fascinated by the young man, who seemed so idealistic and pure.
The next spring, perhaps having taken note of my fascination with Alphonse, another Antioch student, one of those working at the school as part of their college studies, gave me a book, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. I took it with me as my family left for a year in Thailand—and devoured it.
Over the next few years, other books on Africa came my way, including Jean-Pierre Hallet’s Congo Kitabu and a book on ballooning over Kenya, Anthony Smith’s Jambo. But my interest in Africa eventually waned—there was growing turmoil at home. I did take note, however, of the assassination of Alphonse’s brother, Tom Mboya, in 1969. A Pan-Africanist and independence leader, Mboya was of the generation that had come to adulthood after World War II in Africa, many of them educated abroad and bringing their skills back home to countries just beginning to try to take control of their own destinies.
I didn’t know it, but Alphonse had been with his brother just minutes before the assassination.
They had been close—and I’ve been told that Alphonse looked very like his brother. They grew up about an hour from Nairobi, in Thika, made famous in Europe and America by Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika. They were Luos, though, from a family originating on Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria, not far from Homa Bay. Mboya is buried there, in a mausoleum meant to celebrate the promise he exemplified.
Alphonse took me there in 1990—and is now buried there.
Though my interest in Africa had been eclipsed by, well, the 1960s, it reasserted itself in the 1980s, thanks to a girlfriend who dumped me in favor of a Peace Corps posting in Benin. In a vain attempt to rekindle the relationship, I spent a month visiting her in 1984. Though the affair had died, my fascination with the continent rekindled.
So, a little more than a year later, I arrived in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso as a Fulbright lecturer. I loved it there, and signed up for a second year. On my return to the United States, all I could think of was getting back to Africa, so I followed my ex-girlfriend once more, joining Peace Corps, which sent me to Togo, a country bordering both Benin and Burkina Faso.
While there, I began to wonder about Alphonse—and looked him up during one of my trips to Lomé (the country’s capital), finding that he had gone into politics, even becoming a member of Daniel arap Moi’s cabinet. I found an address for him and wrote him.
He wrote back, inviting me to visit him if I ever crossed the continent to Kenya.
And so I did.
By the time I arrived in 1990, Alphonse had left government. He told me that KANU (the Kenya African National Union—arap Moi’s political party) ran in his veins but that he just wanted to attend to his new business, a lumber concern assisted by a land-usage grant from the government. Political tension was high: A Luo politician had died in an auto “accident” shortly before I arrived in Kisumu, where I met Alphonse’s wife before leaving with him to visit Rusinga and see his new business.
Alphonse impressed me quite a bit. He had worked for the UN for years before entering Kenyan politics, was clearly a kind man, and knowledgeable on world and development issues. I didn’t say so, but I regretted that he was out of politics—and suspected his own Luo heritage had something to do with it.
The only thing I didn’t like about Alphonse was his driving. He had a little Isuzu SUV that he spun along dirt tracks at outrageous speed leaving my knuckles white.
The political corruption of Kenya was quite clear during my visit, and ethnic rifts were obvious causes for concern. But the country is beautiful and bountiful. If it continued to produce men like Alphonse, I thought as I left, it would probably make its way. Sure, Alphonse was taking advantage of political privilege for his business and, yes, he responded to the strengths of his ethnic ties, but Alphonse was a Kenyan first. Thika, after all, is Kikuyu country—and his wife was from Mombasa. I doubt she could have been Luo. Compared to the West African countries where I had spent most of the last five years, however, Kenya seem poised for an explosion of success.
But hope, all too often, gets overtaken by events. In 1994, Alphonse died in an auto accident. It may have been a simple accident (Alphonse’s driving, after all, made every experience with him at the wheel an adventure), but he had recently broken with KANU, joining a Luo-based political party. As “accidents” have been a tried-and-true way of removing opposition in Kenya, the timing of his death so soon after his political “conversion” raises questions, to say the least. Whatever the cause of the accident, however, Kenya lost another of the leaders with the ability and dedication necessary for changing the course towards self-destruction it seemed to have decided upon.
Seems to have decided upon.
Today, they are saying that hundreds have been killed in the disturbances following contested election results. In Eldoret, a church filled with Kikuyus joined together for protection in that Luo-dominated town, was torched yesterday, burning to death dozens and raising specters of Rwanda.
I don’t know if there is much we in America can do to stop the violence and change Kenya’s route, but we have stood by way too often over the years since I moved back to the United States. Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Sudan, Congo, Zimbabwe and more: The situations in Africa continue to devolve, though there are bright spots (Benin and Mali, for example).
Hand-wringing of the sort I am doing right now as I listen to what is happening in Kenya and dread what might happen tomorrow will do no good. I know that. But, if enough of us make it be known that we are paying attention, then it might become clear that our governments will have to pay attention, putting pressure on the Kenyan government to take the radical action that may be the only way to save the country. Possibly, a continuation of the crisis can be averted.
Do what you can, even if it is as little as a blog post.