You know what they say about crap flowing downstream.
They must be talking about Moammar Qaddafi and his “invitation” to “relocate” to “Three Rivers”: Burkina Faso, where the Black Volta (Mouhoun), White Volta (Nakambé), and Red Volta (Nazinon) literally meet.
Honestly, I prefer the Lower Volta, on the Ghanaian coast toward Togo. Where farmers raise shrimp and shallots. Where learning the language, Ewe, is easy and fun, and comes with this finger-snapping handshake that’s like dancing: you can do it only if the other person does it at the same time. Where the same people invite you to (Christian) churches for weddings and (animist) shrines for funerals.
But enough about Ghana for today. We’re headed to the Upper Volta, getting the 411 on a country that not many people outside of the African Union have opinions about, or could even find on a map.
Now, if it were me, I’d fly to Accra and travel 250 kilometers/155 miles ‒ a mere 7 hours by bus ‒ north to Kumasi. Spend the night at a guest house on a dirt road, run by 2 widows who cook suspicious fish, questionable porridge, and untouchable tomatoes. The next morning, I’d take another bus north…until people started speaking French.
(But, Moammar, since you’re you and you’re driving, point your Mercedes caravan south-west through Niger for 4,800 kilometers/3,000 miles to Burkina Faso’s capitol city, Ouagadougou. I hope you have AC; it’ll be 35C/95F and 90% humidity. At least.)
I can tell you right now, learning French will be a major challenge. I’ve been to French school and French teachers don’t mess around. I doubt you have much of a gift for languages because when you speak on Arab TV, you’re subtitled in Arabic. (Qaddafi speaks a Libyan dialect, so even Arabs from other countries can’t really understand him.)
First up, new lodgings for you. Remember that seaside villa previously owned by your son Saif al-Islam, with the infinity pool like you see in Architectural Digest? Nothing like that.
Something modest, overlooking the savannah.
Take heart. Eventually, you’ll be looking out at the Mediterranean Sea again…through prison bars. Better yet, looking out at the North Sea from the Cour Pénale Internationale in The Hague.
Meanwhile, lose the brocade robes and get some chickens, for brochettes de poulet later. Nobody in Burkina Faso will look at you twice. If you’re living large in Ouagadougou with all that gold and cash you smuggled out of Libya over the decades, especially in a 4-star hotel that until recently had a portrait of you hanging in the lobby, you might as well wear an “Escaped Dictator” sign on your back because some average guy earning $1 a day is going to take the Libyan opposition up on its generous finder’s fee.
Since the Burkina Faso government recognized Libya’s National Transitional Council last month and Interpol has a Red Notice out on you, staying inconspicuous might mean doing some of your own cooking. I know you’ll be homesick for Sharba Libiya (because I am, too): a spicy lamb soup so easy I recommend it to helpless dictators.
Start with vegetable ghee, “samn” in Arabic. You could use oil, so why ghee? Simple food chemistry. You can fry at a much higher temperature without setting off all your smoke alarms.
Sear pieces of lamb ‒ good color outside, still raw inside. (Properly cooked lamb is PINK, people, not brown). Add parsley, onion, and tomatoes. Just enough water to cover ‒ no need for veal stock ‒ and bring to a boil. When you add the orzo, ajoute aussi un peu de persil et des feuilles de coriandre.
Season generously with cayenne pepper, salt, and cinnamon. Or hararat, this great Libyan spice mix you can make yourself, or buy at an ethnic grocery store….by the kilo.
Literally as the soup bowls leave the kitchen, and not a moment sooner, add mint ‒ crushed dry is fine, shredded fresh is best ‒ and a splash of fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
For anybody but you, Moammar, I’d make mhalbiya (rice pudding) for dessert. Libyans flavor it with ‘atr (geranium extract), but orange blossom water will do.
Then I’d make some ka’k hilu (Libyan pretzels with sesame and fennel seeds) for myself.
At Le Cordon Bleu, we learned to drink while we cooked and, compared to the fundamentals of Islam and humanity you’ve already obliterated, this sin hardly even registers. Try the Burkinabè specialty banji, palm wine (fermented palm sap), partaken liberally by the 40% non-Muslims in this secular country. Or, if you’re still on the wagon, there’s always zoomkoom, a non-alcoholic “soft drink” made with millet flour.
Think really watery pancake batter flavored with lemon, ginger, and sometimes tamarind.
You might be in Burkina Faso for awhile and, for all the wrong reasons, you’ll give thanks for every meal. Just imagine if you’d sought exile in Russia!
There’s great Burkinabè cuisine in Paris, if you know where to look, and I do.
La Goutte d’Or is a gritty neighborhood in 18ème. At the famous Marché Barbès, in daylight and with local African friends, I buy more than I can realistically carry on the Métro of colorfully exotic, embarrassingly cheap ingredients you can’t find anywhere else in Paris.
Since it’s just as risky to shop when you’re hungry, we’re at the restaurant Etoile de Burkina near Place Hébert. On August 4.
Accidentally celebrating the anniversary of the Burkina Faso revolution. Learning why Burkinabè cuisine is called “l’émotion par les sens.” Sharing food with people who aren’t even at our table.
Riz gras, Burkina Faso’s national dish: rice cooked in fat with tomatoes and spices. Tô, bitter millet dough, with gombo (okra sauce) and yams on the side. Pan-fried fish, their beady eyes staring up at me from the plate.
Foufou, which in East Africa we call ugali: grits without butter or salt, formed into pasty polenta-like cakes. Brochettes upon towers of brochettes beside bowls upon bowls of delicious sauces.
Then a Burkinabè spin on a Sénégalese classic: Poulet Yassa.
Chicken stew with garlic, generous lemon, super generous onion, and any orphan vegetables you find hanging around. Mustard, if you can believe that. Red Hot Chili Peppers, which isn’t just a band.
Served with a Mòoré garnish, to celebrate: “Laafi bala!” (Peace! Health!)
You know you’re back…when you’re back on Twitter.
After months of no Internet service in Libya, and not much interesting to post anyway, suddenly this week…signs of life!
On Tuesday, the formerly state owned (but now opposition controlled) ISP went live with a 3-word message: “Libya, one tribe.”
Immediately, someone tweeted: #egypt 18 days #tunisia 29 days #libya 186 days…
… #syria 159 days (and counting)!
Call it the Twitter Freedom Countdown, or the Middle Eastern Dictator Eviction Notice.
Nice to hear that great ol’ Arab Spring humor hasn’t changed, meantime: “It’s safe to assume that ol’ Moamar is having a bad hair week.”
After months of back and forth between the Qaddafi army and the opposition forces and no sustainable progress on either side ‒ leaving NATO wondering that if 20,000 sorties wouldn’t cause this regime to fold, then what would it take exactly ‒ the rebels made a breakthrough and knocked over Tripoli even faster than they expected to themselves.
In the last several months, the rebels have slowly transitioned themselves from a rag-tag group of untrained, undisciplined civilians ‒ definitely not their fault that they’d chosen other careers, never imagining becoming soldiers ‒ to an organization cohesive enough to implement military advice from Libyan and allied advisers and to seed armed sympathizers within Tripoli to cast a well-orchestrated deciding blow.
Now there’s a $2 million bounty on Qaddafi’s head. Hey, for that kind of money, I’ll throw in his 2 nitwit sons for free!
Even though Qaddafi is still on the run, life is going on just fine without him, as foreign governments and Libyans alike act as if he wasn’t even there. The National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi, now recognized by the Arab League as the sole legal representative of the Libyan people, wasted no time in announcing their relocation to the nation’s capitol.
Half of our team moved in mid-week. Many thanks for having office space organized for us in advance.
“I declare the beginning and assumption of the executive committee’s work in Tripoli,” said Vice-Chairman Ali Tahuni yesterday. “Long live democratic and constitutional Libya and glory to our martyrs.”
(In a touching sign of solidarity, the Libyan embassy in London has been flying the Syrian flag alongside its own, just as Tunisia did for Libya back in the day. “Libya has increased our resolve,” say Syrian activists, in this, their 24th consecutive week of protests, to the well-chosen theme for the last Friday of Ramadan: the Friday of Patience and Persistence.
From the demonstration in Bab il-Sbaa’, Homs: “We are like everyone else, looking for our place under the free sun.” Today Qaddafi, tomorrow Bashar.)
So, please send that check for $1.5 billion of our un-frozen assets to our new HQ, so we can start feeding some people around here…although hold that thought because we’ve just discovered a huge regime stockpile of food, enough to feed the population of Tripoli twice over.
For a year!
It’s telling how many commentators have called Libya the “anti-Iraq.” Certainly many countries, none more so than the USA, can learn from Iraq how not to go about a regime change.
For example, we’re not firing from their jobs and automatically ostracizing everyone who has worked for the regime ever, whether they liked it or not, which would be anyone not named Qaddafi.
Policemen, please keep policing. (At our request, the UN will send experts to help us organize proper security.) Teachers, keep teaching. Oil workers, keep drilling.
…and for the first time in months, you’ll actually be getting paid to do this!
Doctors, keep treating, and we’re working 24×7 to restore electricity and water to all the hospitals because we know you’re overrun with injured, who are barely hanging on alongside the 100s of long-dead.
The provisional government has already proclaimed no reprisals (and no destruction of public property). This might be hard to implement, since Amnesty International says there were crimes against humanity committed on both sides of this conflict. However, immediate priorities are stability of this newborn free society and getting the oil business back running at full capacity, which the NTC says will take about a year.
Sure, there will be trials, and punishments, up to and including the International Criminal Court ‒ as soon as you track down ex-“Brother Leader” Muammar and his ex-heir-apparent Saif al-Islam, please give us a call and we’ll send somebody from The Hague to collect them ‒ my guess is there will also be an amnesty plan, even for some of the armed forces.
NTC Deputy Chief Mahmoud Jibril said it best: “All Libyans have a responsibility today to protect their safety, what they own, and [my emphasis] they must even protect those who have hurt us.”
One of the finest mental images of the week was of rebels ransacking the Qaddafi compound ‒ containing treasures beyond their wildest dreams, bought over the past 40 years with their money ‒ and driving off into the sunset with 4 of Saif’s expensive sports cars.
But it’s not over ‘til it’s over, say cooler heads, prevailing. Qaddafi and his family are still at large, his hometown of Sirte has not yet fallen, and regime sympathizers ‒ some of them snipers, with plenty of ammo left in the clip ‒ are still holding out in hotbed neighborhoods in south Tripoli, hoping for a miracle Qaddafi will never deliver.
But you will. Plenty of time for that victory lap.
Dear vegetarian visitors (from the most impolite hosts since the dawn of civilization, which makes complete sense, since we’re in Kenya): did I mention we have dinner reservations at Carnivore?
Trust us, it’s a can’t-miss Nairobi restaurant experience. The goal: to eat every roasted meat imaginable and to meet every expatriate and safari-bound tourist in the city.
All in one night.
Oh. I guess you’ll be participating only in the people-watching part. Sorry about that. Sure your dietary preferences don’t include wildebeest?
I’m definitely not a vegetarian, but a little meat goes a long way. I prefer meat as a garnish for lots of vegetables, Japanese-style.
Carnivore serves meat as a garnish, too…for other meat.
Best to put aside your animal rights and conservation concerns for this one night because some of the wild game that sometimes appears on Carnivore’s menu a) I thought was endangered, or b) I’ve never heard of, so might already be near extinction. People who worry about that too much go hungry and I don’t plan to do that.
Which proves that everybody has a price and, when it comes to food, mine is pretty low.
For beverages, too.
Elsewhere in Kenya, it’s somewhere between frowned upon and forbidden for women to drink alcohol. Once my colleagues and I almost got in serious trouble for smuggling a bottle of cheap red wine into our hotel, as a welcome ‒ OK, desperate ‒ alternative to orange Fanta.
Because if the highly questionable water from Lake Victoria has clogged, beyond immediate repair, your portable purifier with scary green slime and you’re “running late” (the only way it runs in Kenya), too late to locate any of that illusive, costs-the-earth bottled water, your choice is something bottled by Pepsi-Cola.
Brushing your teeth with orange Fanta after just drinking 3 bottles of it seems a little pointless. Why not try currant or lime Fanta, just for a change?
But in Nairobi, at a Western-style restaurant, you can get away with drinking anything you want. And we do.
So, 2 food groups well represented on the Carnivore menu are meat and beer. Lots of people reading this are saying, “And what’s wrong with that?” The Maasai have subsisted on meat and milk for thousands of years and are perfectly healthy and vital…and can outrun a vengeful hippopotamus while crossing a river, rather than walking the long way (12 miles, in this case) ‘round.
I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Carnivore even has its own cocktail: Dawa. In Kiswahili, “dawa” means something like Emergen-C. Not a prescribed medicine; something to maintain good health. The cocktail menu calls the Dawa a “health revival.”
I’d call it a “pick-me-up.”
The idea is to ready your taste buds for all that roasted meat and to replenish your system after a long, hot day in the sun. And the sun in East Africa is indeed unrelenting, and especially punishing for people with…as the locals often reminded us, gently: we truly don’t want your stay to be unpleasant, but let’s be honest. You have the wrong skin for here. (Please don’t ever forget your hat.)
Hydrate means it’s OK to have 3 or 4. You’re taking a taxi anyway.
Of course, Carnivore serves soups, salads, and desserts, too. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen pineapple pie and venison on the same menu.
…and vegetarian options in teeny tiny print, because, say the owners unapologetically, you have to be really dim not to get some clue from the name of the restaurant that this won’t be the optimal dining experience for you.
However, lest you get the wrong idea, vegetarians have it easy in Kenya everywhere except Carnivore, thanks to the Indian immigrants who came over 100 years ago to build the railroad and stayed to open restaurants serving some of the best potato and vegetable curry I’ve had anywhere.
So, in Kenya you’re not having to make the agonizing choice between Bambi’s mother vs. mac ‘n…tofu.
At Carnivore, you sit on the patio while you watch your meat being cooked over this absolutely enormous charcoal pit ‒ don’t sit too close ‒ on Maasai swords. The waiters then carry these swords around the restaurant to cut to order the meats of your choice.
Not the place to be a bad tipper.
Meats range from boring to outrageous. Pork spareribs. Leg of lamb. Variations on steak.
Basically any part of a chicken, including the gizzards and livers, which my mom always saved and we…oops…accidentally on purpose threw away.
Sausages of various sorts, clearly on the menu to delight ‒ at least when I’ve been there ‒ the German safari contingent.
Then the good stuff. Zebra. Ostrich. Crocodile.
My chef imagination runs wild: how exactly does one goes about butchering a crocodile into roast-able size portions? That’s above my pay grade.
I got on this subject because a South African friend of mine, his wife, and I had afternoon tea recently to plan our menu for an upcoming dinner party of South African cuisine. Almost every recipe we considered was wrapped in bacon, stuffed with bacon, or served over a bed of bacon with a bacon garnish.
Oh, and please pass the bacon while you’re up.
That’s the inevitable result of immigrants who loved meat moving to South Africa, where the locals loved meat, too. Fast-forward a few hundred years of mutual meat-eating enablement and you get more cardiologists per capita than anywhere on the continent.
For my nephew, enjoying guilt-free his third helping of beef tri-tip, that’s so far into the future it’s not worth worrying about, and it probably won’t be worth worrying about then, either. Even in pre-school, he’d look at the dinner table and demand:
“Where’s the big meat?”
“Marhaba. Abdul here. Look, I have this hot merchandise…”
Antiquities are big business. Big tourism business. Big spoils-of-war business.
Scenario #1: After I crush you ‒ or “save” you, depending on my perspective ‒ I plan to rifle through your best museums and take whatever looks expensive and desirable. (Fortunately, some of the most priceless artifacts in any museum don’t look like much, unless you know what you’re looking at.)
Scenario #2: Since the Cairo police will be occupied elsewhere for awhile and the power is out all over town, which means museum security systems are down and museum guards are probably out demonstrating at Tahrir Square anyway, what could I casually carry away in a backpack that there might be a market for elsewhere?
Later. And I’m not talking about an auction at Christie’s.
My friend Hanan in Baghdad, whose specialty is Iraqi antiquities tourism, knows all too well that maybe a few people do steal antiquities and have a change of heart, or steal on a consignment that doesn’t work out, but often antiquities that are found later were probably stolen on impulse and had to be left behind when the thieves “left town in a hurry,” or were arrested or killed.
So, after the dust settles ‒ in one case, after a family moved back into their own home after it had been hijacked by bad guys for over a year ‒ did they discover, hey, the squatters left a bunch of their stuff! This thing looks like it should be…in a museum?
We’re not art historians and we don’t recall studying this specific artifact in school, but it must be important or somebody wouldn’t have bothered to steal it. Let’s call over to the National Museum and see if they’re missing anything.
Thus, over time, priceless stolen artifacts return for study by serious people, archeologists and academics, and for enjoyment ‒ no, thrill ‒ by Indiana Jones wannabes like myself.
(Some antiquities are gone forever, we know. Into the hands of selfish private collectors, some of whom, ironically, reside in the very same region from which the artifacts are stolen in the first place.)
I remember when the Tutankhamun exhibit first came to Los Angeles when I was a kid. My Grandma Bel, from whom I got my love of cooking and history, took me to see it.
I was mesmerized.
Go ahead, ask me anything about King Tut and his crazy family. Or about the myth of Isis and Osiris. Or about Hatshepsut, Egypt’s most famous woman Pharaoh.
Ramesses III is worth talking about again lately, too, given that he seems to be the first ruler in recorded history ever to experience a labor strike…over meager food supplies, which as is turned out was partially his fault, since he fed all his favorite people first, and partially the fault of a far-distant volcanic eruption.
We’re talking around 1200 BC. Not counting artifacts from Native American tribes ‒ I like the Canadian term, First Nations ‒ the best we can do in the USA is about 400 years old.
To Egyptians, that’s last week.
Newness works for us, though, and is one of the attitudes we’ve successfully ‒ and are sometimes proud to have ‒ exported. New ideas that everybody else thinks are ‒ and we’re being nice here ‒ weird (and sometimes they’re right, right up until one of them make a billion dollars), new technological and sociological trends, new ways of working around old problems.
Egyptian Freedom By Facebook, for example.
2011 AD technology might’ve won Egyptians independence, but it’s 2011 BC artifacts and Pharaonic sites that will drive tourism in the new Egyptian market economy.
As we’re observing these new democracies emerge, the best way we can help ‒ aside from keeping a lookout in VIP airport lounges for those missing museum pieces, an effort that just screams for its own podcast, “Artifacts Most Wanted” ‒ is to visit these countries ourselves.
See natural wonders you’ve seen only on the Discovery Channel. Meet the brave people who are changing the political landscape of North Africa and the Middle East. Visit in their rightful places the antiquities of those ancient civilizations, because one way to gain valuable insight into a society is by learning about what it considers precious, and why.
Egyptians on Facebook, who’ve take lately to signing off, “From Egypt With Love,” remind us daily that tourism in Egypt is a surprisingly good value right now. 50% off the sale price!
For inexperienced travelers, maybe wait a few months and see how things shake out with the secret police, but for those of us with a few more stamps in our passports, there’s just no excuse for not stopping by.
This week. Come on, it’s Spring Break!
Dr. Zahi Awass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, is the man on the mission to make Egyptian antiquities tourism worth your while.
According to him, on the first official day of demonstrations (January 25), 8 items were stolen from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. 4 of them have since been recovered.
Probably the most recognizable of these: the limestone statue of King Akhenaten, the father of King Tut. This statue dates from the Amarna Period, which, if you’ve been out of school awhile, was in the mid 1300s BC.
One day at the demonstration, a teenage protestor in Tahrir Square found the statue of King Akhenaten and brought it home with him. His family immediately recognized it and organized its safe return.
Somebody give that kid a medal. And a scholarship in archeology.
“Dear Libyana mobile phone customer, your account has been credited with 1 million rollover minutes.”
See, when you’re coordinating a revolution online and the regime blocks Facebook, you just can’t afford to run out of minutes during a critical “how to set up your own city council” conference call with a city 800 miles away that your fellow protesters just liberated overnight.
In this spirit of democratic change, everyone contributes what they can. So, if I’m an employee of a major cellular carrier in Libya, for example, I might just hack my own employer…and top up the minutes of every customer in the country…and then tell an Al Jazeera reporter I did that, so the whole world except Qaddafi knows that, while cell service in Libya is still painfully slow and intermittent, we’re back on the grid.
Please keep trying.
Qaddafi assumed that when he shut down Libyan telecommunications services, they stayed down. He should’ve subscribed to @telecomix on Twitter, in which a worldwide collaboration of hackers, who in their day jobs are probably cruising the MI-6 intranet, have been saying (modestly) for weeks: “We come in peace. Send us your blocked sites.”
Because there’s so much news and so little time.
In 2 short weeks, Libyans have achieved the impossible: they’ve turned a violent 42-year despot into a trapped and desperate has-been, ruler of a city-state, who’s lost basically every friend he ever had.
Facebook editorial: it’s actually Qaddafi who’s achieved the impossible. “He made Mubarak look dignified and Ben Ali look like a genius.”
Here’s 1 hour’s worth of news out of Libya: we’re in full control this city, we’ve captured this airport, and we now run these radio and TV stations, so tune in at these frequencies and channels.
(Benghazi Protest Radio, which was liberated on February 18 and I’ve been listening to ever since, initially suffered from “broadcast challenges.” Every time Qaddafi’s IT department brought it down, @telecomix brought it right back up. Dozens of times. To state the obvious: “US State Dept provides $30 million for Internet Freedom; why bother when @telecomix does it better for free?”)
Currently we’re broadcasting in Arabic only, but please pass the word to qualified candidates that we have job openings for multilingual on-air talent.
Our newest offering: listen on the Internet to recorded audio clips from Libyans themselves, thanks to the Feb 17 Voices Campaign.
Bottom line, from now on, you’ll be hearing real Libyan news, not some make-believe drivel fabricated out of thin air by people keen to keep their jobs, and presumably their heads.
Reports that Qaddafi took revenge on demonstrators by poisoning the water supply thankfully turned out to be false, but he’s been taking the lowest of the low roads in other despicable and well-documented ways, including hiring non-Libyan mercenaries to attack civilians and ordering live fire, from land and air, on peaceful protesters…
…because al-Qaeda is right over there on the grassy knoll, handing out hallucinogenic drugs and ready to invade us.
But here’s Qaddafi, like Mubarak a charter member of the Low-Tech Dictators Association, who imagines that if brute force doesn’t put the fear of Allah in people, threatening to shut down all kinds of basic services will for sure. ”Ya salaam, he really thinks after trying to KILL people, threatening that the gas stations will close will scare them.”
No electricity just means that your live-at-the-demonstration iPhone photos and videos don’t have very good color contrast after dark. (You can still get great audio, though.)
Assuming landlines might stay alive for awhile, somebody proactively posted on Facebook the phone number/password for a dial-up Internet workaround for Libya via Germany via France via wherever works at the moment and while you’re busy trying to cut us off, we’re creating more and more mirrors and mirrors of everything.
Democracy Social Networking version 2.0 for North Africa and the Middle East has been on the market for weeks, with the Yemen point release due shortly, and Qaddafi hasn’t even installed version 1.0 yet.
Gotta love these late adopters.
Libya had only a few days to mull over technology “lessons learned” from the Egyptian independence movement and its aftermath, and to tweak the system to work for them, but they have a huge tactical advantage: 80 million Egyptian cheerleaders, and Egypt’s 500 million cheerleaders, providing technical advice, encouraging words, and WIDE publicity of the Libyan pro-democracy movement among its loyal worldwide following.
Not to mention the field-tested “speak2tweet,” a slick Twitter/Google/SayNow solution developed for Egypt over a weekend to deal with exactly this situation and that has become the go-to app for those super-annoying-but-ultimately-ineffective social media blackouts.
Qaddafi, making people go to all that trouble motivates them to tweet even more about all the bad stuff you’re doing. Probably not quite what you had in mind.
To other card-carrying LTDA members: this pro-democracy social media thing is just going to keep getting better and better with each sequential overthrow (of you all).
So, heads of Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iran, Morocco, Oman, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen (plus Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Uganda, whose democracy-minded citizens are looking north and giving it serious thought): heads up. You’re just about to find this out the hard way, and there’s nothing much you can do about it except a) realize your time has passed, and step down gracefully, or b) try brutalizing your own people and get the “Qaddafi Treatment.”
Turns out, Egypt had been the tech hub of the Libyan revolution before anybody realized there was going to be one. Time reported last week that people had been driving over from Libya to hit Internet cafés on the Egyptian border.
Let’s upload some incriminating photos and videos. Hand off flash drives to friends and relatives who live in Cairo or Alexandria. Smuggle out a few SIM cards while we’re here. Our very own technology chain reaction to keep the protest news flowing.
“Bluetooth to Bluetooth.” No, Qaddafi, nothing to do with dentistry.
It must’ve been all those student exit visas I approved! I never realized a couple hundred Libyan graduates of MIT and Stanford Business School could turn out to be so problematic.
As much as the Libyan population hates Dictator Sr., it’s safe to say they hate Dictator Jr. just as much. Right as he’s saying on Libyan state TV, “I speak no lies, I speak truthfully, people are trying to create another Egypt, start a Facebook revolution.” his fellow Libyans are tweeting back: “D*mn straight!”
Besides recommending that he fire his ghostwriter before his next speech…
“in case you missed it cartoon channel is showing it again tomorrow morning.”
“In London Economics School they learnt to be so stupid as Saif is?”
“He is threatening tribalism, hunger, civil war, terrorism, foreign power, Islamist, drugs, foreigners…I think he is trying to be both a Mubarak and Ben Ali.”
…and how dare you insult our friends! “I’m afraid of the Libya Egypt conflict since he threatened the Egyptian sense of humor.”
Qaddafi & Son’s latest aggressions simply emboldened the demonstrators and convinced the UN Security Council to take unprecedented steps to protect them…and their right to kick out already the guys who really are taking hallucinogenic drugs!
Colonel: only a few of your fellow Low-Tech Dictators still sing your praises, while they’re secretly opening bank accounts in Barbados and booking open-date tickets to Nicaragua. Those foolish enough not to make other plans might end up in, demonstrators warn, “the Arab Dictator Zoo we’re planning to start later.”
Meanwhile, everyone else, keep sending the same message to Libya as you did to Egypt during those last crucial days before independence.
#libya #feb17: Yalla! You can do it!
An Egyptian guy, a distance acquaintance ‒ a friend of a friend of a colleague from Nigeria ‒ who read my post Mabruk Ya Misr! and no doubt realized he’d better use very simple sentences in Arabic, wrote, “I like your blog. Please write about torture.” How to stamp out police brutality and revenge against political activists and how to help all victims of atrocities.
I responded in English, “Believe me, I plan to write about torture in Egypt. But, fair warning: I’m going to write about ALL kinds of torture, not just political. Sexual violence, trafficking, honor killings, female circumcision, etc. ALL of it.”
“Yes, yes. Please start today.” (Can’t miss that.)
I hope to graduate from Arabic kindergarten soon, but I definitely understand an insult when I hear one.
Gamal Mubarak, son of former ‒ I love the sound of that ‒ Egyptian dictator Hosni, was immortalized on YouTube in what’s got to be some of the most pathetic, ironic statements ever made by a politician.
A few hundred thousand “Facebook Kids” of all ages, from all over the world, who’d just helped boot Gamal’s dad out of office, posted on ‒ you guessed it ‒ Facebook: Who’s laughing now?
Since the Evening Standard kindly published your secret London address, Gamal, Facebook Kids are at this moment organizing a protest outside your house, demanding the return of their rightful billions. (Directions for demonstrators: Piccadilly line to Knightsbridge.)
Check your messages (by clicking the middle icon in your Facebook header, not the little people icon and not the globe icon), George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and Friends: “regime change” doesn’t require massive military brigades, we’re not really sure how many lives lost, and billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money frittered away on we’re not really sure what, over 8 long years and counting.
(There were casualties of war for Egypt’s freedom, too. Over 300 dead. More injured. An unknown number still in prison who must be released, or at least accounted for. Although it could’ve been much worse, that’s precious little comfort to those families.)
But ask Facebook Kids how to accomplish regime change in less than 1% of that time, with no cash, no backing (at their insistence), no official anything. All you need are voices, laptops, social media technology, Friends, and that critical skill about which President Obama was hassled endlessly during the 2008 election: community organizing.
The game-changer: young Egyptians, and the seamless folding in of citizens of different religions, backgrounds, social status, educations, even ethnicities, who believed change was possible.
(I found it interesting that when Iran congratulated the Muslim Brotherhood on their “Islamic Revolution,” exactly 32 years to the day after the overthrow of the Shah, they made it clear this was an Egyptian victory and the date was just a coincidence. We’ll see how they still feel about coincidences once they’re part of a coalition government.)
Here’s the nay-sayer’s view: OK, Facebook Kids, you did topple a long-entrenched dictator. We grudgingly respect your non-violent, expeditious method of accomplishing that. But what comes next? You don’t have the skills or experience to create and run a civil government in the Middle East.
You’re saying that you DO? Really?
Look at the hash you’ve made of Iraq. You guys, of all people, have no business telling Egyptians, Freedom + 1 Week, that it can’t be done.
Because Facebook Kids adore people who underestimate us, whether it be the former regime now trying unsuccessfully to find a safe place to land with their stolen billions, or a self-serving world power who screwed it up despite pretty much unlimited resources and will continue to do so until the American people and the “coalition of the (un)willing” have the nerve to yank your chain on your outrageous defense overspending in the 2011 budget that, let’s face it, a majority of which is going directly into the pockets of “the devils we know.”
Not to mention wearing out your welcome. You’re like the rude dinner guests who just won’t leave despite hints, subtle and blatant, and who think that just because you brought the biggest casserole means you get to decide when the party ends.
Tunisia gave Egypt more motivation than it probably realized at the time. Egypt’s stunning, lightning-speed success has kicked off an incredible pro-democracy domino effect that’s unfolding by the minute. Demonstrations in Yemen, Algeria, Iran, and Bahrain are leaving presidents, kings, emirs, and supreme leaders of such-and-such all over North Africa and the Middle East scrambling for cover.
Refer to the “Democracy Watch” links in my right sidebar for the latest news, video or live feed, and even annotated Google maps of where demonstrations are taking place at this very moment. Syria sentencing teenage blogger and Facebook Kid Tal al-Mallohi to 5 years in prison for writing social commentary, much like I write on this blog, could bring Syria into play shortly.
If I thought I had an iron grip on my “constituents,” I’d start looking over my shoulder to see how soon the Facebook Kids were coming for me.
For Egypt, now comes the hard part. Nobody, Egyptians least of all, questions that reality.
Not only are there political parties to be formed and a plethora of voices to be heard, there’s a lot of residual housekeeping on the to-do list. Institutionalized corruption is a hard habit to break, as is 30 years worth of cronyism. Plenty of people who Friended Mubarak are still in positions of authority and hoping to stay under the radar, although the “yes, you, too” arrests have begun.
The Egyptian police, jumping to the other side of the fence now and protesting themselves (for better pay and working conditions), still must be held to account for the innocent people they brutalized, imprisoned, and murdered pre-February 11th.
The other forms of torture I mentioned earlier, committed almost solely against women and children, will be even harder to end, since they involve much more than just law enforcement turning a blind eye.
Some persist because “Since there are never any legal consequences, I’ll do whatever I want,” same as I wrote about Kenya. Some are religiously justified and persist despite respected religious leaders saying they’re “prohibited, prohibited, prohibited” and no part of any doctrine. Some persist due to cultural norms and/or family pressure.
These problems are far bigger than today’s post, but here’s the bottom line: the ability to count on the police to call out and punish torturers ‒ whatever they’re doing, wherever they’re found ‒ will be proof that a truly democratic society is emerging in Egypt.
Facebook Kids will demand it.
Facebook Kids are pressing the caretaker military government to end torture ‒ not only those who do it with no fear of punishment, but those who stand by and watch it and do nothing ‒ and to end those despicable emergency laws. But it’s going to take a group effort ‒ Facebook Kids plus finally-with-the- democracy-program grownups ‒ to make sure those demands to end torture weren’t left behind, unresolved, in Tahrir Square.
Holding new leaders’ feet to the fire about torture in Egypt and in other emerging democracies in Africa and the Middle East is going to take everybody, everywhere. Friends of Friends of Friends times forever.
(“Congratulations, Egypt!”) I knew I studied Arabic for a reason.
Yesterday, February 11, 2011: Egypt’s Independence Day.
On January 25th, an Egyptian-American former colleague forwarded me a link to a Facebook page. “This is going to be important,” her email said.
What an incredible, beautiful underestimation.
Here’s the English version of the Arabic Facebook page that kicked off the revolution in Egypt, called “We are all Khaled Said” and administered by a guy we now know as Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian and Google marketing exec based in Dubai, whose tearful interview on Egyptian TV − here’s the New York Times version with English subtitles − the day he was released from jail made me tear up, too, and breathed new life into the revolt.
Hundreds of thousands of us have been watching, and “liking,” this page for 3 weeks, thinking this was going to be a long, drawn-out thing and it would be just as important to keep the online momentum alive as to keep the streets and squares filled with people who just weren’t going to give up, period.
Mubarak tried every tactic in his outdated playbook to avoid losing the power that had allowed him to pocket billions in stolen cash, which he’d hid partially in Swiss banks. (The Swiss, quickly realizing they were on the losing side, quickly froze his accounts.)
First he said he’d give up a few powers. Then he said he’d increase salaries by 30%. In an 11th-hour Hail Mary pass, he’d had his VP tell everyone to go home.
No, it’s YOU who should be going home, somewhere far away from Egypt and we don’t really care where. !!!ارحل ارحل ارحل (“Leave, leave, leave!!!”)
OK, now you’ve gone beyond ridiculous. We’re not remotely afraid to tell you anymore that you’re out of touch and out of time. And Al Jazeera (English version) is going to be on the air 24×7 reminding you of that. (Who ever thought Al Jazeera would turn out to be one of the good guys in this story?)
Then, to the amazement of everyone, it was almost too easy.
The comments on Facebook, Twitter, and assorted other venues yesterday ranged from euphoric − “We are free! Thanks God!” (because in Arabic there’s no verb “to be”) − to hilarious − “Consensus emerges amongst top twitter hubs: 1 dictator a month please…” − to profane − “That was an awesome a** kicking knockout.”
To spiritual − “The lion rose up and roared!” − to fair warning − “To friends of Mubarak: step down, or we will step you down.”
To practical: “Egyptians now offer their services to all nations: Your dictator down in 3 weeks or your money back! ;-)”
Can’t you just see the Revolutions ‘R Us Social Media Marketing and Technology Workaround Toolkit (with multi-lingual user manual) back-ordered on amazon.com?
Some publicity-addicted, no-value-added American pundits, who are so geographically challenged that they don’t realize Egypt, while an Arab country, is on the African continent, immediately jumped to the conclusion that in the power vacuum of Egypt will arise an Islamic fundamentalist regime.
Folks, don’t forget this “stability” you’ve enjoyed for the past 3 decades came at a price you didn’t personally have to pay: the price of risking being hauled out of your bed in the middle of the night, any night at all, and “disappeared.”
(Or out of an Internet cafe, as Khaled Said was, and tortured and killed as he begged for mercy. Only if you have a really strong stomach should you look at the before and after photos of what the police did to him and realize why his brutal murder was what pushed the protesters over the edge.)
The price of never being able to start a business, or even to find meaningful work. The price of never having your vote count for anything.
As Wael famously said, you foreign powers have let − even encouraged − this to go on for 30 years. Please don’t start interfering now.
Sure, a radical Islamic regime is possible, and dangerous. You really think politically secular Egyptians haven’t already thought of that?
All they have to do is look over at Iran and see how and why NOT to let that happen. Facebook response to anyone with such ideas: “Warning: we can have 1 million people in Tahrir again within 1 day.”
Just like American voters said in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.” There is a way to have a majority Muslim secular society. Look at Turkey. They’re on the 10-year plan to be considered for membership in the EU. Bloomberg noted in early February that if Egypt had a free market economy, it would take it only a few years to surpass Turkey.
Take a moment to ponder that potential.
Despite yesterday’s huge-by-anyone’s-standards win, democracy in Egypt is by no means guaranteed, and there as many pitfalls between here and there as there were demonstrators, and supporters of the movement, during these last 3 weeks. Activists risking their lives and livelihoods for the potential of a free Egypt.
But it’s important to remember that the world is vastly different than it was in 1979…
…because Facebook and Twitter and like-minded enterprises have engineers and marketers with skills to swerve around old-school, rent-a-thug tactics…
…and a generation of educated people who can’t find jobs saying, “I want the same opportunities as those other guys. What do I have to do to get that?”
We Are All Khaled Said: “We will build a new Egypt. A new fair, free & just Egypt for all.”
This Facebook page is staying alive − “with your permission,” posted the admin − to discuss how to help Egypt’s economy and victims of the regime, as well as transitioning to civil government. As I write this, in less than 24 hours, there are 768 comments, ideas, and offers of help.
Muammar Qaddafi must be feeling mighty uncomfortable right now, Libya squeezed between Egypt and Algeria, where they’re wasting no time making Abdelaziz Bouteflika mighty uncomfortable, too. Today, just 1 day after Mubarak’s resignation, is Algeria’s largest demonstration yet. Libya and Iran − no, that’s not a typo − plan to demonstrate on Monday.
Algeria and Yemen are competing for who’s next up to bat in the democracy game. If you guys did it in 18 days, we can do it in 17. Just watch us.
For all his religious education, Mubarak apparently neglected to memorize one critical verse in the Koran: “And he was arrogant, he and his soldiers, in the land, without right, and they thought that they would not be returned to Us. So We took him and his soldiers and threw them into the sea.
So see how was the end of the wrongdoers.”
Before the intermission yesterday, we wrapped up Dancing With Widows, Act 1. Welcome back to the Kenyan Public Health Theatre today for Act 2.
OK, let’s say you manage to avoid being sexually assaulted by a stranger – or, worse yet, by someone in your circle, someone you know well − and you also choose to avoid engaging in voluntary unprotected sex. What if you’re married and faithful but your husband isn’t?
Abstinence obviously isn’t a realistic option. Condom use is rare (and strongly resisted by men, not surprisingly). So, at best, even if you’re successful at everything we’ve talked about so far, you’ve addressed only 2/3 of the HIV infection picture.
In some villages I’ve been, the HIV infection rate among adults is 30-40%. Not to mention children born HIV+ who develop AIDS by pre-school (“baby school,” as it’s called there).
I remember one sweet little child, Charity. (Many Kenyan children have Biblical names.) Her mother told me she was 4 years old, but she looked much younger. While I was sitting on the ground, she climbed into my lap, arms around my neck.
I wondered whether it was a blessing that she and her mother, Constance, also with full-blown AIDS, might pass away together.
After dancing with the widows, we ate the delicious lunch they prepared. They got a huge laugh at our expense as we cringed during the chicken butchering, which erased any residual doubts about chicken originating from Safeway.
(It doesn’t take long to get so used to the local cuisine that even when visitors “treat” you to outrageously expensive meals in Nairobi, you look at the menu and everything sounds way too rich, so you say to the stunned waiter, “Excuse me, do you have sukuma wiki (a traditional Kenyan dish made with kale, tomatoes, and shallots)?” I once walked away from a restaurant salad bar at an exact replica of California Pizza Kitchen, not because I was afraid of eating the fresh produce there, but because the number of choices was overwhelming and most of them weren’t even salad.)
Then, after even more singing (for which, thankfully, I have some minor talent) and dancing (and realizing my dancing skills were so sadly deficient that years − even decades − of public health work in Africa were never going to fix that), we drove away to the next village. Charity ran alongside the car, slowly, for as long as she could, waving.
I know by now she’s long gone, as is her mother, as are many other women and children I met that day.
All over the countryside, I saw what I thought were ruins, common in Europe. Buildings in their prime 1,000 or more years ago that have been taken by time and weather, but remind us of the golden years. I came to understand that in Kenya these are not ruins; they’re modern family homes begun but never finished because the father died of AIDS first.
I’m convinced that if African women formally organized, they’d take over the world. They’re that tenacious, street smart, and able to work miracles with nothing. These attributes have been borne out of necessity. That’s why some of these “ruins” in Kenya are being finished. In the style of an Amish barn-raising, these widows pool their meager finances and sweat equity and are finishing these houses, one brick at a time.
These HIV+ widows know that, since treatment is too far away and too expensive to contemplate, they might never see the completion of their own homes. However, they labor willingly on the homes of the other widows, knowing that these women may very well take in their children when they pass away, because their deceased husbands’ extended families will be interested only in the healthy ones.
Violet’s home was first, because it was the closest to completion and she’d managed to keep a tiny savings hidden from her in-laws, who’d arrived on the day of her husband’s funeral to carry away all of her household goods: furniture, dishes, animals, and everything else of value. They weren’t successful in taking “his” children as well only because Violet physically resisted, which must have taken them so by surprise that they backed off.
I went to Violet’s home for tea and biscuits. In the sitting room was a lone chair, which she offered to me. The dirt floor was immaculately swept. There were lace curtains over the window openings.
Violet has only 3 children of her own because her husband had several wives before her and passed away before they had any more children. By some miracle, she’s HIV- thus far and is stepmother and “auntie” – in the loosely-defined African sense − to 22 children among her circle of friends and relatives.
22 orphans or soon-to-be orphans, in just one group of widows, in just one small district in Kenya.
Violet, for all her weighty responsibilities, thinks people who try to give their children away to foreigners “to give them a better life” are wrong and misguided. Kenyan children, in her view, should be raised at home, in their own villages, with their own people. (If there’s opportunity for higher education abroad, that’s a separate issue.)
With regard to HIV/AIDS and everything those acronyms imply, it just can’t be true that the only way things get fixed around here is for foreigners to do it for us.
I find her views both sadly atypical and downright encouraging.
My theatre critique: all the condoms in the world and all the vaccines in the world will ultimately be ineffective against HIV/AIDS in Kenya until and unless there’s a change in thinking, followed by a change in behavior. By everyone.
Violet is a seamstress and she’s sitting on that chair now, measuring me for a dress. (I still have it.) She’s making it from bright yellow fabric.
The same fabric as the dresses the dancing widows wear.
Why doesn’t somebody offer a dual Masters of Public Health/Theatre Arts degree?
Kenya has taken HIV/AIDS education to the stage and it has the potential to make more of a life-saving difference than all the condom distribution programs to date, and all the immunization programs in the future.
In a country in which not knowing how to sing and dance is a serious disability, musical community theatre might be a more effective health education platform than any public service announcement, any sermon from the pulpit, or any lecture by a Western doctor who’s passing through for a week and knows nothing about Kenya…or about Africa, for that matter.
The message from one Kenyan woman to another, in particular one HIV+ Kenyan widow with infected children to a younger HIV- woman who still has a chance, is crystal clear: unprotected sex causes HIV, which causes AIDS. Either you get it by having unprotected sex yourself, voluntarily or involuntarily, or you get it from your husband who has had unprotected sex. Either way, you die, and probably give it to your child, who also dies.
Harsh, but at this point Kenya desperately needs harsh.
Here’s how things play out today, says the play, and here’s how they need to play out tomorrow so that you and your children live. Dance, sing, and learn.
The most striking thing about these HIV/AIDS theatre works is how the women portray the arc of seduction. Nothing like dancing with widowers, I’m sure, although the story starts out exactly as predicted and you don’t need to understand a word of the local language to follow this plot.
First, “I think you’re beautiful and I’m going to follow you around everywhere.” OK, fine. Next it’s, “I’m begging you and touching you any chance I get. You’re reluctant, but you’ll come around.” We get the picture so far.
At this point, the female actors in this play come to the predictable fork in the road. Option #1: keep running away, keep saying no, and eventually he’ll give up and go bother somebody else. She hopes. Option #2: say yes, but insist on protection. Right. Even in the play, these lines are spoken with irony.
But the fact that they’re spoken AT ALL speaks volumes for the urgency of HIV/AIDS education in Kenya and the acknowledgement that exceedingly blunt, normally taboo messages are sometimes the last hope of turning around a caravan of a country speeding headlong towards a public health disaster.
The play continues at the point Option #1 goes bad. She’s in danger and if it were any of us, we’d be calling the police, calling CNN, calling somebody.
The humiliation. The threats. In the USA, we have legal terms for these behaviors: “sexual harassment” and “stalking.” Also, “criminal complaint” and “restraining order.”
(Amidst policy discussions about instances of unfair and unequal treatment of women in America − some absolutely legitimate, others just plain whining − never forget: we’re the luckiest women on the planet.)
Or maybe we’re in criminal territory immediately because this is an ambush. I’m going to take you anyway, so you might as well go willingly, or at least pretend like you are. I’ll do everything I can to get you alone, where nobody can hear your screams.
(This is a favorite tactic used against young girls during typically very long walks − several miles − to and from school. I know 4 girls to whom this happened: three 6th graders and a 5th grader. One girl is an exceptional athlete who outran their attackers to get help. Unfortunately, help arrived too late for the other girls. Heartbreaking, and heartbreakingly common…and a sure way to end a girl’s education much too early because the parents understandably take their daughter out of school rather than risk her safety again.)
Afterwards, if you have the money to go to a clinic, which is unlikely, you’ll never have the courage to tell anyone there what happened to you, although they’d figure it out anyway and not be surprised. As a bonus, I’ll make sure your extended family hears rumors of all the gory details, so they’ll shun you.
Even better if I get you pregnant, so you’ll have a reminder of me for the rest of your life. It’s my goal to make you unmarriageable − or divorceable − and to turn the wonderful experience of motherhood into something you’d do anything to forget.
While rape is on the books as a crime, in real life it’s not a punishable offense in Kenya. Any man accused of sexual assault can walk in the front door of the police station with a few hundred shillings – 80 shillings is $1 USD − and walk right out the back door. Everybody knows this, the rapists most of all.
Imagine, too, the retribution on the woman or young girl and her family after a “false arrest.”
There are people to whom this reality doesn’t apply. I know some of them. Without exception, they’re prosperous people who can afford a higher quality of life, a more protected lifestyle. There would be serious repercussions in a community if somebody assaulted a government minister’s daughter, or the wife of an important businessman providing jobs and foreign investment.
That perpetrator wouldn’t even make it to police station.
Jacob, our driver on theatre day, was a biology undergrad driving a makeshift taxi to pay his tuition and hoping to meet some future mentors in the field of public health, which he did. Although he knew we needed some freedom to do the work we were in Kenya to do, he remained militantly militant about our safety.
Even if you’re well-traveled in the developing world (we were) and can handle yourself (we could), you’re always a juicy target – and your mere presence paints targets on your local friends, too − if your supplies and equipment have significant street value. Even in a city of 200,000 people, it takes less than 5 minutes for everyone in town to know you’ve arrived.
If it makes you feel any better, it’s rarely cold-blooded murder. It’s usually an armed robbery gone awry, in the context of – once again – ineffectual, corrupt law enforcement.
But trust Jacob on this: you’re just as dead either way.
Can we stop here? No. Can we walk over there by ourselves? No. Can we meet our (local) colleagues across town for dinner? After dark? Are you crazy?
Sometimes, when he had to step out of the car for a moment, he’d say, “Do not get out of the car, keep the doors locked, and do not roll down the windows.” (Fine advice, except that many of the windows didn’t actually roll up.)
At first, some of my foreign colleagues who were new to the country thought this was unreasonable, bordering on extreme. Come on. The whole world isn’t out to get us. They shortly came to realize what the rest of us already knew: they should obey Jacob unquestioningly.
I also came to realize that he’d put his life on the line if it meant protecting mine. It was truly humbling.
After a short (1-day) intermission, we’ll be back with Act 2 of Dancing With Widows.
Yesterday, at the end of Achiel (“Part 1”), Ramogi Achieng Oneko − Kenyan journalist, freedom fighter, and Minister in Kenya’s first government after independence − and the rest of the “Kapenguria Six” had been arrested, tried, and convicted (by perjured testimony), because they were viewed by the colonists as a threat to British rule.
(Before we continue: the term “mzungu” is Kiswahili for “aimless wanderer” – can’t disagree there – and refers to white people/foreigners of European descent. I don’t take it as a pejorative term, especially when little kids run after you calling “mzungu, mzungu” and, when you stop, put out their hand to shake yours, just like grownups. However, imagine the confusion Kenyans had with our Korean-American and African-American colleagues. How could you all be from the same tribe?)
Mau Mau, although − as with many like revolutions for independence before and since − not everything it stood for was worthy of pride later, accomplished something previous movements had not: it not only built up the credibility of local African leaders among the rank and file, but it also drove a wedge between the provincial government in Nairobi and the home office in London. It’s the age-old strategy: get your enemies to fight with each other while you circle the wagons and before they realize it, they’ve lost control of the whole thing.
Mr. Oneko was in prison for 16 years in all, most of that time in solitary confinement. 23 hours a day in total darkness.
Once, for a period of 3 years (1959-1961), his first wife Jedida, who died in 1992, and their 2 oldest sons were able to live with him at the “re-education camp.” The rest of that time they were separated. During one period of 6 years, they saw each other twice, each time for 1 hour at the police station.
They talked mostly about their children – school fees, who was doing well in school (and who needed “guidance” in that regard – he had 11 children in all, 7 sons and 4 daughters), what’s going with everyone at home, how are you doing for money and who’s helping out. Things couples talk about every night, or maybe – if you’re really busy – on weekends. Imagine packing all of that into 2 hours in 6 years. No wonder Mr. Oneko referred to his wife more than once, as he talked with us, as “the foundation of our family.”
At long last, the “Kapenguria Six” were released from prison in 1961 and Kenya became independent in 1963. Then came the hard part.
Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, said in a speech that same year that the Mau Mau “hooligans” couldn’t be part of the ruling coalition because that movement “was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again.” We all know that sometimes the transition between revolution and republic requires some “housecleaning” among even somewhat distant former associates, who not only don’t share the new majority world view, but also stand a good chance of undermining you, the new guy in charge of this new thing that nobody knows what it really is yet.
Speaking of which, Mr. Oneko was made Minister of Information, Broadcasting, and Tourism in the Kenyatta administration. A few years later, he and President Kenyatta had a falling out. Mr. Oneko described it this way, and I’m quoting him exactly from my journal: “Kenyatta caught on that we were trying to grab power from him, and fired us. It was as simple as that.”
Actually, it wasn’t. I found out later from someone else that in 1969 President Kenyatta put Mr. Oneko back in prison for 5 more years.
Remarkably, Mr. Oneko and Mr. Kenyatta remained close personal friends for life, all being forgotten about those old days when the country was going through its rocky beginnings and people said and did what they would never have said and done in a more predictable state of things, and both of them understood that. Mr. Oneko − ever unfailing, it seemed − accepted it gracefully.
The “Kapenguria Six” weren’t afraid of anything and circumstances called on them to prove it. Because they did, fearlessness became a cornerstone value of the Kenyan nation. It’s no accident, then, that the theme song of Kenya’s 2002 presidential elections was Unbwogable (“We are fearless”) and that conviction swept National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) candidate Mwai Kibaki into power.
We, too, have had past leaders of our respective nations who had not only a vision of freedom, but also a willingness to make the incredible personal sacrifices necessary to bring that vision home. Generations later, we’re still in their debt.
Mr. Oneko thanked US profusely for visiting, that it was “refreshing” to HIM! I can’t imagine what we could’ve possibly had to offer this monumental leader, but I hope that, in some small way, it was true.
He’d given us a historical photo tour of his home, which included many famous people in famous places doing famous things. It was absolutely, completely, utterly amazing, not only to see those photos, but also to hear them narrated live by one of the men in them, who’d played a key role in the birth of the nation of Kenya.
There was one photo I remember in particular, taken before he was imprisoned. Of the family photos, almost all included at least some of the children, if not so many of the extended family that it was difficult to tell without his help who was who. But this one photo was of just the couple, much younger. Looking straight into the camera, smiling broadly, as if all days were this lucky.
Untypical for those provincial times, they were holding hands.