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|Posted February 11, 2008|
Kenya's Middle Class Feeling Sting of Violence
CHRISTOPHE CALAIS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
|Mumo Kituku, a dentist, has a clinic near one of Nairobi's most volatile neighborhoods, and some of his patients are staying home.|
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
NAIROBI, Kenya George G. Mbugua is a 42-year-old executive with two cars, a closet full of suits and a good job as the chief financial officer of a growing company.
His life has all the trappings of a professional anywhere. He recently joined a country club and has taken up golf.
But unlike anywhere else, this executive has to keep his eyes peeled on the daily commute for stone-throwing mobs. When he gets home after a long day, he has to explain to his daughters why people from different ethnic groups are hacking one another to death. Even his own affluent neighborhood has been affected. Some of the Mbuguas neighbors recently fled their five-bedroom homes because of the violence that has exploded in Kenya since a disputed election in December turned this promising African country upside down.
CHRISTOPHE CALAIS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
|A group of professionals meets three times a week in Nairobi to discuss ways to end the violence.|
Nobodys untouched, Mr. Mbugua said.
Of all the election-related conflicts that have cracked open in Kenya Luos versus Kikuyus (two big ethnic groups), The Orange Democratic Movement versus the Party of National Unity (the leading political parties), police versus protesters none may be more crucial than the struggle between those who seem to have nothing to lose, like the mobs in the slums who burn down their own neighborhoods, and those who are deeply invested in this countrys stability.
The well-established middle class here is thought to be one of the most important factors that separate Kenya from other African countries that have been consumed by ethnic conflict. Millions of Kenyans identify as much with what they do or where they went to college as who their ancestors are. They have overcome ethnic differences, dating between groups and sometimes intermarrying, living in mixed neighborhoods, and sending their children to the best schools they can afford, regardless of who else goes there.
The fighting that rages in the countryside, where men with mud-smeared faces and makeshift weapons are hunting down people of other ethnicities, seems as foreign to many of these white-collar Kenyans as it might to people living thousands of miles away.
But the professionals are hardly retreating. Three times a week, a group of doctors, lawyers, former politicians, writers, wildlife experts, business consultants and professors meet in a conference room at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, the capital. They call themselves Concerned Citizens for Peace, and they have taken up projects such as raising money for displaced people, organizing candlelight vigils and bending the ear of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, who met with business leaders during his emergency trip to Kenya this month.
The group begins each session by standing up, holding hands and singing the national anthem.
Mr. Mbugua spoke the other day at one of those meetings about the importance of reconciliation in the workplace. His idea was to keep local languages, which many Kenyans speak in addition to the countrys official languages (English and Kiswahili), away from the water cooler.
We dont want people to feel excluded when theyre at work, he said.
Bethuel Kiplagat, a retired ambassador, praised the meetings openness. We must put everything down on the table, he said, however painful it is.
Many African countries are all about haves versus have-nots, with millions of people toiling in the fields, barely surviving, while a tiny elite holds all the wealth. Kenya is different.
James Shikwati, a Kenyan economist, estimates that of Kenyas population of approximately 37 million, about four million are in the middle class, making between $2,500 and $40,000 a year. The number of Kenyans enrolled in college has more than doubled in the past 10 years, to more than 100,000.
There are sizable fortunes in the hands of people of all ethnic backgrounds, said Richard Leakey, the noted Kenyan paleontologist. I think the middle class will ultimately prevail on the government authority in one form or the other to just pull itself together and get on with business.
Business is hurting. Vigilante roadblocks have paralyzed the flow of goods across the country. Vandals have ripped up miles of railroad tracks. Tourists have bolted from the game parks faster than the antelope in them. The estimated losses are now running into the billions of dollars.
Fanis Anne Nyangayi just started her own marketing company in Nairobi, and she has already had to lay off staff because nobody wants to commit to marketing plans. Everythings on hold, she said.
To her, the ethnic clashes that continue to flare in the Rift Valley, less than 100 miles away, are disturbing and hard to understand. The disputed election, in which President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner despite widespread evidence of vote rigging, uncorked decades of frustrations about land, political power and economic inequalities. Many Kenyans tend to vote along ethnic lines, and much of the violence since the election has taken on an ethnic cast, with members of groups that tend to support the opposition fighting against members of groups that have backed the president. More than 1,000 people have been killed.
But ethnic identity issues are more complicated in the city. Ms. Nyangayi, 36, said she did not know she was a member of the Luhya ethnic group until she was 10 years old. She was born in Lamu, on the Kenyan coast, moved to Mombasa, a port town, and lived in Nairobi and Kisumu, in the far western part of Kenya. I cant even speak Luhya, a shortcoming that is sometimes viewed as snobby, she said.
CHRISTOPHE CALAIS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
|Wambua Kilonzo, a lawyer, says his practice has been hurt by the unrest.|
Its not that I think Im above being a Luhya, she explained. Im proud of being a Luhya. Its just that we moved around a lot as a kid, and I missed the bus somewhere.
Wambua Kilonzo is a lawyer, and he broke with his ethnic group, the Kamba, to vote for Raila Odinga, the top opposition leader who is a Luo. Many Kambas voted for another candidate, Kalonzo Musyoka, who is now vice president. To me, it was more about the issues, Mr. Kilonzo said, pointing to Mr. Odingas vow to fight corruption and restructure the government.
Mr. Kilonzos emerging law practice has been hurt by the election fallout. One of his top clients is the owner of a high-priced safari lodge that until recently had celebrities flying in on a regular basis. The resort is now a luxurious ghost town, and Mr. Kilonzo, 31, doesnt feel right adding to the owners burdens.
How can I take money from my client when his business is like this? he said.
Mumo Kituku is a 31-year-old dentist in a clinic near a slum. He pulls teeth for the equivalent of $5 and gets a cut of the clinics profits depending on how many patients he serves. But the clinic is near Kibera, one of Nairobis more volatile neighborhoods, and in the past month, some of his patients have been afraid to venture out of their homes, reducing his workload and his income.
Its been rough, man, he said. It is issues like those that have pushed business leaders into action. They have struggled to be heard, with the young men sharpening machetes grabbing more headlines than the executives quiet efforts to wage peace.
But the white-collar profile has risen in the past few weeks. Executives from multinational and local companies recently met with Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga to stress the economic toll that is accruing while the top politicians continue to posture and the fighting between their supporters rages on. Some businesses have taken out advertisements in the local newspapers urging peace.
Kenya, read a message from a bank on Monday, our unity is our pride.
Some Kenyan journalists have complained that the middle class is not doing enough. They have been lulled by a false sense of security they have enjoyed sheltered in their homes and clubs, wrote Tom Mshindi, a columnist for The Saturday Nation.
That said, business leaders have organized reconciliation workshops and gone back to their companies with plans of action. People like Mr. Mbugua do not want to see their dreams disappear. He wants to establish a financial planning organization in Kenya. And travel the world.
All my life Ive wanted to go to Hawaii, he said. Is there ice there? And what about deer hunting in Alaska? Whats that like?
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times of Monday, February 11, 2008.
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