Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Letter from America #12: The Presidential Debates

Kenya’s Presidential Debates

By Margaretta wa Gacheru, December 6, 2011

Now that the billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump has jumped on the presidential campaign bandwagon and offered to host the next GOP presidential debate, the debates are increasingly being seen as a “circus” rather than a serious venue where issues of political import are addressed and the candidates revealed to the voting public.

The Debates have already proved to be calamitous for Republican candidates like Texas Governor Rick Perry (who is almost as inarticulate as the previous Texan who ran for President, GW Bush) and Herman Cain who recently suspended his campaign due to the spate of allegations of sexual impropriety that Candidate Cain had engaged in over the past few years.

Nonetheless, the debates have allowed the American people to see for themselves what qualities they like or dislike about the candidates.

Ever since 1960 when the first presidential debate was held, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, most political pundits believe that debate actually won Kennedy the presidency. Kennedy was far more telegenic than Nixon: he was more handsome, youthful, articulate and calm before the television cameras than Nixon who looked pasty and pale, ill at ease and arrogant.

And while there was an element of superficiality that came into the presidential campaign once television was able to transform candidates into performing artists, the debates also allowed the public to see how issues of significance were tackled by each presidential aspirant.

It is the issue orientation of the Presidential Debates (PD) that interests the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA) and has inspired the group to advocate for a series of presidential debates preceding the 2012 Kenyan National Elections.

“Up to now, so much political campaigning in Kenya is personality-driven,” said Mkawasi Mcharo Hall, former KCA chair and PD project director.

“We’d like to see the level of political discourse elevated above personality to where the candidates address real issues affecting Kenyans’ everyday lives,” she added.

KCA is the diasporan group that was instrumental in lobbying for the new Kenyan Constitution to include such issues as Dual Citizenship and Absentee Voting Rights for Kenyans living overseas.

“Both of those items are in the new constitution,” said Mcharo Hall, who meets regularly with KCA members who, like her, are keen to see the 2012 elections go well.

Highly organized and attuned to the current political climate in Kenya, the KCA team that is advocating for Kenyan Presidential Debates includes lawyers, engineers, researchers and teachers.

Based in the Washington, DC area, KCA initially introduced the Presidential Debates idea last February at a meeting held at the Kenyan Embassy for Alice Nderitu of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission to meet Kenyans living in the Diaspora.

Both the Kenyan Ambassador Elkanah Odemo and NCIC’s Ms. Nderitu liked the idea, but both left it to the KCA to coordinate the project.

Critics of the project have questioned the capacity of KCA to coordinate such a major event from outside of Kenya. But the group is undaunted.

“We feel there’s an advantage to organizing presidential debates from outside of Kenya since we’re not caught up in the day to day political dramas that can easily cloud one’s objectivity,” Mcharo Hall said.

Of course, KCA will need to coordinate with local media to get the Kenyan Presidential Debates on prime time TV, just as they are in the US. But the diasporans are confident that once local media see the extent of public interest in even one Presidential Debate, they will be clamoring to get the contract to air such a popular public service event.

KCA may also need to look for sponsorship, but the team doesn’t see a problem in that area either.

The biggest challenge could be to get all the candidates to come together to participate in one, two or more presidential debates. But Mcharo Hall doesn’t foresee a problem in that regard either.

Asked if she wanted to speculate who would take part in the first set of debates, she rattled off a slew of well-known names, omitting two of the more high profile politicians, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. She said the ICC verdict will have a good deal to do with whether they run for the top office or not.

In the meantime, she counted no less than seventeen prospective candidates. “And the numbers seem to be increasing by the day.”

The numbers do not overwhelm the KCA members. Instead, they believe a series of Kenyan Presidential Debates is something that can contribute to defusing any volatility in the political climate.

“One big advantage Kenyans in the Diaspora have is that we have lived in ‘democratic spaces’. We have witnessed the State’s protection of minority rights. We have seen the rights of Opposition protesters protected by the rule of law,” Mcharo Hall added.

Not that presidential debates can provide the panacea to defuse all voters frustration; but the KCA definitely believe that dialogue and debate are means of elevate the political discourse and transforming the 2012 Election.

Let’s hope they can succeed since I believe all Kenyans want peace.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Rein in the Mob: Letter from America: #11. 11.11.11

Letter from America #11. 11.11.11 Rein in the Mob Rule

By Margaretta wa Gacheru

The mob mentality knows no bounds.

The disgust I feel for the foolish fellows who assaulted the Raphael Tuju entourage early this month is only matched by my dismay over protesters in Pennsylvania who this week behaved in mob-like style when they physically, verbally and violently complained at Penn State over the University’s decision to dismiss the school’s emeritus football coach, Joe Paterno, who was found complicit in a child sex scandal which had been going on for many years.

In both cases, the mob’s irrational behavior was violent to the point of endangering people’s lives.

And what for?

 Nobody was defending a noble ideal, or a patriotic cause. A parochial cause yes, and a very personalized one as well.

In the Tuju case, what was implicit in the mob mentality was the mobsters’ territorial defense of their demi-god, Raila Odinga. There is no escaping that motivation, whether it is explicitly stated or not, and whether it was Raila himself who called out his attack squad to defense his Nyanza turf or not, who can tell.

Either way, the mindless mobster mentality reflects an emotionalism, even a hysteria that ought to be either clinically scrutinized for elements of insanity or criminalized so that not just two guys get blamed for the despicable conduct. The whole lot ought to have been arrested and charged. Why that didn’t happen, I say the Kenya police ought to answer for that.

And in the Penn State Joe Paterno case,  most of the same observations apply. The mob came out, not to defend the rule of law, not to pay respects to the eight primary school boys who were sodomized by their school coaches and who have been psychologically damaged for life. No! That mob went on the rampage on the University grounds because the President sacked one old man who, like Raila, holds demi-god status on that college campus.

And like Raila, Joe Paterno was not present when the mob came out to defend the old man’s turfed reputation and legacy. But like Raila, Paterno has been revered for decades as the one man who has saved their community from obscurity. Like Raila, Paterno brought fame, status, and victory to the community. His field was not politics per se; it was sports, college football to be exact. But as most news commentators have noted, there is a ferocious brand of politics in American sports that has clearly become obsessive, possessive, and downright dangerous.

But it isn’t just politics in the Penn State case; it’s also economics, since Paterno (who’s in his 80s) has historically been an incredibly successful sportsman, leading team after team to the championship. And as we know, everybody loves a winner. We also know, the public loves to watch winners perform, at least they do in America where college football has become not just Big Business, but a kind of religion, and weekend football matches an established ritual to be attended just as some Christians attend their daily mass.

The big difference between attending mass and attending a football game is that one is free and one is not. Bottom line, Penn State has made a fortune off of Paterno’s winning performance, and the school, the town and even the state have benefited from one man’s mastery of the Spectacle, the weeken college football match.

One could say that politics and economics were also implicitly involved in the mob scene when Tuju came to Nyanza to campaign for the presidency. For there are a multitude of Nyanza-ites who are banking on becoming beneficiaries of the Raila win in 2012. As we know in Kenya as in many parts of the world, patronage is alive and well, and everybody’s relation expects to be rewarded for their blood ties to the King.

In fact, in Nyanza, one wouldn’t be wrong to call Raila the reigning monarch. Of course, we technically don’t have monarchies in Kenya. They were supposed to have died with the demise of British colonialism and the arrival of Independence in 1963. Yet the British still have their monarch, the “reasoning” might go. So do the Swedes, the Dutch, the Spaniards, and even the Japanese. So why not the Luo, the Kikuyu, or the Luhya or the Kamba for that matter?

In Kenya today, we are all supposed to be true believers in Democracy and the rule of law. The same is true in America, where sadly the mighty Dollar seems to be King, and those with the big bucks are either kings or king-makers. Just look at the way the Republican front-runner is the richest contestant, Mitt Romney. And just look at the way President Obama is busy raising millions from fat cats on Wall Street as well as pennies from peons who still pray he will come through on all the promises he made in 2008.

So in a sense, if we understand the mobs to be dutiful minions looking after what they perceive to be their self-interests, then the violence meted out in Nyanza and Pennsylvania no longer look quite so insane. They were defending their man, fighting to protect the guy who, despite all his flaws, foibles, and occasional ‘fatal’ errors of judgment, is the one whose status is nearly sacrosanct.

In most of Nyanza, Raila can do no wrong, and in most of Penn State city, Joe Paterno ranks just as highly in the minds of the vast majority.

It doesn’t make the mob conduct any less disgusting to me to see how hierarchy operates both in Nyanza and Pennsylvania, but at least I can now see how far removed we have run from our democratic ideals and from the right to self-government. Nonetheless, I will continue to detest blind obeisance to a king, which to me is just another form of servitude. Let’s hope the mob wakes up to higher ideals before the 2012 elections roll around.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Letter from America #10. Kenya's Major Mistake!

Letter from America:  Kenya’s Major Mistake!

By margaretta wa gacheru  November 2, 2011

I can’t believe how disturbing I find the news that Kenyan troops have not only gone over the line and essentially “invaded” Somali to chase down Al Shabaab rebels who they apparently hold responsible for the kidnapping of white tourists at the Kenya Coast.

Tragically, the motivation for sending Kenyan troops across the border seems to take on a different tenor and tone every time some local official tries to answer the question: why did you do it?

In one instant, it’s all about Al Shabaab infiltration into Kenya, which one might think would best be handled be being more vigilant at the Kenya border and inside the refugee camps.

Another official will claim it’s to eliminate the threat to the tourist industry that we saw when the two European women were abducted from their remote encampments on the Kenya coast.

But I have to say that no greater deterrent to tourists coming to Kenya can exist than the Government opening a full-fledged war front at its northern border.

The one other decision that might be even more effective in deterring foreigners from coming and spending their cash in Kenya would be to announce local police will be conducting sweeps of “Little Mogadishu” once known more readily among locals as Eastleigh. The sweeps would be aimed at routing out Al Shabaab activists who are swimming like fish within a veritable sea of fellow Somalis, many of whom, though not actively involved with Al Shabaab, are utterly in sympathy with that wing of Al Qaeda that supposedly has teamed up with Somali pirates who bring billions to Eastleigh in off- shore bounty manifested as not just jobs but high rise hotels, shopping centers and malls that are lit up 24 hours a day.

The Kenya government including the military clearly get some comfort in news coming from the likes of the American Ambassador who promises moral support and arms and even air power, although no US troops will be coming to reinforce the Kenyans.

I wonder if there is an anti-war movement building among Kenyans who hate to hear the government announce it plans to conduct “air strikes” in Central and Southern Somalia on sites believed to be inhabited by Al Shabaab bad guys.

As we all know, whenever bombs are dropped anywhere, the majority affected are called “collateral damage” meaning women and children who can’t manage to run away quickly enough from the munitions, whatever type they may be.

To think of my peace loving Kenyans engaged in what feels like a proxy war breaks my heart. Kenyans have been living for years with Somalis in their midst without any problems. Kenyans even saw Siad Barre staying in Nairobi, courtesy of the former Kenyan head of state, Daniel arap Moi. And nobody made much of a stink about it.

Of course, the Somali pirates have been pesty, and only recently started intruding themselves along the Kenya coastline; but the decision to engage in a full scale war with its next door neighbor is heart-wrenching and upsetting beyond words.

Meanwhile, we hear that Al Qaeda has a different strategy for winning a war….war against whom, by the way? Is it war against Kenya, war against the US who launched its ‘war on terror’ right after the 9.11 assault on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001? 

Al Qaeda is making friends and influencing refugees by handing out cash to drought victims in the north. Call it cash-centric recruitment, call in Islamic philanthropy, whatever name it’s given, it’s not looking good for peace-loving Kenyans.

Either way, Kenyans must have heard the threats made by Al Shabaab that if these assaults by Kenyan troops persist, there will be retaliation comparable to what took place in Kampala after Museveni sent Ugandan troops to join AU forces in Mogadishu, or worse. The bomb blast in Kampala’s city center was unprecedented and devastating to scores of people, several of whom lost their lives.

Ideally, Kenyan troops are in Somalia to ensure Al Shabaab doesn’t continue to cross over the border and bring in munitions, money or militant manpower. Whether the “preemptive’ strategy succeeds, to crossing over and push for a shut down of the town of Kismayo where most of Al Shabaab’s supplies come inland off the sea, only time will tell.

One only prays that however success gets defined, it comes very soon. The alternative is for Kenyans to consider how peace can be most quickly restored. That’s the topic I’m yearning for.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Letter from America #9: 10.24.2011 Why War?

Letter from America. 10.24.2011. Why War?

Whose idea was it anyway?

I mean for the Kenya Government to unceremoniously join the global “war on terror” by going on the offense against Al Shabaab!

Couldn’t we have had a referendum or a public debate of some kind, so the Kenyan people could have a say in whether they approved of such an otherwise unilateral decision?

Did the Kenya Army really have to cross over the border into Somalia and declare war on Al Shabaab?

I don’t think so.

Supposedly, the reason the Kenya government chose to chase after Al Shabaab is because somebody somewhere decided there was a connection between the kidnapping of two white European women—one British lady called Judith Tebbutt whose husband was sadly murdered by the criminal thugs who hijacked the wife, and one French woman, Marie Dedieu who was seriously unwell before she got kidnapped and who died ostensibly because the pirates didn’t let her have her medication.

Both women had been living in exclusive areas of the Kenya Coast when they were kidnapped; they were living a few kilometers away from where Somali pirates have been operating for many months, hijacking boats of all shapes, sizes and nationalities.

To me, it seems more than obvious that the pirates would have eventually come ashore and taken a respite from hijacking ocean liners which have been easy marks for many months up to just recently. But now that a few countries have gotten serious about putting an end to piracy, I’m not surprised to hear that the pirates have devised a new strategy: going after rich tourists living off the beaten path along the Kenya Coastline.

But no, the Kenya Government decided they’d lay the blame for tourists’ abduction on Al Shabaab, the Somali-based wing of Al Qaeda. How the government made this murky connection between white women being kidnapped and the culprit being Al Shabaab is inexplicable.

All we know is the issue of pirates damaging Kenyan tourism was barely raised. Instead, somehow the hostage-taking became the trigger for the Kenya Army to cross the border into Somalia to “retaliate” against Al Shabaab.

According to Western observers, it wasn’t the Americans who advised the Kenya Government to go for Al Shabaab. Nonetheless, the new US Ambassador Scott Gration, a retired military man, was quick to promise assistance to the Kenya Army in all ways, short of sending in US troops. (Does that seem to echo President Obama’s promise in the case of Libya, where he was quick to commit NATO forces but not American troops?)

            To make matters worse, the Kenya Police have planned swoops into “Little Mogadishu” otherwise known as Eastleigh in Nairobi to weed out Al Shabaab sympathizers. Yet if making such a public statement of intent a somewhat foolhardy move, I don’t know what else to call it.

It would seem especially unwise when, at last count, there were 2.4 million Somalis living in Kenya, as well as another 600,000 Somali refugees who have flooded into Kenya as a result of both conflicts which have been ongoing in Mogadishu for many years and the drought which has had devastating effects on the lives of not only Somalis but Kenyans living up north as well.

So was anyone surprised to hear that Al Shabaab spokesmen promised to retaliate against ordinary Kenyans for their government’s hasty decisions to: number one, declare the kidnappers of the two white women to be Al Shabaab—not ordinary Somali pirates; number two, send troops in “hot pursuit” of the would be kidnappers all the way to Kismayo; and number three, (according the Alfred Mutua) have those troops intending to “track down and dismantle the Al-Shabaab.” (FT, 20 October , 2011)

            Whether the Kenya Government made these decisions autonomously or whether they were quietly prodded to be proxies for Western powers who have been waging their “war on terror” since 9.11.2001 is not clear.

            What is clear is that two explosions in the heart of Nairobi on Monday have already cost lives and created chaos in Kenya where there was nothing comparable to those attacks, apart from the 1998 attack on the US Embassy when again, it was mainly Kenyans who suffered many more casualties and lost many more lives than did the Americans.

            So now we need to pray that recent events do not explode into an all-out war that affects not just tourism and tourists, but millions of lives and livelihoods of Kenyan people themselves.

            It may well be that the Government enjoys sabre-rattling as a way to avert Kenyans’ attention from all the other problems they are facing—inflation, unemployment, corrupt lawmakers and politicians—but this time opening a war front in Northern Kenya is not a fight that most Kenyans neither want nor need.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Letter from America #8: 10.21.2011 Unsettling Times


At this point I don’t know what disturbs me more: the way the Kibaki government jumped to the conclusion that Al Shabaab—rather than renegade pirates--was responsible for the kidnappings of white women at the Kenya Coast, or the fact that Jubilation and Gloating were the first widespread reactions to the public execution of Moammar Gaddafi.

I’m afraid both stories leave me saddened and angry at the knee-jerk reactions of men who believe that guns, revenge and militarized solutions should take precedence over the rule of law, diplomacy and level-headed analyses of what’s at stake in the short and long run for our country and the continent as a whole.

In the case of the Gaddafi slaughter, I was grateful to the Guardian.co.uk online for publishing two videos a few hours after Gaddafi’s death was announced. One was of the Big Man’s bloodied body, which left me with no doubt that indeed he was dead; the other shot moments after he was grabbed from an underground sewage pipe, clearly showing Gaddafi was alive and actively engaging his captures who were obviously intent on ‘mob justice’.

The blood lust was palpable, and I believe it wasn’t any one rebel that offed the Big Man. It was the mob thirsty for Gaddafi’s blood. The gruesome glee was visible for all to see.

But it wasn’t only in Sirte that I saw the blood lust graphically displayed: When I switched my TV channel to see President Obama applaud the death of a dictator and Hilary Clinton equally elated at Gaddafi’s assassination, I couldn’t help recall that even Saddam Hussein got the benefit of a court conviction and “civilized” public hanging!

Switching the channel again, I then saw a late night news interview of an ordinary American standing at a Petrol Pump speculating how the price of gas was bound to go down now that Libyan oil would be back on line (probably pumped through a French- American- or British-owned corporate pipeline).

If there was any doubt at that point that the Obama-Sarkozy-Cameron troika, also known as NATO, didn’t swoop into Libya just to “save civilian lives” at Misrata, but there was in fact a bottom line at the base of their external intervention, then all you had to do was listen to Mr. Man-on-the-Street to hear what NATO’s interpretation of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is all about.

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one who saw the video evidence of Gaddafi alive and dead. Now, Human Rights groups are demanding the circumstances surrounding the dictator’s death be examined thoroughly before the Gaddafi chapter is closed for good.

At the same time, African scholars are cautioning that we beware of a repeat of what happened in the late 19th century, when Western powers decided to divvy up the region in their notorious “Scramble for Africa”. Could the coming of NATO to North Africa and the Americans to East Africa signal the start of a re-scramble for the region?

One sign that suggests Kenya may be inadvertently aligning itself with that path is the government’s hasty decision to take on Al Shabaab in Somalia. Using the kidnappings of white women tourists at the Coast as the basis of their reasoning, the government overlooked the more feasible explanation of Somali pirates being the ones responsible for the murder of Mr Tebbutt and the abduction of Marie Dedieu and Judith Tebbutt. (Sadly, Ms Dedieu reportedly died in captivity.)

Instead, it patterned its actions after those of the former US President George W. Bush who, when the Twin Towers were hit in 2001, didn’t go after 19 criminals, most of whom were Saudi nationals. Instead, he decided to attack an amorphous, previously unknown group known as Al Qaeda.

9/11 launched Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, and we hope that President Kibaki’s pre-emptive strike into Mogadishu doesn’t also get Kenya into a wider conflagration having unfortunate unintended consequences.

The fact that Al Shabaab has already spoken up with assurances to that effect is not a good sign. Nor do the Kenya police help pacify the circumstances when they promise to do a sweep of Eastleigh to weed out Al Shabaab sympathizers living in our midst.

Dark clouds seem to be gathering over the continent right now, and we pray that reason, rule of law, and a return to level-headed negotiations prevail. However, it doesn’t look like rationality is to rule the day right now.

The more cynical assessment of the situation is as follows: Rather than be forced to explain to Kenyans why shillings are so hard to come by and why their value has depreciated so fast, the Government goes to war. Now we have no time to think about hunger, unemployment, IDPs or corrupt politicians. Now we just have to watch out that we don’t find bombs in our beds or Al Shabaab attacking from its base in Eastleigh!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Letter from America #1: inaugural issue: september 14, 2011

Everytime I commuted back to the US from Kenya, i have wanted to start something like a Letter from America, comparable to the column constructed in the mid-20th century by Alistair Cooke. But this time, at the coaxing of a dear friend, Jane Artabasy, i decided to finally do it. So thanks to Jane. And also thanks to Paul Koite at the Nairobi Star who often published some, though not all of my Letter from America:
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
September 14, 2011

How quickly the world has changed.
One day the US is on top of the world economy, the leading and singular 'Superpower' [to use the term coined by the father of George W Bush].

Meanwhile, as recently as when Al Gore was contemplating the Kyoto Protocol, China was only considered a 'developing country' whose carbon emissions were still seen as relatively inconsequential.

Now China is a major planetary polluter as well as the second largest economy in the world.

What’s more, on the same day the Chinese Premier says he is prepared to help Eurozone countries get out of their doldrums, the US is reporting record-breaking poverty among its own people.

So where does that leave the rest of the world?


We just saw a report that China has replaced the UK and Germany as the leading foreign investor in the Kenyan economy. Anyone who has seen the incredible road work the Chinese have constructed together with a load of both Kenyan and Chinese workers, can hardly dispute the Chinese have become major players in the global economy, including that of Kenya.

So how is that going? Kenyans seem to be quite philosophical about their new road systems, which the Chinese seem to have constructed practically “overnight”.

In the short terms, navigating the new roads can be messy, dusty and chaotic, especially as the Chinese and local government has been quite poor in put up appropriate signage.

But most Kenyans I spoke to recently said they knew these roads would be very good for the Kenyan economy in the long term.

“Who cares that the Chinese are developing our roads to more effectively extract our mineral wealth?” I heard Kenyans claim. The new roads have already begun to eradicate Nairobi’s horrific traffic jams, so that immediate benefit is pleasing to Kenyan people, whether they use public or private transportation.

A few Kenyans take note that Chinese goods are third-rate and easily breakable, unlike consumer items coming from either Germany or the US. But hey, who can afford those quality consumer items?

So those cheap consumer goods are fueling the rise of small business people’s opening small shops and stalls all over the cities and country side.

So while some Kenyans complain about the ‘invasion’ of Chinese workers, especially when they are taking jobs that could just as easily be done by Kenyans, the majority have many more pressing problems than the Chinese coming to town.

SINAI 9/12

Like Sinai and the horrific tragedy of more than 100 people dead and many more hospitalized with painful burns from which many may never recover.

As a testimony to the efficacy of global media, I woke up Monday morning outside Chicago, and the 7am news already was giving graphic details about the tragedy at Nairobi’s Sinai slum.

My heart goes out to the Kenyan people who are trying to make sense of this senseless event--the consequence of poverty and unplanned development and greed.

This is the time for hearing the “if only’s”:

“If only” the Government had not allowed an oil pipeline to snake its way through the capital city.

“If only” squatters had paid heed when they were told in 2009 to get out of that previously vacant land.

“If only” the culture of impunity had not gripped local politicians who want to live like kings and white collar crooks rather than perform their civic duties and take care of their electorate.

And “if only” the Kenyan Government had invested in solar panels rather than oil pipelines, we would have had clean energy meeting people’s basic fuel needs. It would be cheaper in the long run, especially as the sun shines free of charge.


But then, are Kenyan politicians any better or worse than American ones? I cannot claim they are.

Tragically, the American Congress is as corrupt as the Kenyan Parliament. That may sound like a stunning statement to make, but just look at the way President Obama is being treated by Republican Congressmen, quite a number of whom don’t even care to recognize that he is America’s duly elected president. They call him Obama, not even President Obama, and especially those aligned to the so-called ultra-right wing Tea Party have vowed to bury him politically and not allow any of his proposed legislation to pass, never to allow him to be seen as succeeding at any level.

As President Obama said on Tuesday to a crowd he had gathered to promote his new Jobs Bill, the Tea Party people have made a pact not to support anything he advocates, be it putting Americans back to work or rebuilding the country’s aging infrastructure.

The viciousness and the so-called ‘color-blind racism’ of the Tea Party’s stance against him are not only mean-spirited and malicious; it is politically and economically disastrous.
The recent debate over whether to raise the debt-ceiling or not nearly bankrupted the US economy. The consequences of such an event would have been disastrous, not only to the national but to the world economy as well.
All those countries that have lent America money -- including the money George W. Bush borrowed from China to go to war in Iraq and generally to run his heinous ‘War on Terror’ – they would not only lost money.
They would have lost confidence in the US dollar, which since the Bretton Wood agreement of 1944, has been the #1 global currency, even after Richard Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard in 1971.
But the Tea Party politicians didn’t care about bankruptcy which they believed would primarily do damage to Obama who would then not get re-elected in 2012.
Yep, 2012 looms as large on the American political horizon as it does on the Kenyan political landscape.
Let us all pray that by the time 2012 arrives, the world will have changed even more, and changed for the better!

Letter from America #2, September 20, 2011

This is only my second letter from America, but I am discovering how much I love keeping attuned to the Kenyan cultural environment:

LETTER from America.2 September 20, 2011

By Margaretta wa Gacheru

It’s not only irate Kenyan MPs who are adamant about refusing to pay taxes.

It is also American Republicans, starting with members of the ultra-right wing end of the Party called the Tea Party (represented by ditzy brunettes like Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin and fundamentalist religionists like Rick Perry, governor of Texas who doesn’t believe in Climate Change and calls Social Security, the workers-funded safety net set up during the Great Depression, a “Ponzi Scheme” to be trashed with the rest of government-backed people-oriented programs).

It’s also the corporate-backed media like Fox News that are fighting President Obama’s efforts to deal with the huge government deficit (amounting to trillions) by taxing the Super-Rich.

The corporate media along with Congressmen who signed up (with the Taxpayers Protection Pledge) never to support raising taxes are all accusing Mr. Obama of waging “class warfare” against who? Against the super-rich, of course!

What Obama has done is agree with one of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffett, who says the rich should be taxed more not less or not at all (as many of the super-rich have managed to do by putting all their assets into tax havens outside the US).

The ‘Buffett Tax” is what Obama’s plan has been called. It partly includes allowing all the Bush-tax cuts on rich people’s wealth to expire. It also involves cutting out special perks that George W. Bush designed to help out his rich cronies in and outside of Congress.

And how does Obama defend his plan? By noting that the Buffett tax “is not class warfare; it’s math.” For how else is the government to tackle the huge burden of debt that the US is carrying around? The rich want to cut all the government-backed programs that assist the middle class and the poor—everything from food stamps to Medicare and Social Security.

But Mr. Buffett’s perspective seems a whole lot more humane and thoughtful. He says that percentage-wise, he pays less tax annually than his secretary!! And that just isn’t right, he contends.

But Mr. Buffett has made enemies among the elites, just as those MPs who have paid taxes in Kenya are not liked for setting a “bad example” by breaking down and obeying the law, God forbid!

Mr. Obama has made even more enemies among the rich than Mr. Buffett however, since he has finally taken a stand and not caved into Republican pressures which his critics contend he has done all too often in the first years of his time in the presidential office.

In fact, as much as Kenyans may admire and adore Barack Obama, in the US his popularity hit its lowest ebb this week with only a 42% favorable rating. Yes, this is the man who the world adored in 2008 and who won the US presidency by a landslide, promising to close Guantanamo, and end two wars which were started with a credit card by George W. Bush (since the US was already in debt when Bush insisted on going for Osama bin Ladin (remember him?) first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.

Obama also promised to fix the economy and get Americans back to work, none of which he has done. So whether Kenyans want to hear it or not, Mr. Obama might be a one-term president and only be in office until 2012.

But there is a glimmer of hope for Obama, now that he has gotten back onto the campaign trail, which he officially did last week when he gave his impressive Jobs Speech, claiming his $3.4 trillion Jobs program was bound to put Americans back to work.

Who knows whether the Jobs Bill will pass in Congress? Who knows whether Obama will manage to make the super-rich finally pay their fair share towards solving America’s debt problem?

But one thing is certain. And that is the eloquent Mr. Obama does his best when he is out on the road waxing lyrically about all he plans to do for the American people. The reality is that his sweet words won’t be as persuasive this time round as they were in 2008, since millions more Americans are jobless and just plain dissatisfied with the Government’s inability—meaning Mr. Obama’s inability to get them jobs.

These are tough times for the American people, just as they are tough for people in Africa and even in Europe where countries like Greece and Italy may declare bankruptcy any day now.

Stay tuned for where these developments will lead. The last thing I heard was that several thousand Americans got inspired by the Arab Spring and decided to “Occupy Wall Street.” So civil disobedience a la Gandhi and Martin Luther King may be the way Americans may deal with the unemployment crisis and with their taxes as well. We shall see!


Letter from America #3 September 25, 2011

I wrote this letter the day before I heard that our beloved friend Professor Wangari Maathai had passed on. See Letter #4.

LETTER from America September 25, 2011 Sunday

Kenyans don’t need to be told, as I was recently by an academic friend of mine, that we consumers of global media live in a “golden age of television’.

Not all Kenyans watch TV of course, but I must confess that I was stunned to find so many Kenyans who live in (and around) Nairobi—irrespective of whether it’s in Eastlands, Westlands, Ngong or Kitengela—being so conversant about American popular culture.

And it isn’t just because NTV, KTN, KBC and yes, even Citizen TV all indulge to varying degrees in showing programs originally produced in North (and also Central and South) America.

It’s also because of the booming business of pirated DVD’s that one can buy on practically every street in downtown Nairobi as well as in all the urban estates, from Kariobangi South to Huruma and Umoja to Parklands, Lavington Green and all over Westlands.

The DVDs are so cheap that one can get a complete season (including all the episodes) of a sit-com like ‘Desperate Housewives’ or ‘Vampire Diaries’ or “Criminal Minds’ for KSh50, which in today’s troubled Kenyan economy is equivalent to a little less than half a dollar.

The same is true for Hollywood films, even films fresh out in American cinemas. Indeed, films like ‘Ninja Assassins’ and ‘Priest’ were so popular among the DVD-buying public a few months back that the films were out on the magendo market simultaneous with their release in the US ans UK.

But this must be a busy time for Kenyan (and Asian) pirates who pride themselves in marketing the hottest new TV sit-coms, soap operas and reality shows since the new TV season just started a week ago.

September has historically been the month when new shows come online, some to have staying power, like Mad Men, Modern Family and Glee, three running shows that all won Emmy Awards last week after their stars walked the red carpet (which Kenyans who watch E! already know very well) and the women’s gowns were either gaudy and garish or gorgeous and glamorous, depending on which TV commentator was gawking and talking.

But now, if the pirates want to keep up with the global media market, they will have to watch the new shows, such as Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor’ (which is a not so extreme make-over of Cowell’s earlier hit American Idol), ‘The Playboy Club’ which flashes back on the early 1960s as does the new ‘Pan Am’ and the new-old ‘Mad Men’ the show which proved that nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ when America was in its heyday sells.

There are a whole lot more new shows this season, most of which I didn’t get to see since they all seemed to come on at the same time. There are plenty of cop shows, as usual, each having twists and turns that make them slightly different from each other. For instance, Unforgettable has a cop who forgets nothing (except that the lead actor used to star in Without a Trace) while Person of Interest is all about surveillance and people watching people and Body of Proof mixes murder and medical forensics stuff.

Then there are a bunch of shows that Kenyans have probably already seen but they are into their next season, since the networks chose to bring them back. Those include shows like Criminal Minds, Desperate Housewives, Nikita, Vampire Diaries and the scary zombie thriller The Walking Dead, which is not to be confused with Waking the Dead, a BBC version of Cold Case Files.

I won’t even get into the Reality Shows like Jersey Shore, Real Housewives and the American version of Big Brother, since I sincerely can’t be bothered to watch unscripted, untrained non-actors using up airtime and teaching me nothing. But I suspect some Kenyans will watch them, just as they watched Monday Night Wrestling years ago, another show that made me squirm with embarrassment at the idiocy of it all. But it was a show that made Kenyans howl with laughter as they watch stupid white men smash each other’s bodies to bit.

The one really exciting bit of American entertainment news that I just learned comes from Forbes magazine, the source that annually lists the richest 400 men and women in the world. According to Forbes, the richest man in Hollywood this year is none other than Tyler Perry, the African American producer, actor and scriptwriter.

From May 2010 to May 2011, the man best known for dressing up as a sassy fat lady called Medea made $130 million. He beat out Jerry Bruckheimer and Steven Spielberg since he produced five films (including Why Did I get Married Too) and TV sit-coms like House of Payne and Meet the Browns.

If anything may be learned from Perry’s success is that the Kenya Government ought to take seriously its own performing artists and invest in their success. Who’s to say Kenya doesn’t have her own set of genius talents who have the potential to be just as witty, original and successful as Perry has been. Frankly, they’re already there; they only need a bit more backing for their brilliance to come out fully into the light. They might also need more support from local audiences who might need to give up the pirated DVDs for time and come out and see their own ‘Tyler Perry’s’.

Letter from America #4: Tribute to the Beloved Wangari Maathai

The passing of Wangari, my dear friend who I knew from 1977 when I first wrote her Profile for The Nairobi Times, is too big of a loss for Kenya and the World. We will all have to pull up our socks to carry on the legacy of this glorious freedom fighter for social justice and for Mother Earth. I wrote my tribute for The Nairobi Star just as soon as I hear. I had known she was quite ill, but if she had been able to defeat cancer as effectively as she overcame ever other adversary she faced, she could have lived another 50 years and blessed us all. Here is what I wrote for the Star:


By margaretta wa gacheru

News of Wangari Maathai’s demise on Sunday, September 25th spread around the world like wildfire. I read about the Nobel Prize winner’s death online at CNN.com early Monday morning, but it was on all the leading global news sites from Moscow to Muscat to Madrid.

What’s striking is that Dr. Maathai is one person who (for better or worse) got heaps of global media coverage in her lifetime, not only at her demise, which is rare. Usually, one has to wait for someone’s obituary to find out all the incredible tidbits about their life. But not Wangari: she was a news maker whose charismatic leadership and controversial stands for noble causes, however popular or unpopular, made her front page news since the 1970s in Kenya and a headliner in international news most often in this new millennium.

This is not to say that Wangari sought the limelight. No! The woman simply sought justice and equity and the ‘best practices’ in all arenas, particularly in government—where she knew, for instance, that women deserved equal treatment to men, and jobless people were just as entitled to jobs as any other human being. Even the Greenbelt Movement grew out of Wangari’s sense of justice and the need to take care of the planet as well as the people who were suffering as a consequence of deforestation, poverty, and poor social policies that neglected the plight of the vast majority of the people.

Wangari’s first commitment was to the Kenyan people, particularly to Kenyan rural women. This I discovered way back in the late 1970s when she was Chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya and head of the Environment Committee which would eventually become the Greenbelt Movement.

At the time of our meeting, Wangari’s commitment to social justice for both the people and the planet was palpable; which is why I came away from that first interview (I was working for Hilary Ng’weno’s Nairobi Times at the time) feeling this was a woman who could not only become the president of Kenya one day.

I felt as if she could become President of Africa; if such a position ever came into being she’d fill the bill perfectly. She had the vision, the conviction, the brilliant ideas and the burning passion to serve as an instrument for the good of her people.

Back then, Wangari made it clear to me that Leadership was not a task she took lightly. On the contrary, she had been taught by the nuns early on in her life that the blessings bestowed on her in the form of a good education and opportunities to excel were gifts she had to apply and use to advance the lives of others less fortunate than herself.

Her combination of sincerity, conviction and humility was awesome because at the time, she was already holding positions of authority and power—as head of the Veterinary Anatomy Department at University of Nairobi and as Chair of NCWK (a job that was generating jealousy and envy against Wangari who had already begun moving mountains and making waves).

And yet, what was clear even then was that she had just begun to fulfill her immense leadership capacity. And even now, I content that in spite of her becoming a world-acclaimed environmentalist as well as a grounded social activist and former Kenyan MP, Wangari had barely scratched the surface of all she could have achieved if she hadn’t been blocked so often by lesser beings who were either jealous, envious, intimidated or threatened by her honesty, intelligence and charismatic leadership and authority.

As it was Wangari achieved more in one short lifetime than most people can even contemplate: She founded one of the most important environmental movements in the world, and one that spotlighted the capacity of African rural women to problem-solve for the planet; she ran for Parliament and won (although she was sorely under-utilized by the Kibaki government); and she succeeded in battle against one civilian dictator who attempted to grab public land in the heart of Nairobi for his personal self-engrandisement.

Her Nobel Prize in 2004 was for her successfully showing the world the clear-cut connection between resource depletion (and extraction), poverty and war. She was honored for identifying how protecting the earth’s natural resources is an important peace-making strategy

My one disappointment with Wangari is that in 1992 when the National Commission on the Status of Women called on her to run for the presidency, she declined. She noted that since she was from the same constituency as Mwai Kibaki, she didn’t want to split the vote.

But what if she had run? What if she had won? I’m convinced she could have, and then where would we be today?

We can say there is no point speculating on ‘what could have been’, but we can know and trust that Wangari’s spirit still reigns in our hearts and that her spirit is still with us.

Letter from America #5, October 3, 2011

I started writing my Letter from America in September 2011. the last one I posted, my 7th, was on October 15th, but as I want all my letters posted, I'm going backwards. Below you will find my 5th.


By Margaretta wa Gacheru, October 3, 2011

When I read that the local Kenyan authorities had been “caught off guard” by the kidnapping of  the 66 year old French woman Marie Dedieu from her home on Manda Island, I recalled that the same phrase was used when US authorities were struggling to explain how the 9/11 downing of the Twin Towers on another island—Manhattan Island—could have taken place.

In both instances, the warning signs had been out there for days, weeks, even months in advance of the actual incident. What we know how about the infamous 9/11 tragedy is that there were trackers inside the CIA who had been observing the activities of men associated with Osama bin Laden for many months before the four planes were hijacked in 2001 and the dirty deeds of that day took place.

Why nobody bothered to listen to their warnings is all a matter of conjecture today. Getting the bottom of who did what and why may never be achieved in the American incident. There are still lots of ‘conspiracy theorists’ who claim 9/11 was “an inside job”; others who insist that Osama was the master mind behind the terrible tragedy in 1998 when the US Embassy was bombed and hundreds of Kenyans were killed, maimed, and family lives shattered up to this day. Again, no one can be absolutely sure about who did what and why.

In all these incidents, the authorities have been quick to call the culprits “terrorists” rather than criminals; but that claim came even before investigations got under way.

In the Kenyan case, people are already claiming that the meaty Gang of Ten was Al Shabaab. Not just Somali pirates feeding off the fat of the land, but terrorists which makes them members of a global network of “Islamic extremists” who may soon be hunted down in the context of the global “war on terror”, which still exists despite the fact that US President Barack Obama canned that term.

Still the dynamics of the global war started by George W. Bush in reaction to the events of 9/11/2001 are still in play on the planet, which means the coming days could be unprecedented for Kenya.

Unfortunately, the writing was on the wall for the Kenyan authorities a long time ago, and my heart goes out to the country for its having a border with that leaderless country that the global community ‘forgot about’ years ago. If Somalia had oil like Iraq or Saudi Arabia or even Libya, Somalia wouldn’t have been evacuated of US troops in the early 1990s as the former US President Bill Clinton did. Evacuating the oil-less Somalia led to Clinton also ignoring the horrific genocide of a million Rwandese people in 1994.

Clinton subsequently “apologized” for the “oversight” but the issue of neglect for human rights in Africa is a major issue that will have to be addressed in days to come. For now, I am only trying to point out that the men who abducted Marie Dedieu may or may not have been “terrorists” in the sense of being members of a terrorist organization linked for instance with the one said to be based in Yemen.

Without doubt, the kidnappers are criminals who have terrorized and spooked the wealthy tourist community that has camped out on their Indian Ocean getaway, home-away-from-home for quite some time. They don’t need to be members of Al Shabaab to have scared off tourists who must have known for many months that it was only a matter of time before pirates decided to shift their focus from their lucrative oceanic escapades to looting on land, especially on remote island getaways like the idyllic Valhalla called Manda Island.

I don’t mean to throw a wet towel on Kenyan tourism because I will be the first person to speak about the incredible beauty of the land. I could write advertising copy about the multiplicity of majestic views that tourists ought to treat themselves to in Kenya, although I probably would have put a caveat long ago on the far northern coastline of Kenya where there is practically no way to police the pirating practices of lawless Somali pirates. I would only ask: How come Interpol and all the other international policing organizations haven’t come out and put a stop to the flagrant lawlessness of Somali pirates??

I hear a number of the pirate gangs have criminal master minds based right there in Eastleigh, where pirate loot is helping to build fantastic high-rise hotels and grocery stores, which can rival any shop to be found in the city centre or Karen or Muthaiga or Westlands.

So I pray Ms. Dedieu is not a sacrificial lamb who signals the tremendous need for Kenyan cops to wake up and work with global partners to stop criminality at the Coast and off the Coast as well.

Sadly, it’s also ironic that it was on another 9/11 – approximately one month ago, that the first white woman, Judith Tebbutt was kidnapped from the same Kenyan coast. Let us pray that these events don’t have the same catastrophic effect on Kenya, especially the Kenyan economy that 9/11 has had on the US.

Letter from America #6. October 11,2011

I began writing my Letter from America to Nairobi friends via the (Nairobi) Star in September at the urging of a dear friend who knew that I (stranded as I was in Chicago) needed to connect with Kenyans in the way I had done for so many years. Below you will find the 6th Letter from America, which I sent to The Star's editor Paul Koite on October 11:

LETTER FROM AMERICA: Did Obama snub Kenyan Diasporans?

By Margaretta wa Gacheru  October 11, 2011

I love the Internet, especially because it allows me to stay tuned to the latest news and views of Kenyans, many of whom are filled with marvelous opinions and don’t have problems sounding off about what those opinions are.

Some of the most opinionated Kenyans are the journalists. And among them, I must include the editors and headline writers whose job it is to extract the essence of a specific story and put that gist into a few pithy words.

One example of that online initiative was a headline I saw this week in one of our widely circulating publications*:

“President Obama snubs Kenyan Diaspora Conference” the headline read.

My reaction was instantaneous: I went ballistic! First I hit the SHARE icon on my computer, then the F icon for Facebook, and then I let the headline writer have it! I wrote:

“Why claim Obama "snubs Kenyan Diaspora Conference"? Have you no SENSITIVITY to Obama's political situation in the US where rabid right wingers & Tea Party fascists claim he IS a Diasporan Kenyan, born in Nyanza, therefore in the White House unconstitutionally. So how did he "snub" Kenyans??? He did not! He did the best thing for his political career and for Kenyans as well.”

Kenyans may not be fully aware of how hateful some members of the Republican Party are towards President Obama, not simply because he’s a Democrat who, in theory, stands for many of the policies that Republicans abhor, such as Federal assistance to the poor, the unwell, unemployed, aged and victims of natural disasters such as Katrina.

No, unfortunately there are members of the US Congress who I call “closet KKKers”, and by KKK, I don’t mean the “Kikuyu, Kamba, Kalenjin” coalition which seemed to be such a potentially powerful political alliance for a brief period until recently. I mean KKK, the Ku Klux Klan which was a viciously racist and reactionary organization that came into being right around the time that President Abraham Lincoln emancipated African slaves in the mid-19th century.

The issue of African slavery was at the crux of the American Civil War: The Southern states fought a life and death struggle to keep the institution of slavery intact, since they were reaping incalculable wealth off the sweat and slave labor of Africans who had been kidnapped from their home countries and sold at auction like chattel in the ‘New World’ of the Americas.

The Northern states wanted to abolish slavery and Lincoln was also fighting to keep the Union intact since the Southerners wanted to secede and create their own independent state united around the principle of subjugating Blacks.

The Southern states lost that battle, as most people know. Slavery was legally abolished but it took a Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other great African American leaders to ensure that all people of color enjoy the full range of human rights promised to all US citizens.

The point is there are still a few of those KKKers who never accepted that the South lost the Civil War. They still honor the flag of the Southern Confederacy, and they despise the idea of a person of color, especially one of African descent, being ‘their’ Commander in Chief and President.

Some of the most extreme anti-Obama-ites have been nicknamed “Birthers” because they are adamant that Barack Obama was never born in the US. They don’t examine the impossibility of that claim. They only insist he is NOT ‘their’ president. To them he is nothing other than a “Kenyan diasporan”, someone born in his father’s homeland who somehow came here in the Diaspora.

So given the fact that the Birthers, together with members of Congress like Mitch McConnell, are committed to Obama losing in 2012, they would have pounced on the President if he had honored his Kenyan cousins by attending that conference.

Kenyan diasporans are not the first Africans to complain that Obama seems to be studiously avoiding addressing issues related to Africa. The one exception of course is Libya where Obama made haste to join two European heads of state, Sarkozy and Cameron, to finish off the founder and primary patron of the African Union, Big Man Moumar Gadaffi.

But otherwise, Obama is caught between a rock and a hard place on a daily and hourly basis. The Birthers, Tea Party, Republican Party and closet KKKers are keen to ensure he fails at every turn. So while I appreciate the sentiments of Kenyans who would have liked to see and claim their blood connection to the Son of Obama, still we can all give him a bit of slack, since he is in the thick of a race war that very few people want to talk about.

The American media has bandied about the term “class warfare”, especially now that tens of thousands of jobless Americans are occupying scores of city centers all across the country. But few people are openly admitting the racism is a key factor in the trials afflicting Obama politically. But there it is. We have to respect the man for doing the best he can.

*Daily Nation, October 11, 2011