Somali-ization of the Famine in East Africa
NGOs and local media houses sounded the alarm about the oncoming food crisis months before the UN declared famine in the Horn of Africa. After the news hit the international media, it took the Kenyan government weeks to admit that the famine wasn’t just over there (in Somalia and Daadab refugee camp), but also here. And then came the government’s slow non-response.
Here is NTV footage of the government spokespuppet Alfred Mutua denying that no Kenyan has died from starvation:
Why this initial denial? In a Kibaki-decade when we have been talking about rapid economic growth, multiple carriage highways, transit flyovers and MPESA, it is embarrassing for our government to admit that a sizable section of our population has been poor and starving.
This Somali-ization of the famine furthers the notion that the gains made in this supposedly democratic decade since Kibaki took power have been spread equitably throughout the nation and that the famine is a foreign problem whose victims have crossed our borders.
We like to play that game where we consider Kenya the economic hub of East Africa. In reaction to the graphic photos of this famine that have circulated the international media, my friend Kenne asked, What would it mean to invoke images of hunger, starvation and malnutrition from the West? In the same vein, our government doesn’t want Kenya, the hub of East Africa, portrayed as starving.
Frustrated by government apathy (and suspicious of the corruption attendant to state action), corporations, NGOs and citizens have come together through initiatives like Kenyans4Kenya to feed the hungry. There have been widespread calls both locally and internationally for long term solutions to the food insecurity in the Horn of Africa.
My friend Kenne has also blogged that initiatives like Kenyans4Kenya might be problematic: they center charity and empathy on shared nationhood when the famine itself is cross-border and transnational. Are Kenyans only for Kenyans?
Okay, let’s play the government’s game and say that No Kenyan has died from starvation. This statement must not be taken literally. Of course, spokespuppet Alfred Mutua and the government know that Kenyans have perished from this famine. But what exactly does this denial (and the Somali-ization of famine) mean?
I believe in this one statement the borders of Kenya have been redrawn. No Kenyan has died from starvation effectively means those who have died are not Kenyans. North Kenya, which is hardest hit by the famine, has been the part of no-part in Kenya: its inhabitants have been historically and systemically excluded from the Kenyan body politic. There is an official habit of referring to the inhabitants of the North collectively as “Somalis” to mark them as refugees/foreigners/nonKenyan. So to paraphrase the government’s statement,No Kenyan we consider a Kenyan has died from starvation.
This famine has made me question the idea of failed states. If you live in the Northern provinces where government provision of essential services and infrastructure is almost nil, doesn’t the Kenyan government look like a failed state to you? But how does the government look like if you live in Nairobi? It appears states willingly withdraw from and cede responsibility of certain spaces as long as the sociopolitical risk of doing so isn’t too high. Whereas Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote about the Nigerian state that is “everywhere present but nowhere accessible,” the Kenyan state is only sometimes present in some spaces.
Meanwhile, the government is holding conferences in Nairobi to brainstorm solutions to the perennial problem of famine. As Said Ahmed Mohamed told us in his play Amezidi, this is what successive Kenyan governments have been good at: mikutano na kongamano (meetings and conferences).