I was at a petrol station in Nakuru, a city in Kenya’s Rift Valley, when I experienced my first moment of genuine terror since arriving in Africa. I was standing in a queue, waiting to pay, when a crowd of about 500 locals suddenly invaded the garage forecourt. They were campaigning for one of the candidates in Kenya’s forthcoming election — a mob, in other words, and not a very friendly one at that. Some of them were clutching makeshift weapons — clubs, sticks and whatnot — and I looked on in horror as a breakaway group surrounded my Toyota Land Cruiser and started rocking it from side to side. My wife was sitting in the passenger seat and my four children were in the back.
I’d been warned not to travel to Naivasha, the other big city in the region, but that had been earlier in the week when various primary elections were held throughout the country. Sure enough, ten prominent politicians were deselected and that led to a series of violent protests in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city. That has sparked fears that the upcoming general election, due to take place in March, will see a repeat of the tribal violence after the 2007 election, when more than 1,000 people were killed and thousands more displaced.
Here in Gilgil, where I’m based, the local expats have plenty of horror stories dating back to that period. Our neighbour, a Spectator reader and mother of three, burnt her hand quite badly on election night and her husband had to drive her to the Naivasha District Hospital. To get there, they had to make their way through a series of impromptu roadblocks erected by rival political factions, and at each one they were stopped and told to turn back. When she eventually arrived at the hospital she got a call on her mobile from a neighbour. Apparently, her garden back in Gilgil had been set ablaze and at that very moment a group of men with torches were making their way to her house with a view to burning it down. It wasn’t her they had a problem with. It was a female member of her household staff who belonged to a rival tribe. Her husband raced home while she organised a rescue party from her hospital bed. The woman — and the house — was saved.
In the end, nothing so dramatic happened to my family and me in Nakuru — possibly thanks to my children. As the Land Cruiser began to sway back and forth, Caroline looked at me with white-faced alarm but the children, God bless ’em, started laughing and hurling themselves about in the car’s interior, exaggerating the effect of the rocking motion. As far as they were concerned, it was all a great lark. Ludo, my seven-year-old, reached out of the window and grabbed a vuvuzela belonging to one of the men, and started blowing it as hard as he could. Seconds later, all sense of threat evaporated — it may have been in my imagination to begin with. Whistles and football rattles were passed into the car and my children obliged by producing an almighty racket, much to the delight of the onlookers.
I eased back into the driver’s seat, nodding and smiling enthusiastically, and started the engine. As I slowly piloted the car through the crowd, my children leaned out of the window clutching their noisemakers and exercising their lungs at full capacity. The novelty of this spectacle — a group of tiny blond children being press-ganged into service of a Kenyan political campaign — seemed to bring about an immediate mood change in the mob. One moment they were banging their sticks on the ground and looking menacing, the next they were beaming with pleasure like a group of munificent uncles. At least, that’s the way it struck me. As I say, my initial reading of the situation may have been unduly paranoid.
My inability to tell whether this crowd was about to turn violent wasn’t just due to my lack of experience. I don’t think they knew themselves. No one in Kenya is able to predict what’s likely to happen at the forthcoming election, including veteran political commentators. One source of hope is that the rate of economic growth experienced a dramatic downturn in 2008 as a result of the violence, shrinking from 7.1 per cent in 2007 to 1.6 per cent. The Kenyan economy is booming again — predicted to grow by 5 per cent this year — and no one wants to jeopardise that with another bout of bloodletting. Let’s hope everyone keeps their heads.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013