Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Wishing all a more peaceful 2008

I was going to make this a simple Happy New Year message, but the recent violence in Kenya, over their year-end presidential election, and in Pakistan, following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, put me in a less optimistic mood. Not to forget the ongoing cycles of war, civil chaos, ethnic cleansing, assassinations, revenge killings, and other forms of violence that have ravaged a fairly extensive portion of the Earth's population as far back as I can remember.
What do I care who gets killed Kenya or Pakistan, or anywhere else, for that matter? Do I really need to answer that? I could give a dozen generalizations that would do the trick, but right now I'm thinking about specific people, specific places, specific reasons.
The Chemistry Department at the University of New Hampshire, where I've been working for the past 6 years, has had a contingent of Kenyans working on graduate degrees for over a decade. This might not be notable, or even noticeable, in a lot of places, but it's often struck me that at the University of White Hampshire a black face one sees on campus is more likely to be African than Afro-American. I'm not going to say anything further about race; anyone who has lived here can tell you what he or she thinks, or doesn't think, about it. I'm only going to say that I've mentored two Kenyans in my time here, and that one of them was my most successful student, the only person in my group to attempt and attain a Ph.D. degree. Which doesn't mean I know anything about Kenya, because we don't generally talk about much besides chemistry, but I do know a little about one particular person from Kenya.
I get that Kenya has been remarkably stable for decades, has a robust economy, and a good relationship with the US (if that matters). This doesn't mean there's no inter-tribal or -class tension. How could there be no conflict when one tribe dominates the political and economic landscape. But it's not Rwanda, and it won't be, I hope. There are ~40 tribes, not just two; the added complexity may be one factor that prevents large-scale bloodshed. But the poor are angry, my student tells me, which naturally comes as no surprise. The economic growth has widened, not narrowed, the economic disparity between the poor and those who have prospered. Add to that some ethnic distinction, and you have a tried and true recipe for disaster.
The Presidential election results, my student says, have clearly been falsified, and nothing I've seen in the news appears to contradict her statement. The election of Mwai Kibaki will be strongly contested, although his opponent, Raila Odinga, has called for civil restraint among his supporters. Many people have already been killed in horrible fashion (see, e.g., "Mob Sets Kenya Church on Fire, Killing Dozens", Jeffrey Gettleman, NYT, 2 January 2008). As for me, I am simply following the news, hoping that the right things will be done before it's too late.


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