Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cry , my beloved Kenya , Cry ........

Whenever I think of Kenya , unlike most americans , I think of white sandy beaches on blue waters of a passive ocean , rather than giraffes and zebras and all kinds of wildlife in the safari parks . I am not Kenyan , and I have never been to Kenya - but Kenya is close to my heart . I count a handful of Kenyans as my close friends , and through them I have come to love their easy-going ways , their love to party and have a good time , and their embrace of me despite being not one of them . And, that is why , the images and reports coming out of this proud east african nation since the end of December - saddens me to the core . My beautiful , serene and exotic Kenya - the Kenya depicted in the movies " The Constant Gardener " and " I dream of Africa " - is in great pain , and there seems to be no end in sight .

Situated on Africa's East coast on the equator , Kenya is a pictuesque country inhabited by forty-eight different tribes , the largest Kikuyu , Luo and the Luhyia makes up 65% of the population . In a corner of the world dominated by strife and tribal differences which would commonly disintegrate into outright warfare - Kenya was an exception , it was always referred fondly as the Island of Calm . But, there were simmering tensions boiling underneath all this time , and it just needed a spark .

The British , with their customary disposition of leaving a conflict behind wherever they ruled under their empire , made no exception of Kenya . When the East India Company started to have a financial crunch , they decided to open the Kenyan farmlands to European settlers . Most of the lands appropriated were prime agricultural lands of the central highlands belonging to the Kikuyu tribes , and the people were forced into reserves . By 1948 , 1.25 million Kikuyus were restricted to 2,000 square miles and 30,000 settlers enjoyed 12,000 square miles of prime land . The European settlers also let 120,000 Kikuyus till the lands as tenant farmers on land which they owned once ! This created a continuing worsening scenerio where the farmers started migrating to Nairobi , and at the same time created a Kikuyu land owning class who joined hands with the British . By 1950's half the Kikuyu's had no land claims at all - a worsening poverty and deprivation created a deepening bitterness - and the Mau Mau uprising was born . Starting in 1952 , and at first trivialised by the British , the uprising gained strength despite having only basic rudimentary arms against a colonial army . Unable to stem the tide , the British and their local allies resorted to the extreme . In 1954 , the entire capital city of Nairobi was placed under military control and security sweeps were done throughout the city , and suspected rebel sympathisers as well as innocent civilians totalling about 77,000 people were forcibly led into concentration camps , and an additional 100,000 were deported back to the reserves . In apalling conditions, many died of disease and malnutrition . Despite gaining the upper hand militarily against an unco-ordinated and ill-equipped uprising , the British lost the outcome - and decided to grant independance to Kenya in 1963 , and Jomo Kenyatta , the nationalist leader , came to power . He consolidated power with his Kikuyu tribe forging an alliance with the Embu and the Meru 's and marginalising the Luo's . The Kikuyu's , with government blessing fanned across the Kenyan farmlands , and settled in lands not only left by the whites , but enroaching on tribal lands belonging to other tribes as well . And thus , the under current of tribal antagonism was born , and continued to manifest itself in power , politics and the social fabric of Kenya for years to come . And in every election , and there has been only a handful in Kenya , whenever the time to bestow power has come - so has election violence - which has to a large extent always traversed the path of tribal divide . But somehow , the resilient Kenyans had a way of their own to overcome the divide - tribal inter-marriages were common , and tribal identities were always the unspoken reality .

But, this time , the election of 2007 , was different . Raila Odinga , the leader of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) put together a coalition of the marginalised tribes and challenged the Old Generation leaders in Government led by Mwai Kibaki . Raila and the ODM had consistently bettered the ruling party in polls after polls before the election , and the prospect that people's verdict through the ballot will change the face of power for the first time in Kenya - made this a historic moment . Rampant corruption and cronyism had reached an unprecented peak , and people were ready to answer in kind . Marginalised Luo's , Luhiya and the Kalenjin's saw this as their chance of representation in power , and they rallied behind the opposition . On election day , people came out in droves , stood in line for hours , and peacefully cast their votes . But , for those who said the New day for Kenya has arrived , the ominous clouds had already begun to gather .

There were both President and Parliamentary elections at the same time . As the results began to trickle in , an astonishing picture was emerging . Raila's ODM , was winning across the board in parliamentary seats and ended up with 92 , far ahead of the 34 for Kibaki's PNU . Half of the cabinet was thrown out of power and replaced by unknown members of the opposition - but something strange was happening behind the scenes when the numbers for the presidential election was being revealed . Even when the numbers from remote areas of Kenya was already in , poll center results from nearby Nairobi were being witheld ! And, the numbers started to look suspicious for a number of reasons - one, numbers published at the polling centers did not match with the numbers stated when they were announced at the Commission ; Two, strangely the number of people who voted for the Parliamentary ballot was far less than the number voting for the presidential ballot although everyone entering the polling station were given two ballots ! ; and third, the mathematically impossible scenerio that more than 100% people had voted in constituency after constituency where Kibaki won handily ! It was as if someone was waiting to see what the margin would be in favor of Raila Odinga in the 19 provinces that he won , and then sat down with a calculator and figured how many votes they had to add to Kibaki's total in the remaining 2 provinces to have Kibaki come out ahead !! Waiting to celebrate a victory , the opposition and the people felt betrayed , and the Rift Valley and the slums of Nairobi erupted in anger !

Raila Odinga , the opposition leader , is from the Luo tribe . And Mwai Kibaki , is a Kikuyu . Overnite , the face of a stolen election opened the deep fissures of the tribal divide , and the anguish over lost land and perceived betrayals called for immediate revenge and protests ! Kalenjin warriors and Luo tribesmen descended upon Kikuyus who had settled in the Rift Valley , and opposing tribes fought pitched battles in the slums of Nairobi. What should have been a movement for democracy and people's will, instead became an ethnic warfare with horrific scenes of brutality ! The demons were unleashed on the beautiful swaths of Kenya , and left nothing but total destruction ! Families after families were uprooted , their houses burnt , people stopped and if found to be of a different tribe , hacked to death ! Churches where people went for refuge , were first blocked by mattresses at their entrances , then set on fire so the people inside cannot escape ! Human brutality at its ugliest, showed in every form in this conflict - from all the fractions , and specially the security services on people who came out for legitimate protests .My father used to tell me how brutal the Religious Riots during the India-Pakistan Independance and the following Migration was - how train loads of people trying to reach the other side were attacked with swords and hacked to the last man,woman and child , and the trains would arrive at the station with no live person in the compartments - only mutilated bleeding bodies ! And worse ,in Kibera , it was people who had no possessions to begin with in the slums , were attacked and their belongings put on fire ! One group of have-nots dispossesing the other group of have-nots , just because they are from the other tribe !

My circle of Kenyan friends widened during my four tumultous years with C , and I would meet a lot of nice people from all parts and tribes of Kenya. It would never dawn on me to ask which tribe they belonged to , but over time I would learn the names of the tribes and their uniqueness little by little . As there are a lot of people of Indian descent in Kenya I would be asked again and again whether I am from Nairobi or Mombasa whenever I was at a "Kenyan Bash" . And I loved to go to these Bashes - not only for the gorgeous stylish women but also for my developing liking for 'Tusker' , the Kenyan beer . The Kenyan Team always loses at the Rugby 7 Series but its supporters are the most faithful , ardent and boisterous ! And yes , I root for them every chance I get ! C and M , two women who has been close to me over the years , are from Kenya - one from Nairobi and the other from Mombasa . All put together , Kenya means a lot to me . And I have always deplored the Indian old conservative mentality of not integrating with the Kenyan African population while living in their county ( the worst glares I received when C and I would be walking in the Malls in Los Angeles were from old Indian couples passing by ! ).

Well, I am lost in this blog like Kenya is lost in this mindless tragedy . But I also believe in the resilience of its people . Although it is painful to watch the horrors unfloding at the present , you have to believe this is not the future . You have to believe , maybe this is the pain that will bring in a ' New Kenya ' - where old entrenched mentalities of power and inflaming of divisive politics will be swept away , where a more equitable distribution of land will give more sustainable survival to the landless , where a President wouldn't be holed up in his palace when the country burns and the people suffers , and above all , people will not be painted in their tribal codes but show the colors of a proud Kenyan nation !

Palaeontologists have discovered the earliest evidence of man's ancestors in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya - so there is some Kenya in all of us . So let us all stand and shed a tear with Kenya and say , Enough - this mindless killing has to stop - let us say in one voice , the verdict of the people has to be heard !

As I started the blog , I will leave with the images of Kenya that will always be on my mind , from the movie "The Constant Gardener " on the shores of Lake Turkana in the Rift Valley - beautiful , serene and exotic - my Kenya will forever remain....

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The New Year and a Life without T ..............

It was a Friday nite , December 29th and the Berkeley temperatures were on a free fall downwards - it was a day when Jessica Alba announced she is both engaged and pregnant at the same time , president Bush non-chalantly vetoed a defense bill on his desk , and the Patriots - much to my ire - were flying off to a perfect season ! And, this is the day T left .

Yes, T left for Lagos, Nigeria last Friday - final destination : Cairo, Egypt . She always wanted to know the Arab culture and Arabic . In fact, I met her when she came to see the Arab Film Festival in SF/Berkeley . And, we met by chance , on a sunny extended summer day in Berkeley , and we have been together since - until last week.

It was a very uneventful meeting , I had just walked into Dada's place , and there she was - clutching a cup of hot chocolate and trying to sneak a glance at me as I strolled through the dining room ( she really did ! ) , and on the way back , she was still with her hot chocolate when I said , " Hi " . She nodded , but did not say anything , and I kept walking !

I wanted to see her again , but my work at the hotel , and her volunteering for the Festival kept us from running into each other for the next few days . Until one afternoon when I was driving past Dada's house , I saw her opening the front gates and going inside ! Well, a Taurus always knows what he wants , and goes for it ! So , I did . I turned my car around at warp speed , parked and went inside the house hoping to catch her before she fades into the bedrooms upstairs !

And, I caught up with her halfway up the staircase ! Feverishly between catching my breath ( I attribute this to my not running since I moved back from LA ! ) , and coming out with the right frame of words - I tried to convince her that she should go out with me sometime ! Honestly, I don't remember the exact words that I said , but it kind of went like this :

"i kind of liked you when i saw you the other day , and i heard you are going back to Pasadena after the festival and i might not see you again - so when i saw you while driving past the house i had to stop and ask you - will you go out with me ? how about a movie and dinner ? - we can talk and find out more about each other ! although i have to tell you that you are looking at a thorough Bengali man who happens to be a Taurus - we are fantastically emotional , stubbornly faithful and of course , extremely gracious ! "
And I kept on and on , totally unscripted ! Until she stopped me and said -" Yes ". And we met to watch the festival movie - "Seeds Of Doubt" and then - "Kiss me not on the Eyes ". And we were together . I remember that we were talking in a cafe until midnite and then sat in the car and continued the "conversation" - until the street sweeper trucks called in the cops to move our car at 5am ! I still remember when I went to meet her in San Francisco for the Festival Celebration Nite and danced with her till 2am - and how awesome she looked in her "yemeni" outfit !

Yes, she is special , and we started in a very special way .

Isn't it odd that the first things you miss about the person are the ones that you would complain about the most ?

" Did you wash all the plates and forks before putting it on the table ?".
" Please do ."
"Why ? I washed and put them up yesterday ! "
"Can you please do it again ?"

"Why are we stopping ?"
" I have to take gas ."
"You still have a lot "
"Its a twenty minute drive !"
"Its cold , I want to go home first ! Its going to take longer if we stop !"

"Did you mapquest the place we are going ?"
"How will we find it T , you know we always get lost in San Francisco ?"
"No, You get lost in SF , besides its more fun finding out the place on our own , instead of knowing every little turn ! "
"Unbelievable ! You do know the movie starts in half an hour !"
"41 minutes Raj , I beg ,- always fuzzying up the numbers !"

"Are you listening to him again ?"
"Its not him - its Rufus "
"Yes, Rufus the Dufus ,T its 4am ! "
"Isn't he great baby ?"
"You do know he gives me a headache now with his ranting music !"
"I can't believe you said that - you have to unclutter your head , thats where you are getting your headache, I beg ...."

"Can I switch the channel ?"
"To what ?"
"Something else "
"I am watching the Tennis channel !"
"Babe, weren't you watching this same interview yesterday ?"
"what is your point Raj , now I missed two minutes of the interview and have to watch it again , I beg ...."

I could always depend on her , she was my biggest cheerleader . Every evening ,I would call to ask her what to bring for dinner and start home. I would climb up the stairs and dash to the bedroom to see how she is . She was there , and I always knew she was there . Every weekend we used to make plans and then just stay home ! And when , she had to go to DC , or I had to go to Miami , we would just miss each other so much and couldn't wait to get back .

This job in Cairo is great for her . This is just what she always wanted to do. And I will miss her terribly , I miss her today , and I will miss her even deeply tomorrow . But, I do not want to put the word 'forever' to this word 'missing' . One day , maybe that day would be a warm one , and the patriots would be rotting at the bottom of the NFL , and I will see her again - maybe she will be holding a cup of hot chocolate and sneak a peek at me and I will say 'hi' again - but this time I won't keep walking , and simply say - ' lets start , i have been waiting for you !'

Well baby - be safe, be happy , and as you know , there is someone here who will always root for you !

We used to jokingly ( or seriously ) refer to this as our song , so here it is :

Friday, January 4, 2008

Barack Obama : The Iowa Miracle !

"They said this day would never come,they said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided -- too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.We are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come. One day, the American people will look back on the 2008 Iowa caucuses and say, "This is the moment when it all began."

Yesterday , in the schools, gymnasiums and firehouses of a snow covered Iowa ,an avalanche of hope and optimism cascaded into a concrete win for Senator Obama - streams of inspired people showed up in freezing temperatures to show their desire for change and announce the presence of a new generation . Last night his inspirational victory speech invoked comparisons to Martin Luther King by Republican commentator David Gergen .

Obama stands and speaks for a new generation - Obama stands and speaks for a new face of America , where politics of calculations and politics of shifting positions on the basis of straw polls are no longer convenient nor appealing . In winning by an unexpected wide margin in the sixth most whitest state in the Union , Barack has shown that our generation has moved beyond the old intricacies of race and biased politics - a person who inspires and uplifts you and challenges you to a better world can rise over all these divisions of lines and colors , of pessimism and fear.

I met Senator Obama in a crowded hall in downtown Oakland seven months ago escaping from work - and realized he is bringing something unique to this equation . Coming from the streets of Dhaka ,meeting and marrying a girl from Caracas,Venezuela in Los Angeles during my years at UCLA - and then having a daughter who speaks fluent Spanish and declares in her speech at school " My father is from Bangladesh , and my mother is from Venezuela , and I am a proud American !" - Obama speaks for me .He speaks for an entire changing face of America who cannot find the correct ethnicity on the census questionnaire anymore - and tells them we all have a stake in this equation of America ! Here is the person who embodies the true politics of inclusion , politics of hope and the politics of challenging ones greatness in oneself ! Here is a person who truly believes what he says , not someone who woke up one day and supported an unjustified War where hundreds of young middle income kids from the midwest and poor urban cities were dying with scoreless Iraqis for no apparent reason , not someone who foregoes her beliefs and supports the War so she could "look" presidential and sway enough percentages of southern votes to win an election ! Obama is made different , he speaks different and his feet is firmly planted in what he believes in .

Thank You Iowa , you made history today - you showed America how to bring in a new day in American Politics - and you showed the world what America really stands for !