Sunday, April 5, 2015

Benjo not in Kenya

Mysteriously last weekend the UK government's foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) included most of the Kenyan coast as an area to be avoided by British citizens. The strip included Watamu, my previous home and where I was planning to travel just after Easter. Initially I, and friends in Watamu, were confused. Surely this was something political, nothing ever happens in Watamu, right? Indeed since 2012, when the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab began operating in Kenya, we never saw a single attack or even threat any closer than Mombasa, 100km to the south. Feeling frustrated at the sloppy nature of international relations and the extra admin this change had created, I nevertheless continued planning my trip.
In the early hours of Thursday morning as students were waking up for the new day, Al-Shabaab gun-men attacked their university in Garissa, killing 148 people and marking that day as the worst terrorist attack Kenya has seen since the Al-Qaeda attack on the US embassy in 1998. Turns out Al-Shabaab had leaked a fairly horrifying letter to the Kenyan public some days before and the FCO had responded accordingly. I am angry. I am so angry I could barely sit through Easter service this morning, where we are supposed to sing joyfully and celebrate the resurrected Christ. Like me you may be infuriated by the loss of life and the barbaric attitude of the organisation that caused it. However, in this blog I want to focus on what this might mean for Watamu, and think about what instability really is. 
In news coverage of such events, the focus is on the immediate victims, the perpetrators, and the wider context for the world and the west. Then it is forgotten. Our lives are unaffected, and why should they be? The only reason I see beyond the headlines in this case is because I lived there and the lives of my friends will be affected. Living in the UK it can be difficult to understand the true consequences of instability or uncertainty because so much of our lives is controlled and sheltered.
The first victim of instability is always business. Economies are fundamentally fragile and can have the rug pulled from under them even in highly regulated countries. Watamu, like much of the coast, relies heavily on tourism. With hotels empty, bars and restaurants will close, souvenir shops will cease to exist and the entire local cash flow will dry up. Some people will move on and find new work, others will have lost a life-time's achievement in an uncontrollable act of fate. 
Next will come the frustration. Lack of money, lack of alternative opportunities and everyone fighting over an ever dwindling pie. In such situations of acute stress and misery, people don't necessarily club together as we would like to believe, but rather become bitter. In Kenya, like most places, this is often expressed through racism; think of post-depression Germany, or even post-recession UK (i.e. right now!). 'That person is stealing my meagre ration in this world and I will not stand for it!' And we have gone full circle. Al-Shabaab and other militant groups around the world prey on disaffected, frustrated young men who have all the energy and potential in the world, but no way to express it. 
Instability is relative. Kenya is doing better than many countries in Africa, but the corruption, food insecurity and crime certainly makes most Brits reflect differently on our own experience back home. I am feeling particularly worried for the marine park in Watamu and for my old charity A Rocha. A Rocha relied heavily on eco-tourism, both for its own income and in its practical conservation programmes. We worked with communities to protect their forests and reefs and help them to recognise the alternative livelihood tourism provides. With no tourism to the area, I fear for our projects and even for the continued existence of the beautiful habitats I was lucky enough to work in for all those years. 
Somalia is the most extreme example of instability and anarchy on the planet, without a functional government or national unity in over 2 decades. What little I understand about the situation, perhaps it is no surprise a group such as Al-Shabaab should form. Nevertheless I cannot help feeling each of us has a choice of how to act when we are hurt. In Jesus' first address, his famous sermon on the mount, he said

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"

I recognise that religion is one of the easiest battle lines to draw and don't put this up as a religious stand point. Personally I read this and feel it may be the only genuine solution to violence, anger and instability in our world. Choosing day by day to live for peace.

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