My son, only 6, has been puzzled by the closure of the US Embassy in Nairobi. It has reached him through the kindergarten grapevine that American children are at risk of being attacked by Kenyan children. The word ‘terrorist’ has been mentioned by tongues that can barely pronounce the word.
Of course, none of the children know who or what exactly terrorists are, but they suspect that they are Bad Guys and probably fire guns at people, like they show on TV. The US authorities have stated, with the same prescience and cocksure certainty that marked their assertions of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that there are terrorists in Kenya, and that some of them are Kenyans.
For a while now Kenya has chafed under these accusations. Britain and certain other European countries have issued travel advisories, and suspended flights, which have led to a sharp drop in tourism revenues, one of the few stable sources of this country’s income. There is a sense of somehow being tainted, much like being infected by one’s promiscuous partner and then reviled by the same person for harboring a loathsome sexually transmitted disease and doing nothing about it.
An editorial in The East African Standard has put it thus:
America’s fear of terrorists is making Kenya look like the guilty party while it is indeed a victim by its association with the US. It is a fact that America is the target of terrorists. It is also a fact that the only reason why terrorists would target Kenya is because we host Americans. Were not the presence of Americans and Britons so heavy on our soil, Kenya would not have anything to fear from terrorists. . .[they are behaving] like the visitor who seeks refuge in a house and then proceeds to warn other visitors, who have nothing to fear, not to set foot there lest they be targeted together with him.
Ignore the stridency for a moment, because Nairobi does have its share of crime, and is certainly not the safest of places. My compound has electrical fencing, and my home has safe havens, motion detectors, and panic buttons.
But while petty theft, burglaries and carjacking are common, killing is not the norm. Some of my friends have been carjacked by polite and cheerful young unemployed men of reasonable education, who have been at pains to explain the dire circumstances that have forced them into such diversions.
There is another city where I was cautioned, just a year ago, to exercise extreme caution, and it was Washington DC. I was told that its crime rate was horrifying, and that I should be specially careful not to venture into certain marginal areas of the city, such as where the blacks and latinos live. In Nairobi, you will be similarly warned not to move around in Eastleigh and certain colonies in the industrial belt. I was struck by another similarity with Nairobi – just as the US Embassy in Nairobi was the target of an Al Qaeda terrorist attack in 1998 (in which mostly Kenyan bystanders perished), the Pentagon in Washington DC was hit, on September 11, 2001, by an aircraft manned by Al Qaeda terrorists.
I made enquiries to find out if there was a travel advisory out against Washington DC, or against other cities in the United States. I was told that Washington’s gates remained wide open to tourism (or any other ism). Indeed, it transpired that there is no travel advisory out against any US city at all, though reliable sources such as CNN and BBC routinely report that people there live under constant threat of unexpected attack by virus, microbe, Kalashnikov, snipers, serial killers, shoe bombs, water supply poisoning, anthrax, truck bombs, nuclear strikes, radiation leaks, surveillance, loss of civil liberties, and so on.
In Nairobi, there is relatively small fear of terrorists, though the malarial mosquito and the petty thief are both dreaded.
Let me cut to the chase. When I look at the facts, it seems to me that there should be a travel advisory out against the entire world. All US Embassies should retreat to safe cover – probably on another planet, for it is hard to see where on earth they would be immune to attack. All Americans, in and out of the US, should probably wear protective armor, include bioterror suits, from an early age. Since consorting with Americans can bring small impoverished countries under tremendous pressure to conform to all sorts of standards, social contacts should be reviewed.
The British High Commissioner in Nairobi, Edward Clay, reacting to accusations that USA and UK are imposing only mild warnings on countries where security is far worse than Kenya, reacted with, “There is no direct threat to Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Israel.” How precious of the High Commissioner. Would the Israelis, speaking this very minute of wiping out Hamas, agree? Would the Palestinians, killing themselves to end the killing, agree? Would CNN agree?
I wonder if my son would agree. His kindergarten has children of all nationalities, and they are all affectionate friends. Though they may occasionally sense that all is not so well in the vicious world outside, they hang on to their smiles, and a sense that life is not so bad after all. But the other night, reading to him from his Biblical scriptures text, I was startled by yet another intrusion of unwelcome reality: he was already acquiring the mild suspicion that Palestinians were not very Good People.
We are not Christians in my family, nor indeed Hindus really, but instead strive to somehow create in our children a sense of a supreme divinity. This divinity, we tell them, is kind, not vindictive, omniscient, and yet unobtrusive. He is a watcher, and his eyes keenly follow how his children exercise the judgment and minds he gave them to make choices that bring them nearer to him. He tolerates mistakes, and is endlessly generous in giving each of us opportunities to make choices. We hope that he will learn that we are made – or unmade – by the choices we make in life, but also that one of those is not a choice of which God to subscribe to. Though school teaches him about Bush’s God, we make up the deficit at home. His mind already has room for a larger, kinder intelligence.
The story I found myself preparing my son to tell at his Scriptures test was of Samson and Delilah. “God chose Samson to deliver the Israelis from the Philistines. But Samson fell in love with Delilah. The Philistines bribed Delilah to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. He told her that the longer his hair, the stronger he was. One night, when he was asleep, the Philistines came and cut off his locks and gouged out his eyes, leaving him powerless. The evil Philistines captured Samson. One night, when the Philistines were celebrating, they brought out Samson, and tied him to the pillars of their temple, and abused him and threw rocks at him. Samson prayed to God to give him his strength one last time, and God did. Samson pushed at the pillars until they fell, and brought down the temple, killing all the Philistines. He himself also died.”
Are there still any Philistines and Israelis, my son asked? Indeed there are, I replied, and they are still killing each other. The Philistines are now called Palestinians, that’s the only difference.
He had a flood of questions: Are Palestinians evil? Why does God hate Palestinians?
Did God make Palestinians? Why does God help the Israelis but not the Palestinians? If he is on the Israelis’ side, why haven’t they won the war yet? Do the Palestinians have a different God? Doesn’t he help them?
How to explain to a child a God who speaks like Bush: If you are not with me, then you are against me. Here is a God who kills like Bush: he arms his followers with secret strength, he decimates his out-of-favour children by the thousands. Here is a God who punishes, hates, segregates, strikes terror, and is relentless. You must live in fear of him, or not live at all.
This is not the God who made my son, or me, or little orphan Abdul with neither arms left nor future. Let Bush return to kindergarten. He may learn that while he is bulldozing the world towards his dreadful peace with hamburgers, Coca Cola and freedom fries, he is leading our children into a hellish tomorrow.
C.Y. GOPINATH works for an international health NGO in Nairobi, Kenya and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org