The assumption in many parts of the world is that Africa is a dangerous place. As a matter of fact, the assumption is so entrenched that CNN didn’t find it too difficult to label Kenya a ‘hotbed of terror’ in July 2015, thereby suggesting that President Obama would be in disproportionate danger during his visit to the country. After KOT (an increasingly vocal group of Kenyans on Twitter) wittily took them to task, the CNN apologised and withdrew the label.
But CNN’s gaffe barely scratched the surface of the stereotypical misconceptions prevalent in the West about the ‘Dark Continent’. Western journalists are still stuck with a paternalistic and condescending mind-set that sees in Africa a brainless brat with a dangerous weapon, an inferior sphere that needs to be handled with gloved and gas-masked care.
But there is a strong case to be made that Obama is in more danger in his own country now than he was when in Kenya last year. In fact, at the least possible risk to his credibility, one would go so far as to say that Kenya is safer than the United States. America might have actually earned the disgraceful label CNN gave Kenya last year. According to figures from the FBI, 12,272 Americans were shot to death in their own country in 2015, many by armed civilians.
Certainly, gun violence isn’t foreign to Kenya. Since 2012, the country has lost over 500 people in some of the more than 150 separate attacks by al-Shabaab terrorists, some of which were particularly devastating. In 2013, for instance, their attack on the Westgate Mall left 67 people dead; and in April 2015 they stormed Garissa University College and killed 147 students. For the most part however, these terrorist attacks are restricted to the turbulent Northeast of the country and resulted in fewer than 200 casualties in 2015.
Other forms of gun violence in the country involve cattle rustlers, who shoot the police and one another a few times every year using illegal firearms, outside the purlieu of unarmed civilians. Every now and then, gangsters engage in fatal shootouts with the police. And there have been a number of political assassinations in the past.
The country also isn’t a stranger to other kinds of violence. Women are raped and exploited in Nairobi’s vast slums, with Kibera being a poignant example. Men are mutilated or stabbed to death by their wives in the central part of the country. The police have been implicated in various cases of summary executions. And in late 2007 and 2008, election-related violence took the lives of 1300 Kenyans and displaced 300,000 more.
Yet, even against such a background, a Kenyan gets the impression that the average American walks around with a portentous suspicion of his fellow countrymen, because any of them might be armed and have sinister motives brooding under his impassive brow. Going by the enormous death toll that has accrued to gun violence in the past year alone, such cautiousness would be warranted. To make matters worse, no portion of the US is exempt by any measure. Gun violence happens everywhere, all the time.
That they are not called ‘terrorist incidents’ and regardless of what it takes for a violent gunfire event to be classified as a ‘mass shooting’ in the US is beside the point. The result either way is that more than 12,000 American civilians, or one in every 26,000, died from a gunshot in 2015. The corresponding figure for Kenya is 200, or one in 225,000. Compared to overall mortality according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, gunfire accounted for 0.005% of American deaths in 2015 while the comparable figure for Kenya is 0.0006%.
Of course Kenya is not perfect, and Al-Shabaab terrorists are still an acknowledged danger for which everyone is on the lookout. For the most part, people are on edge, especially in educational institutions. The recent death of a woman during a terrorist drill gone wrong at Strathmore University is still fresh in the memory of many. And that’s without mentioning that the terrorists still take over small towns close to the Somalia border and lecture the residents; while a number of young Kenyan men are radicalised both inside and outside the country every year.
On the other hand, and totally unintended by the terrorists, the terror menace has also spawned many examples of resilience and heart-warming camaraderie. One poignant example came towards the end of 2015 when, in a bus headed for Mandera — a town on Kenya’s border with Somalia — Muslim passengers refused to be separate from their non-Muslim counterparts, thereby preventing another certain bloodletting by terrorists who had waylaid the bus and ordered them to do so.
It certainly isn’t heaven, but Kenya suddenly feels safer than the US now, an achievement as glorious as it is worrying, given that it doesn’t make Kenya any less dangerous than it actually is. What makes it more worrying, however, is that it is not an achievement worthy of celebration, since its attainment comes at the painful cost of innocent human life in both countries. Perhaps the only victory worth celebrating in the midst of these gloomy statistics is the humanity that gets to show through them.
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