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Voices from Kenya


BBC News Online speaks to six Kenyans about their hopes for the future and what the Moi era meant to them, as the country holds historic elections.

Binyavanga Wainaina is a 31-year-old author and playwright, from Nakuru in the Rift Valley.

I was seven-years-old when President Moi came to power. Interestingly I used to mistake him a lot for Mwai Kibaki - who is now the main opposition candidate running for president - because Moi and Mwai sounded the same and I wasn't quite sure who was the president for a long time.

I remember a few months into Moi's presidency, the whole PR campaign kicked in and there was all this "Fuata Nyayo" ("following footsteps" in Swahili) business. And he seemed to be a breath of fresh air – Kenyatta, the first president, was so aloof, bigger than life and in the Kenyatta era there was always a sort of a cloud of fear.

Under Moi, we acquired a culture of following and the culture became so powerful that people didn't need encouragement to follow
The early few years of the Moi era seemed to be freer, seemed to me about the common "mwananchi" (citizen) whereas the Kenyatta era was not about the common "mwananchi" – it was about the middle class.

But by the time I was a bit more politically aware in high school I began to realise that the Moi regime was seriously flawed and because of that the Kenyan people themselves became seriously flawed people.

We acquired a culture of following and the culture became so powerful that people didn't need encouragement to follow. We became somewhat fascist in the way we saw things and the economy continued to deteriorate and so many people lost their businesses, so many people started going to church and getting saved, trying to run away from the problems. We just seemed damaged. At that time I could not articulate what had happened.

No say, no influence

When I went to live in South Africa, I immediately began to understand what went wrong. Because here was a place supposed to be under apartheid – I arrived there in 1991 – but here a black person had more say and had more influence over his white government than an average Kenyan had over the Moi government.

That was the most damaging thing, more than the economic problems for me. Forty years of people telling you who you are, what to do and how to behave
Here was a country where everyone raised their issues as loudly as possible and no-one thought the country would fall apart as we were made to believe in Kenya. The Moi regime had told us if you deal with your issues we will become like our neighbours, like Somalia, we will fall apart – so keep quite, don't ask questions.

That was the most damaging thing, more than the economic problems for me. Forty years of people telling you who you are, what to do and how to behave. If you didn't behave in the right way, you were a non-person.

Living in South Africa and periodically coming back to Kenya, my relationship with officialdom in Kenya was just insane. Unfortunately Moi's personality and the way Moi did business became Kenya's way of doing business. We took our cue from him. I remember I had left my passport in a pair of jeans in the washing machine and everyone was telling me that I was going to be arrested because the passport was a privilege and not a right.

I remember going to get my birth certificate and going through all sorts of problems from people who wanted me to cringe and crawl because of their perverted sense of self-importance, of "Mtukufuism" (Holiness). It was still a who you knew, who you are, sort of thing. It was as if you wanted to do anything in Kenya, you needed a godfather, who you would bow to and say, "Your holiness, please help me." Everywhere was broken down into small feudal spaces.

Change is coming

I remember I felt so frustrated that Moi didn't feel he needed to apologise or listen to what everyone was telling him – that he had made mistakes, he had done wrong because he thought he knew better than 30 million people.

This is not an election about people with a vision. I think in the next five years we will be trying to find our feet again… The next election will be the one when Kenyans will really choose their true leaders to represent them
I am quite excited that Moi is leaving. Kenyans have changed. We have a free press and it is no longer a situation of "follow in my footsteps". Whoever succeeds Moi will be a leader who follows in the footsteps of what the people of Kenya tell him.

But it is my feeling that it's also a time for lessons. We have been living lies, we have been told to pretend that we were living on an island of stability. And my problem now is we have two leading contenders – Mr Kenyatta and Mr Kibaki – who are going for a forgive and forget policy.

How can we make a fresh start with this? They are telling us it's okay to have stolen and then they are taking away from us the right to know what happened. If we are going to be a country that works we must know who we are and what happened, and why – and it must be truthful. The fathers of the nation and the Mtukufus must become humans and flawed and they must be prosecuted.

This is not an election about people with a vision. I think in the next five years we will be trying to find our feet again, find out who we are and come up with a new constitution - and the next one will be the one when Kenyans will really choose their true leaders to represent them.

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