Step outside the world of logistics for a brief minute and help us to answer this: Is Somali blood green? Is what runs through Somali veins the bright green of fresh grass or the darker green of well-prepared sukuma wiki?
In the wake of recent attacks on Kenyan soil, followed swiftly by a law enforcement initiative to crack down on illegal immigrants from neighboring Somalia, the Kenyan media landscape was rife with reports of police brutality, suspension of basic human rights and unlawful detentions of people of Somali descent. This coverage soon went silent as newer topics of interest captured our collective attention. What didn’t stop, however was the continued demonization of a people that have lived peaceful side by side with since before Kenya’s official debut as a sovereign nation.
We quickly lost the ability to differentiate between peaceful, hardworking members of Kenyan society and the few individuals championing an unfortunate cause. ‘Somali’ became a blanket term perverted to mean ‘linked with the Al Shabaab’, a militant group in operation in Somalia, where the Kenyan armed forces have worked to help curb their activities and restore order to our neighbor.
One would imagine that, having gone through race-based discrimination and profiling during the colonial days, we as Kenyans would be far more sensitive to the plight of both Kenyan Somalis and Somali refugees. This, unfortunately, has not been the case.
With the nation finding a worrying unity in pointing the accusatory finger at those of Somali heritage, naming them to blame for the numerous explosions that have plagued us, it has never been a worse time to be ‘different’ from ‘indigenous’ Kenyans.
Tales abound of mistreatment of our Somali brothers and sisters on the basis of their ethnicity, a magnified version of tribalism that persists within our borders. Accounts of Somalis being denied entry into public transportation because of wildly unfounded and inappropriate suspicion of being potential terrorists have since surfaced, adding onto an unfortunate pile of such exclusionist practices.
Some realtors have taken to advertising their residential units by including phrases such as ‘no Somali residents/neighbors’ in the description of the units they are advertising. One can only imagine, then, that Somalis seeking housing in some areas have been denied access on flimsy bases by bigoted owners claiming to be ‘trying to stay safe’.
Likewise, personal accounts abound of long time Somali patrons of leisure establishments have reported being turned away from enjoying services, with the management providing weak explanations for refusing them – all with the subtext that their ethnicity was the sole reason for this mistreatment.
Perhaps the most mystifying is the apparently government sanctioned xenophobia often occurring in broad daylight. Shortly after the initial attacks occurred, a police operation “Usalama Watch” was launched, targeting illegal Somali immigrants who were alleged to enable terrorist activities. The first place targeted was Eastleigh, a bustling economic hub and residential area predominantly populated by Somalis. Individual victim accounts carried even in international media such as Al Jazeera tell a horrifying tale of police brutality, with law enforcement authorities allegedly ransacking homes, beating residents, demanding bribes and illegally detaining Somalis under suspicion of being illegal immigrants.
Those ‘captured’ in this swoop were subsequently held at the Moi International Sports Center in Kasarani, awaiting confirmation of their legal refugee status, with those deemed undocumented being deported back to Somalia. Already established under questionable circumstances, the detention center soon became the source of alleged reports of human rights abuses.
Images surfaced on social media of the holding cells in the detention center, where basic needs such as food and clean water were alleged to be scarce and mostly provided through the intervention of volunteer human rights organizations; reports denied by authorities overseeing the exercise.
Many of those arrested, having been issued the needful documentation and even Kenyan national IDs, were included in the swoop simply because they did not have their papers with them. In Eastleigh, this fear lingers, forcing youths to have their identification papers on them at all times should the need to prove their legal status arise; a situation reminiscent of the ‘Kipande system’ in colonial Kenya where Kenyan male natives were required to have their identification on their person throughout.
Such indignities have polarized the Kenyan public, with part of the population engaging in xenophobic commentary, and part showing their support for the human rights of Kenyan Somalis. Nowhere has this rift been clearer than across social media. A cursory search of Twitter shows the existence of hash tags, used to identify tweets by their subject matter, relating to the treatment of the Somali in Kenya. #KasaraniConcentrationCamp and #JusticeForEastleigh have been among the more prominent, featuring an outpouring of Kenyans decrying how the situation has been handled and expressing support for the Somali. A wealth of Kenyans online continue to condemn the unlawful arrests and detentions, calling for ethical treatment of detainees and an end to needless harassment of Somali residents, more so in Eastleigh.
To mitigate this depressing turn of events, some Somalis are now working towards getting their side of the story heard via the same social media used to deepen the roots of distrust. A popular online platform known as Tumblr has seen a positive account set up: Kenya, I’m Not A Terrorist. The blog features images of Kenyan Somalis and Somalis in general holding up placards detailing their experiences in being profiled and asserting their status as Kenyans.
While we commend those who have managed to maintain their empathy for the Somali, we cannot ignore those that have chosen to spread hateful propaganda both online and on our streets. In what can be counted as one of the darkest times in Kenyan history, individuals of Somali descent have been labeled the enemy, setting off a period of pronounced xenophobia the likes of which can only be compared to the anti-Semitic movements of days past.
Mothers having fled their home country for the safety of their children, businessmen contributing to the Kenyan economy, innocent schoolchildren with dreams of becoming pillars of the community: this is who we have chosen to group together with the extremists responsible for bloodshed. Indeed, even Somalis have not been spared in this vendetta, with an April explosion taking six lives in the predominantly Somali Eastleigh area. Similarly, explosions have been rife in the North Eastern Province, one of Kenya’s largest, occupied almost entirely by ethnic Somalis.
Where Kenya went wrong was turning the war against terror into a “Kenyans against Somalis” affair, where it should have been “Peace-loving, law abiding residents against the criminals”.
Instead of rushing to scapegoat an entire community for the attacks that have rocked the nation, our focus should be on working together to root out the negative elements out to cause chaos.
Imagine a world where you woke up one day and the people you have lived next to peacefully suddenly turned against you because of who your parents and grandparents were; where your ancestry was used as a valid reason to deny you your rights, have you beaten and extorted, have your home raided at 03:00am because someone you’ve never met happens to look like you and made the decision to take innocent lives. This is what the blameless Somali in Kenya faces today, a situation YOU reading this may have helped propagate through racist jokes and enabling needless discrimination by not speaking out. How many of us would be able to live with the horrors they face simply because of our last name?
At the start of this article, we asked you to help us answer a question: Is Somali blood green? The answer, as you well know, is simple- Somali blood runs just as red as yours or mine or the next ‘indigenous’ Kenyan’s as we are bonded by the common thread of humanity. We all laugh, we all cry, we all love. What right, then, do we as Kenyans have to treat Somalis like they are less than human?
Now, take a good hard look at yourself today and ask yourself: What have YOU done to help the spread of xenophobia? Our final question for you- What are YOU doing to rectify it?