Sunday, May 3, 2009

How to rid Kenya of its violent culture

By Lukoye Atwoli

Sunday Nation 03 May 2009, Page 10

The recent resurgence of the Mungiki sect in central Kenya must serve as a beacon of the depths of moral turpitude this country has become inured to.

After a lull during which suspected members of the sect were attacked and brutally murdered by vigilantes, the outfit armed itself and mounted a counter-attack so bloody it left many wondering where to run for safety.

As is usual in this country, the government declared that it would foot the funeral costs of the victims of the attack, and crocodile tears were shed for the benefit of cameras before the ‘leaders’ went back to their continued squabbling over positions and power.

THESE EVENTS MUST NOT BE VIEWED IN isolation. The culture of violence is so deeply entrenched in this country that most of our heroes are violent warrior-leaders, and those leaders with no violent streak are lionized with some imaginary violent exploits in order to make them more ‘respectable’.

Our discourse is replete with violent metaphors, with common use of phrases like ‘heads must roll’, ‘blood will be shed’ and so on.

In any society, there are some factors that increase the risk of violence beyond what can be viewed as ‘normal’.

Studies have shown these to include youth (15-25 years old), male gender, poverty and poor social support. Young people often have a lot of energy which when left idle inevitable drifts to risky behaviour. The changing roles and expectations imposed on them by society often lead to violent confrontations with peers and authority figures.

It therefore follows that a country with a large proportion of young people, as is the case in Kenya, would be sitting on a powder keg of potential violence.

A program that keeps this important population group engaged would therefore considerably reduce the probability for violence, and one way of dealing with this group of youth would be to ensure free (or affordable) education upto tertiary level.

The National Youth Service of the years gone by would be a useful addition to many young people’s lives, as it would keep them occupied and serve as an opportunity to develop a national ethos.

Gender is a major determinant of violence, and indeed this has given rise to the fast-growing field of Gender-Based Violence, with men often being cited as the main perpetrators.

A government that is focused on reducing violence would therefore seriously consider increasing the number and influence of women in key decision-making positions in order to balance out the violent tendencies of at least some of the men.

The token statements from government that a third of all government positions will be reserved for women are useless when they are observed more in the breach than in reality.

Poverty is inevitably linked to a higher occurrence of violence, often due to competition for scarce resources. Indeed, most of the post-election violence last year occurred in poor neighborhoods, and small-scale farmers bore the brunt of evictions in the Rift Valley.

The implication at the national level is that those with a smaller stake in the economy would have no compunction destroying it through violent means. This would explain, for instance, why the economically disenfranchised youth in Kibera would have no qualms destroying a railway line or vandalizing property whose economic value means little to them.

A GOVERNMENT WITH SERIOUS INTENtions of fighting this violent culture would therefore be expected to take measures to reduce unemployment and poverty, as well as the gap between the rich and poor.

Instead of continually improving the living conditions of the rich and mighty, such a government would spend most of its time seeking ways of empowering the poorer segments of the society and distributing resources equitably.

Finally, social support refers to the safety net afforded one by an extended network of family, friends and government social services. People with access to this network are less likely to resort to violence whenever they feel they have reached the end of their rope.

Unavailability of supportive family and friends would explain why violence would be rife in urban centers populated mostly by the poor trying to eke out a living and support many relatives in the rural areas. Supporting rural economies and providing social amenities and forums for interaction in urban areas would therefore help reduce violence considerably.

Recognition of these factors among others as key contributors to the national culture of violence would be a beginning in “civilising” our nation and preparing it for true democracy, where an opponent’s rhetoric would be countered not with violence, but with reasoned responses.

Failure to address these issues is tantamount to surrendering the future of this country to angry louts whose vision of a future is riddled with blood and gore.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

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