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Professor John AJ Gowlett is Professor of Archaeology in the University of Liverpool’s School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology
“A few weeks ago we sat at dinner in the Westgate Centre, a small group of researchers, out on the veranda of Art Caffe. Tired after a long day we took a light supper; extravagant and upmarket? Not really.
We were there as a matter of practicality. Kenya’s shopping centres are convenient one stop shops when you are making the final preparations for fieldwork, as we were in our project which involves collaborations with the National Museums of Kenya. Our modest guesthouse has no evening facilities, so to turn those late hours to advantage you go out. But in any large African city that has its own risks.
Popular not posh
The shopping malls answer most of them, and that is also why they are so popular with Kenyans. You have secure parking, phone shops for a local sim, shoe shops for boots and above all the Nakumatt supermarkets. Like a cross between Tesco and Sainsburys, they offer all the same things at (for the western pocket) similar prices.
Westgate has brought home to western eyes a kind of development which doesn’t square easily with savannas and game animals, or slums such as Kibera. It has been somewhat negatively described as posh, but popular is nearer the mark. Certainly the big shopping centres cater for expatriates and provide every kind of luxury, yet there is another side to it. Kenyans, in Nairobi and far beyond, are very rapidly moving into the modern world, led by their phones and tablets.
Westgate is just one end of a continuum, in a nation building itself vigorously. Across central Kenya the boom in construction is stupendous. On the way to EAQUA, the East African Quaternary meeting in Nanyuki, our conference bus followed thirty miles of superhighway to Thika, flanked by spectacular new building developments almost the whole way.
It’s natural that in the West we will look to our own casualties. But I think of the smart young waiters and waitresses, the people on the supermarket tills, and fronting the shops – bright, educated young people moving up through first jobs. These could be our students. First to be shot was Maurice Adembetsa, a security manager called down by his assistants. Sylvia Ullari, 25, a tours consultant who had been in her job for just a few months, was the family breadwinner. One of our own research students has lost a very good friend.
I have known Kenya for many years and love it like a second home. It has always been invigorating, sunny at its heart – a bit rough and tough, but even its shabbier side lifted by its people. Days ago a South African colleague mused to me that he had never met a Kenyan whom he disliked.
Sixty years ago the anthropologist Louis Leakey lamented the loss of traditional African values which he said was creating a rootless generation in East Africa. The real problem was that people needed their independence. Now we see a fusion of traditional African values and those that have come in with the modern world. The result is an essentially humane culture. In their pain, Kenyans have stood out for their humanity and responsibility. Rarely will we in the west have seen them before the television cameras; workers, business people, politicians.
Many years ago, on a day off, my fieldcrew took me to a political rally of the late Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president. I was the only European in the stadium, and seemed to get a special nod. Kenyatta had his dark side, but also an aura. charisma and positive direction which allowed him to become father of the nation.
Dignity and lack of hatred
The young Kenyatta may now grow into his shoes. Sad to say, the pain of these early days may prove the making of Kenyatta as a President. This week he has risen to the occasion, like all the other Kenyans whom we have seen, striking in their dignity and lack of hatred.
What now? The news story is almost over, but I am not writing about that. The challenge is one for everyone who desires a civilised world. Kenya is not very well equipped physically to meet savage onslaughts, but their society is showing its own kind of strength. It happens that Kenya has one of the best records in the world of the deep past, of millions of years of human evolution. I have always viewed that evolution as a hopeful process. Those of us who work there, building links with our Kenyan colleagues, will go on of course.”
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