Sorry for the delay

So I've totally failed to update this since I arrived in Kenya. I have some excuse, which is that all of last week I was travelling to places where there was largely no internet access. I've also been really lazy. All of which means I've now prepared a tediously massive irruption of blogging for you to pick your way through, if you've the stamina.

I arrived in Nairobi on Tuesday 3rd, and went straight into town to catch the Mololine bus for Nakuru. My blurry impression of Nairobi was of an awesomely segregated geography and infrastructure, only slightly less extreme than Pretoria in South Africa. Although thousands of non-Africans live in and around Nairobi, I only really saw any in the northern neighbourhoods on my way out of Nairobi, and in the Central Business District. The white Kenyan businessman I got sat next to on the plane from London lived in Karen, a plush suburb just a few kilometres to the south of the city. In a cut-glass Home Counties accent he told me he hadn't been into Nairobi for five years, and expressed serious surprise that I was planning to get on a bus, which actually got me a little worried.

I asked how (white) people usually travelled out of Nairobi.

In a Land Cruiser, apparently.

And if I didn't have a Land Cruiser?

Well what on earth would I be doing in Kenya, as a white person, without being whisked out of Kenyatta International Airport and straight to either a safari lodge or an NGO's air-conditioned offices?

This is bollocks, of course – there are plenty of independent foreign travellers in Kenya. And I know Nairobi has a very bad reputation for crime, particularly at night, but when I got to the bus area at about 11 o'clock in the morning I had no hassle at all, in what seemed a very plush bit of town indeed. Mr White Mischief was right, though – I was the only white person on the street, and the bus. I was also by far the least well dressed person amongst the immaculately suited and booted passengers on their way to business meetings in Nakuru and Naivasha.

My first few days were spent in Nakuru, a lakeside town about 2 ½ hours from Nairobi in the southern Rift, where the organisation with which I'm spending some time has its head offices. It's a dusty, jumping, bustly, hustly place, much more chilled out than Nairobi, lined with the gnarled colonial remnants of jacaranda trees, looking out over a pink flamingo-tinged lake. This picture, of the main commercial area and the mosque, er, doesn't really show any of that.

I like it a lot. I find it completely impossible to imagine that Nakuru was the site of some of the most serious violence following the disputed 2007/8 election. You can almost miss the IDP camps in the dusty valleys just outside the town, and the ragged tents still pitched - in protest at a perceived lack of government assistance - outside the District Commissioner's offices in Nakuru itself.*

I'm staying in a fantastic flat on top of the Bank of Kenya building in the centre of town (it's a bank, Mum and Dad, so it's super-safe with 24 hour guards!). On Sunday I was sitting on the building's flat roof along with another of the building's tenants. She described to me how she stood there last January and watched as fires burned in an 180 degree arc around her, and dread-locked Mungiki shock troops bussed in by politicians from Nairobi fought Kalenjin mobs while army helicopters swooped overhead. She said she was relieved when the Mungiki “boys” arrived to “protect” the Kikuyu (like her) – a sentiment she didn't at all seem to find at odds with her description of how when they couldn't find any Kalenjin to fight they started attacking male Luo residents of Nakuru instead and circumcising them with broken bottles in the street. While she says it was terrible, she does so (like other people who personally escaped attack and have described the violence to me) in an entirely dispassionate tone of voice.

The peacebuilding organisation with which I'm working is interesting, and their work is impressively grass-roots. The staff have been tremendously welcoming, and seem to be happy for me to hang around – mainly, I think, because I seem to be keeping them perpetually amused with my broken attempts at speaking Kiswahili (my landlady's niece is teaching me). Before I head down to Nairobi I'm going to be spending some time here, mainly trying to set up a grass-roots conflict early warning/monitoring system in three Rift Valley districts, using the community groups within which the organisation works. The idea is to pilot a regular, simple reporting mechanism into which community leaders, Peace Committees and local administration officials can feed a range of conflict indicators and incidents. The results are supposed to be usable by these community groups, NGOs and possibly local administration to respond to emerging small-scale conflicts. A kind of small-scale, 'sous-veillance' community counterpart to the top-down, regional early-warning/monitoring systems currently operated by IGAD and others. We'll see.

On the 6th we went up to Kuresoi, near Molo – a lush farming region quite unlike most of the Rift Valley, but which has witnessed serious violence every election year since 1997. Unless you're looking you'd miss the burnt-out buildings and IDP camps concealed amongst cool green hillsides. We wind up at Baringo B, a small place where the organisation is organising a district Amani football tournament next month - teams will each be composed of a mix of Kalenjin and non-Kalenjin youths who were literally killing each other last year. (They've said I have to play in goal on one of the teams. I hope, for all sorts of reasons, that they're joking). This is a UNICEF 'tented school' on the hilltop in Baringo B.

I realise that throughout this entire post I've used ethnic descriptors totally uncritically. I came to Kenya unconvinced about the causal strength of tribalism in Kenya's internal conflicts. They must, I thought, really be about land, inequality, power, class. And they are, I think. But I'm beginning to be convinced that tribal identities really are the most important internal categories of many of these conflicts, at least in the southern Rift. Almost everyone I've met in Kenya in the last few weeks, including those actually involved in the 2008 violence, uses tribe first and foremost to describe themselves, and their differences with others. I don't doubt that tribal labels conceal power relations, economic inequality, class divisions – nor that they've been largely constructed by colonial administrators, post-colonial politicians and demagogues. But in my (extremely limited) experience over the past few weeks, tribal differences are by far the most significant way that these conflict's participants themselves describe and explain the conflicts around them. In Baringo B we met with L, who farms there and is building a cultural centre on land donated by his father. He's helping us to organise the tournament, and is the most impressive community activist I've ever met. We stand on what L says is the invisible boundary between Kikuyu and Kalenjin zones, and he shows us where Kikuyu farmers are just beginning to return to their burnt farms in the past few weeks. Around us Irish potatoes and pyrethrum are growing in prodigious quantities in a rich, red earth, and there's a cool breeze blowing. L says, quite credibly, that this very local conflict has much to do with resources, and nothing to do with resource scarcity. This is rich cash-cropping land, with spread-out settlements, on which different groups have competing historical claims. The people who burnt the houses and stole the farms, though, weren't from outside this rich farming belt – they were next-door neighbours themselves, often existing landowners, who either wanted more, or felt they were historically entitled for more, or wanted their neighbours out for other reasons.

On a different note about insiders and outsiders, L also made me realise that key entry points into communities for organisations like ours are not people who've lived here for generations and are wholly 'inside' communities, but 'outsider' community members who have gained some respect and trust within communities. Sometimes this trust actually seems to derive from this half-insider, half-outsider status. Most of the residents of Kuresoi would describe themselves as Kalenjin or Kikuyu. L is a local farmer, but is half-Luo, half-Congolese. This status makes it possible for him to intermediate between us and the local community in which he's nonetheless intimately embedded, and also to intermediate between different parts of that community (Kalenjin and Kikuyu) as a neutral party.**

On our way back to Nakuru we passed near the town of Molo, where a few days previously about 130 people died when a fuel tanker overturned on the road and exploded while local people were crowding round it trying to siphon off the fuel. Unsurprisingly, the explosion site is still presenting new economic opportunities which were being thoroughly milked when we passed by. With a kind of horrible tour-guide impulse, our driver insisted on us getting out and looking around the site, which was still chaos. It was days after the accident, but some body parts still hadn't been moved. A man standing nearby physically dragged us over the road and insisted on showing us a blackened, severed hand whose wedding ring is still on it, perfectly intact. He then asked for a small guide fee. And where the fire had burnt a hole in the fence around the private forest by the road, dozens of men were taking advantage of the general chaos to cut down branches and trees and carry them off to sell, picking their way between the blackened metal and shrivelled messes on the road.

All of which seemed to reinforce the sense of the fuel siphoners' deaths being a grim indictment of serious local scarcity, of a kind that seems very remote from the rich Kuresoi hills just a few dozen kilometres away. But I'm quickly learning that this kind of European bleeding heart-ism just won't cut it. Most Kenyan media, and those Kenyans I've spoken to about it, seem to explain the Molo accident simply as country bumpkin stupidity.

And of course it's true that the desperation which made me feel sick on the Molo road is entirely relative: the southern Rift is, comparatively, a pretty affluent part of East Africa, with nothing like the current, grindingly persistent scarcities of northern Kenya – still less southern Sudan, Somalia or even northern Uganda.

I'm afraid this post has ended up being full of doom, gloom and badly constructed undergraduate essay-age. In fact I'm actually having a great time! More tomorrow on my first trip north, Ghanaian kung-fu, magnanimous police chiefs and Leeds United.


* At least two of these camps, near the Nairobi road, have actually clubbed together to buy the land on which they're located. One of the organisation's programme officers told me that they're now starving, because they no longer qualify for IDP assistance (they're not displaced any more, they're home!), but in the desolate dry valleys in which they've bought the land they can't possibly subsist agriculturally, and are not well placed to engage in commerce or small-scale industry. This taught me some probably obvious lessons about the inadequacy of a particularly arithmetical variety of Kenyan land politics – which is a politically incendiary Kenyan obsession, for otherwise good reasons; and more importantly about the inadequacy of equating residency rights with dignity and self-sufficiency. By writing this into legal and political definitions of displacement, in some cases (as in this one) you're actually worse off when you settle. I guess you probably learn all this in the first week of your International Development master's course, right? I'm afraid I'm groping around all this a bit.

Conversely, the IDP camps in this whole area came under intense criticism from local communities last year because IDPs were receiving food and other material aid from UNHCR, USAID, the Red Cross, Action Aid and others, while the most vulnerable local residents were starving amidst the relief effort, the violence having massively disrupted that year's harvest.

** Actually, Paul Rabinow makes this point much better than I've done in Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. Again, I suppose this is social anthropology Class 101? But I didn't do that either, so I'm afraid what you get here is my crashingly obvious sixth-form meanderings about constructed ethnicity.