Eric Kiraithe, must really be well paid. Being the official spokesman of the Kenyan Government, is, in the words of Jerry Maguire, “an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege” that I’m sure he will never fully tell us about. We got a glimpse of what the job entails when the government sent him out this week to defend the indefensible: US President Donald Trump’s description of Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries” and his declared preference for immigrants from Northern Europe.
The mental gymnastics Kiraithe had to engage in were a spectacle to behold. No doubt trying to curry favor with the famously petty and vengeful Trump, he declared that Kenya had no problems with African countries being called “shitholes” but nonetheless supported the African Union in condemning the comments whose context, he claimed, the government was still studying “to see whether it is worth the attention”, even though it had already determined that they were not directed at Kenya.
Still, there perhaps was an easier, and perhaps less humiliating, way for Kiraithe and his minders to extricate themselves from the bind. Trump may be an ignorant, racist, pathetic excuse for a human being but if we are honest, his sentiments are not dissimilar to attitudes held by many of the “respectable” people lining up to condemn him in the West and even here in Africa.
As any African applying for visa will tell you, the indignities visited upon us in the process make it plain that we are not exactly welcome. It is humiliating to have to demonstrate to strangers that one is not about to abandon one’s family and nation to live on the streets of Europe or America, to have them stand in judgment over your acceptability as human being. And that is just how the system treats those seeking a legal route for a temporary visit.
The reaction to the so-called European migrant crisis which saw more than a million unwanted migrants and refugees from the middle east and Africa cross into Europe in 2015, shows the extremes that will be considered in order to turn them back. “Europe has decided to cooperate with Libyan authorities, knowing the kind of torture, abuses, detention that migrants and refugees are exposed to in Libya,” Amnesty International’s Maria Serrano told Voice of America last month.
Of course, the idea of a crisis is not extended to the nearly 12.5 million Europeans who are resident in a country not their own within the European Union, even when 95 percent of these are hosted in just six countries. It is only a crisis when they come from “shithole countries”.
And it is not just Europeans. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Kenya in November declaring how he loves Africans, seems to only love them when they stay at home. Back in Israel, he has taken to branding African asylum seekers “infiltrators” is deporting thousands of them. In Libya, slave markets have re-opened with many of the same Africans Europe is turning away being treated as commodities.
But African citizens do not even need to try to leave the continent in order to experience the dehumanization associated with immigration. Kenya’s abysmal treatment of refugees from Somalia -who are crammed into crowded camps, forbidden from seeking work, regularly demonized as terrorists and even illegally forced back into the war zone across the border – is no less humiliating. Neither are the hoops Kenyans themselves – as well as other Africans - are forced to jump through when attempting to visit South Africa, formerly the continent’s largest economy, are no less humiliating.
In fact, Africans don’t even need to try to go outside their countries’ borders to be insulted or have heir humanity questioned. Hollywood as well as Western aid agencies and media regularly does it right in the comfort of our homes with their portrayal of Africa as a troubled, exotic paradise peopled by childishly simple, naïve beings unable to deal with the challenges of life and who need white saviors to rescue them from other white devils or from themselves.
Rounding out the parade of insulters are African elites, especially in the media and in politics, who have become our very own Uncle Toms, loyally regurgitating and fleshing out the worst stereotypes that the West has of us. Having opted not to reform the racist, extractive colonial states they inherited in the late 1950s and early 1960s, these elites have trouble seeing the humanity of the masses of citizens they prey on. So, like the Europeans before them, rather than fix dehumanizing political and economic systems, they try to beat and shame the natives into compliance with them, into accepting the space that the world has allocated to them at the back of the bus - which is the reason so many try to leave in the first place.
This brings us back to Trump and his comments. So should Kenyans be offended by them? You bet they should. But no more so than by the treatment and representations Africans have to endure every day from a world that has decided that they come from “shithole countries” and so must be shitty people.
And the supreme irony of it is, up till less than a century ago, Africans were quite content to stay on the continent. It was shitty people from other places who came here and forced them out. It was shitty people who took them to places like Haiti, where, after they fought for and won their freedom, more shitty people blockaded and invaded them and created the very conditions today that a shitty American President, blissfully unaware of this, today disparages.
However, it is an irony that is completely lost on Kiraithe and the folks he speaks for.