One day about twenty-five years ago, my wife and I were eating lunch with our pre-school daughters. We were missionaries, teaching at Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya. As was so often true in this particularly glorious part of God’s creation, it was a beautiful, sunny day, with temperatures in the low 70s. RVA was on a break, so there weren’t many of students around.
Suddenly, we heard a car honking, incessantly: “Beep, Beeep, Beeeep, BEEP! BEEEEEEP!” A car came tearing up our driveway. I ran outside and a fellow missionary jumped out of the car and said, “A group of armed men came out of the forest up above the upper road. They attacked Kiambogo Primary School” (a Kenyan school about a mile away) “and shot a number of students. We’re gathering down at the chapel to decide what to do.”
He then jumped back in the car and took off.
Some context. Kenya had been experiencing political unrest. And political unrest in Kenya was serious business.
Also, Kenya’s infrastructure was not highly developed, which meant that there were not many police outside of urban areas. We had a police station in the area that housed two policemen. They did not have a vehicle, so if we needed them in an emergency, we had to drive down to get them. In other words, we had to take care of a lot of security ourselves.
But roaming mobs of men with guns?
Suffice it to say, to this point in my life I had not experienced anything that was much like this situation. It was…..a tad unsettling, shall we say.
I scurried off to the chapel, where other teachers and staff were gathering. There was a lot of nervous discussion, of course. We were informed that many of the Kenyans who had jobs at RVA had run home to see if their children were safe.
After a short time, one missionary arrived who asked: “How do we know if these reports are true?”
That was a good question. We stopped and considered that one.
This man explained that he had lived in Uganda during a particularly unstable period and he knew rumors could spread and really put people on edge. Once, in his car with his family, he had been stopped at a roadblock and a soldier interrogated him with a loaded machine gun pointed at his face. He was allowed to move on, and things calmed down.
About fifteen minutes or so after this, we found out that his suspicions were correct. The stories were false. No soldiers had come out of the forest. The Kiambogo primary school was fine. In fact, we read in the national newspaper the next day that this same rumor had been spread in dozens of places throughout the central region of Kenya, (all with the feature that a primary school near that area had been attacked) causing quite a bit of panic. The analysis was that the rumors were politically-motivated.
But I’d like us to consider two questions here.
Question #1: Was it actually plausible that something like this could happen?
Answer #1: Yes.
Here are some things I did experience in Kenya: at one point, crowds of Kikuyu people were stopping cars on the upper road, pulling out individuals from the rival Luo group and beating them up. One man was killed. The main highway into Nairobi had been effectively shut down. We felt isolated.
During teachers’ meetings before the school term began, one of the things we did was go over emergency procedures. We were told how, in a national emergency, we would gather faculty, staff and students together in a dormitory, while we waited for U.S. marine helicopters to arrive to evacuate us out of the country.
It had happened elsewhere. In the year before the Kenyan election, we had talked with missionaries who had to be evacuated from Liberia and (what was then) Zaire. Those two nations had fallen into civil war, where the social and political order had pretty much collapsed. Kenya bordered Somalia and Sudan, which were experiencing devastating civil wars. Imagine the “law” of the land consisting of young men and teenage boys driving around in pickup trucks with machine guns. That happens.
Fortunately, it never came to this in Kenya. In fact, most years, Kenya has been secure and stable. And some nations in Africa that we don’t hear about, like Botswana and Senegal, have been extremely stable democracies for decades. In Kenya, there have been a few moments, during election season, when stability was a real concern. This happened to be one of those moments.
So, during those months in Kenya, I struggled with this anxiety: Could the entire social and political order in this place I am living collapse?
It struck me that I had never felt that way in the United States. And I haven’t felt it since. Of course, there have been other kinds of anxieties about security in American society. But nothing like this.
After that, I began to ask myself a question that I have occasionally revisited in the years since then.
So here is Question #2: Why are some nations occasionally in danger of political and social collapse? Why are other nations more stable? What holds the social and political order of a nation together? (OK, that is more than one question, but you get the idea).
Answer #2: I don’t know, exactly.
However, I think that some things, like paying careful attention to history, particularly how cultures and institutions develop, can help us better understand these issues. I’m going to post a few blogs exploring these issues.
And I think it may be helpful for us in the United States to remember during this crazy election year, in which all sorts of fears, anxieties and unsettling things have arisen, that the social and political order is not going to collapse, no matter who gets elected. It is true we have some unhealthy components to our system. We need to take those seriously. But we actually still have a solid foundation to our political order.
In other words, in the United States we don’t fear that the marines will have to evacuate us to some other place, while things fall apart around us. I know what that fear is like.