When I arrived at the Nairobi International Airport in early June, I wasn’t sure what to expect. A travel writer, I’d seen the likes of five continents, but this was my first trip to Africa and I was trying to withhold expectations. My goal was to merely absorb what I experienced and process later. Little did I know my time in Kenya would come full circle two months later on a Montauk, New York beach.
I was in Africa on a charity mission—climbing Kilimanjaro for an orphanage called Flying Kites. Located in a small town about ninety minutes north of Nairobi, Njabini was my first prolonged stop on a whirlwind East African tour. I came to find that Njabini was representative of the millions of tiny Kenyan towns that dot the landscape of this beautiful country. Deeply colored dirt roads meandered off the main drag, a street littered with roadside shops advertising beauty parlor services, internet and fax facilities, and every kind of odd and end under the Kenyan sun—recycled transistor radios, patched tires, mismatched flatware, and mended children’s clothing.
Hailing from New York City, Njabini was refreshing. The mountains stretched in every direction, the foliage shimmered bright green in the heat of the sun and fields of calla lilies and sunflowers grew in abundance. Each morning, as I made my way down from my room at the bare bones Gimwa Guesthouse, the townsfolk were walking the streets—children in school uniform, gentlemen in heavily used suits, and women with tall fruit piles atop their heads. As they passed, the Njabini people would wave at the crazy mzungus—white people—en route to Kilimanjaro who had overrun their town. They didn’t know what to make of us, but their spirits were so open and curious, it was hard to resist their charm.
On morning three in the Gimwa café, a dusty breakfast room with a snowy one-channel television, posters of Jesus Christ, and an unwritten menu of eggs and toast, I noticed a large, thick booklet on one of the tables. Curious, I picked one up. “The Proposed Constitution of Kenya. 6th May 2010.” I looked around sheepishly. Did someone drop their…Kenyan Constitution? Had I just become embroiled in an East African version of The Pelican Brief? Then, I noticed that all of the Gimwa tables were sporting the same booklets.
Francis, an upstanding Njabini citizen affiliated with Flying Kites, read the confusion on my face. “We will vote soon on a new constitution that will bring us closer to a true democracy. In it, there will be less presidential power and better oversight. There will be needed reform.” It was 1963 when Kenya’s last constitution was drafted under a colonialist model. The dissemination of this new legislation was intended to help the country unite in understanding of the document’s goals. Concern was understandable; previous votes, like the presidential election of 2007, created devastating aftermath. Over 1,000 people were killed in riots and massacres, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. The majority of the atrocities took place right near Njabini’s Rift Valley. I glanced around. Here? Massacres?
As I sipped some Kenyan tea, I skimmed the 47-page document. “Did you see the environmental legislation? Page 12,” said Thomas, one of our fellow Kilimanjaro climbers. “What about the parts on the limits of presidential power?” remarked my friend, Darryl. I had never turned the pages of my own country’s constitution, yet here I was in rural Kenya, turning the pages of theirs. It was a pretty incredible moment, Njabini locals and American adventurers talking about Kenya’s proposed constitution—the introduction of a Senate, a qualifying system for those who wanted to hold office. Humbled, I was reminded of the bounty of my own civil rights.
As I made my way through Nairobi and Mombasa, I continued to see the booklets on park benches, on restaurant tables, and in hotel lobbies. Each time, it gave me pause. I wondered what would happen in August.
Last week, as I perused the papers at a local Montauk beach café, I was overcome with emotion reading the headlines. By a margin of 69%, The Proposed Constitution of Keyna, 6th May 2010, passed. Without violence or contest. I raced home to the pile of travel notes and research I had accumulated during my five weeks in East Africa and pulled out my own large, thick booklet. Then, I set aside my newspapers, conjured the smiles of the wonderful people I met in Kenya, and began to read.