Young Kenyans boykott Israeli products to support Gaza

In Nairobi, advocacy efforts are on the rise in solidarity with Palestine as the war in Gaza continues.

Wairimu Gathimba is on a mission to educate her fellow Kenyans about the Israel-Palestine conflict and get as many as possible to boycott Israeli products in the East African country.

The 22-year-old writer and cultural worker had long been aware of the conflict while growing up, but merely as news to know, not a cause to be involved in or take sides. But years of unlearning and hard discussions, she said, have brought her to her current stance.

Gathimba is a part of several advocacy organisations, including one called Kenyans for Palestine, which has organised Palestinian film screenings, created infographics to help identify brands to boycott, and called for government actions. It is now urging the Kenyan grocery delivery platform Greenspoon to drop Israeli-owned products. Members are also educating friends and family about the nuances of the conflict.

But a boycott is more difficult than it may appear. Because there are so many Israeli-owned businesses in Kenya and they are part of Kenyans’ life.

“[Many] Kenyans tend to think that [the Israel-Palestine conflict] is far away from us,” said XN Iraki, a lecturer in economics at the University of Nairobi. “The attitude is to let people sort out their problems. Like the war between Russia and Ukraine, people don’t talk about it much.”

But for those leading the boycotts and encouraging others to join, the parallels between Kenya’s colonial past and Palestine’s present predicament are too strong to ignore.

“The work I’m doing, the boycotts I’m a part of, are a really small sacrifice to make compared to what the people of Palestine are doing,” said Gathimba. “There are so many parallels in the oppression historically. I have to support.”

The government’s official stance on the conflict is unclear. President William Ruto has not expressed support for Hamas or Israel even though he addressed the conflict while speaking on a recent panel during the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“In Kenya, we have suffered the brunt of struggle for independence the same way the Palestinians are doing. We have also suffered the challenge of terrorism the same way Hamas visited terrorism on Israel,” said Ruto. “Both are wrong.”

But Kenya’s actions have hardly seemed neutral.

On May 24, it abstained from a World Health Organization vote on health conditions in the occupied portion of Palestine. On December 7, two months after the attacks which killed at least 32 Thai farm workers in Israel, Kenya sent 1,500 farm workers there.

“The government’s response is disappointing but not necessarily shocking,” said Gathimba.

“We in Kenya see Israel as part of the Western bloc,” said Iraki. “Since Ruto came to power, he’s visited England, Europe – because of the Western connection, I see the relationship between Kenya and Israel as being very cordial.”

Israel also contributes to the overarching Kenyan economy – specifically the export and import of agricultural goods. In 2018, Kenya’s exports to Israel averaged just above 1.4 billion Kenyan shillings (a little more than $9m), the majority of which were agriculture-based, according to the Kenyan embassy in Israel.

Then there are religious connections. Despite nearly 11 percent of the population being Muslim, Kenya is a Christian state. Israel represents the homeland – Kenyans go to Israel for Christian pilgrimage, to get closer to themselves and their faith. And because of these seemingly religious ties, many Kenyans grew up supporting Israel in the conflict.

Young Kenyans like Gathimba have faith that this will change, that the more noise she and her peers make, the more Kenyans will know enough to make informed decisions about their support.

More and more people are going to events, educating themselves, and changing their minds – at least from what Gathimba has been hearing from her peers.

“A lot of Kenyans are stuck in the ‘both-sidey’ narrative,” said Gathimba. “But I’m very optimistic about the way things are going, at least in terms of challenging the dominant narratives in official memory. Of course, we still have quite a long way to go, but we are somewhere.”


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