Report from Kenya

Charlie Clemens, former director of the Bartos Institute for Constructive Engagement of Conflict at the United World College of the American West in Montezuma, writes about the current events in Kenya:
The plane enroute to Nairobi from Amsterdam was only about one-third full. Kenyatta National Airport itself looked like a ghost town compared to the bustling nerve center I remembered when I had arrived less than a year ago. As we drove into town on the Uhuru Highway, I asked the driver, “How did events of last week affect you and your family?” He replied, “It was quiet. Everything is fine.” I wondered to myself “Is he trying to be cheerful for the tourists?” A few minutes later, when he discovered that one of us spoke Kiswahili and chattered away in his native tongue. After we checked into our hotel, I learned the driver had spoken about how hard the week had been, about taxis being stopped on the highway where we were driving and burned, about electricity outages, shortages of food and water because stores were closed or their shelves already emptied, police chasing protestors with ‘shoot to kill’ orders, and concluded with something like “I didn’t want to upset the muzugu (the white guy).” We were prepared to be upset as we had come to bear witness, three of us, on an emergency assessment mission for the UUSC and UUA Kenya Crisis Fund.

Headlines the next morning screamed, “MORE LIVES LOST” and talked about the 26 deaths across Kenya on the Sunday we arrived, some in ‘an orgy of violence’ in a Nairobi slum.

We ‘held court’ all day today in a small meeting room in our hotel. Groups of eight to ten people would arrive, spending as much as two hours, telling us about their personal experiences since the national elections on December 27th and the paroxysm of violence that erupted a few days later, when the incumbent, President Kibaki, was suddenly announced the winner, after trailing in pre-election polls, exit polls, and vote tallying.

Each person we met with shared an identity with the others around the table in the same session — human rights activists, members of organizations focused on strengthening civil society, academics, and a group identified by their proximity to the violence, because they either worked as market vendors or lived in neighbor- hoods that are now ashes, neighborhoods where rioters, some former customers, ‘cleansed’ areas of people suspected of having specific ethnic identities, or neighborhoods where gangs of young men sought out older women, mostly venders, and raped them. The gender violence was not about sexual satisfaction but their rage, their need to humiliate, to dominate, to seek revenge for decades of simmering communal resentments about exclusion.

Some of their stories were not easily told and as we listened to the unburdening of so many emotions, I fervently hoped that the telling might begin some healing for each of them, because it was unlikely they would ever receive any therapy. As a physician I was horrified to hear that some hospitals turned patients away because of their tribal affiliation, similar to the attitude of some police who watched, but refused to protect. We promised that their stories would be shared verbally, in written reports, and on blogs/websites in an attempt to put a human face on what for many around the world were only statistics or phrases in the media such as ‘widespread violence.’ We were there, we told them, because we and the people we represented in America wanted to help the people of Kenya mend these wounds and be of assistance in the search for the truth and justice without which there won’t be lasting peace.

All day long we heard warnings that leaders and politicians ‘should not mistake the relative quiet of Nairobi and Kenya today for peace’ or as one woman said, “Don’t confuse calmness with justice or we’ll see an even larger bombshell.” People told us that in part all of this was a response to the hard fought gains of civic empowerment of the 1990s that left ordinary Kenyans really believing that ‘my vote must be counted and count.’ Whether is was at tallying at the polling station, within the constituency (district), or at the national offices of Electoral Council of Kenya, people told us vote totals were blatantly announced that totally contradicted what they had just witnessed or heard.

They said the public’s anger was further fueled because ‘this was the best electoral process since independence (1963), whether in terms of registration, campaigns, mobilization of voters, pre-election violence, voter education, or turn out.” We were told the lines everywhere were endless, but tolerated because voters were both excited and patient. Participation has been estimated at more than 70% of those eligible to vote.

Schools in Kenya were supposed to resume last week after the long holiday, but they were not considered safe. One advocate told us that youth are largely being portrayed by the media as perpetrators, but in fact are the most affected of victims. “They can never look at each other in the same way – their ethnicity is altered forever.” We were told some secondary schools may never re-open and superintendents flooded with requests for transfers, because students’ ethnic identity it a source of fear. Schools in six of ten provinces are still not open and were told of one threatened today with burning, if it began classes.

Despite all we heard there is hope. Again and again, we were told that this crisis is not primarily about ethnicity. It is about fraud. It is about decades of politicians ‘feeding at the public trough.’ It is about illegally armed militias who were intentionally loosed to incite violence. We were told that the ‘crisis could be an opportunity to finally resolve the largely ignored issues of ethnicity.’

And finally we heard stories of courage that always seemed to get squeezed out of news reports in favor of morbidity and mortality. A man told us about driving with his friend in a rural area near Eldoret unaware that the catastrophic elections results had just been announced. They were both active in the campaign of the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga. Supporters of his stopped their car, “Do you have a Kikuyu in this vehicle?, they asked the man telling us the story, who had been the driver. The crowd around the car was agitated and carried spears, machetes, as well as bows and arrows. “No,” he lied, “My friend is Mehru.” “That’s worse,” they said. They held a machete against the throat of his companion and said,”You drive on. Your friend stays here.” He knew his friend might not survive, if he abandoned him. The driver said he could not leave without his friend at which point the man with the machete hit him in the mouth with its handle, knocking out a tooth. He paused to show us his new bridge, when we were on the edges of our seats to learn what happened next. “Look he’s wearing a Raila T-shirt,” he told them. They both were. He convinced them that his friend was involved in the Raila campaign, which was true. They had a box of T-shirts in the back of the car. The armed men asked in disbelief, “But no Kikuyu can be supporting Raila?” They loosened the machete against his throat and the man explained why he was campaigning for Raila. Satisfied the armed men said,”We believe he is part of ODM (the Orange Democratic Party, the opposition), but you cannot travel here without safe passage. The armed men hung an ODM T-shirt on the mirror and one of them offered to travel with the car to its destination. Courage, quick thinking, and T-shirts had saved his friends life and cost him a tooth. There are plenty of villains on both side of this issue and heroes as well, but we hear almost nothing about the latter. Stay tuned and we’ll tell you more.

Charlie Clements

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