Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In May I went with a group from my Church on a 12 day trip to Kenya. We were there to learn more about the country and its people, and to learn more about the Mission partners the Church supports in that country and to encourage them. Our intent is to write a book about the trip and what we encountered there. The proceeds of the book will be used to further the work of the three Mission partners.

Over the next few days, I will print extracts from the book on here. Hopefully, they'll give a flavour of the book, and an idea of what Kenya is really like.

The first one deals with the violence that followed the Presidential election of December 2007. It looms large over the country and cannot be ignored. Everyone we met was affected by it in some way, all had their stories. Here is just a part of what we learned.

Post Election Violence

In late December 2007, there was a presidential election in Kenya. The declared winner of the election was the incumbent President, Mwai Kibaki. However, Mr Kibaki’s main opponent, Raila Odinga, alleged that electoral manipulation had taken place and called the results into question. Whether his allegations were true or not, they sparked unrest and protests, which quickly became violent. From political protest to ethnically based violence was a short step in a land where so many tribes live in close proximity to one another. Much of this violence was aimed at the people of the Kikuyu tribe, the tribe to which Mr Kibaki belongs, although in some instances, Kikuyu gangs also perpetrated violence against other tribes.

Although there were pockets of violence all over, the worst hit areas were in the Rift Valley, from Nairobi, through Nakuru and up to Eldoret, and in the slums of Nairobi. In one of the worst incidents of the violence, a church was attacked and set on fire in the small settlement of Kiambaa, just outside Eldoret, and more than thirty people sheltering within it lost their lives. Many others were badly burned or slashed with machetes, and needed extensive medical treatment for their wounds.

The violence in the slums of Nairobi was exacerbated by the people’s anger at their extreme poverty and, it is alleged, the flames of this anger were fanned by criminal gangs such as the Mungiki, who used the situation for their own ends.

The then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan brokered a settlement between the two main political parties and in February 2008, a power sharing agreement was signed. This allowed Mr Kibaki to remain as president whilst Mr Odinga became prime Minister, and by April 2008, a coalition government was brought into being, which in turn has brought an uneasy peace. However, there are still many people living in IDP camps, too frightened to return to their homes, and an atmosphere of suspicion still hangs over much of the country. Tribal affiliations run deep.

We were able to talk to several people about what had happened during the time of violence. (Below are just two of the stories we heard.)

In a village near Eldoret, we met Gideon, a kikuyu. He told us he was in the shower and covered with soap when someone shouted that the mob was coming. He pulled clothes over his soapy body and ran from a gang of several thousand youths armed with clubs, bows and arrows, knives and machetes. They were threatening not just to kill, but to decapitate all kikuyu that they caught. Some kikuyu took refuge in a police station but the rioters descended on it and it was burned. The police did their best, he said, but they were too thinly spread to be able to protect those inside their buildings. Some officers were deployed elsewhere, trying to protect the local population, others died doing their duty, although a few turned and ran.

Gideon quickly realised there was no way out of the area. The mobs had set up roadblocks, looking for victims, and they were determined to find and kill as many as possible. People had to hide wherever they could. Gideon himself took refuge in the District Commissioner’s office. This was threatened and for a short while it looked hopeless, but in the nick of time a contingent of police arrived. The police had guns and ammunition, and the rioters did not, so the rioters decided to try elsewhere and the people inside the office were saved.

Gideon was at pains to tell us that God had spared him and that he was very grateful to the Lord for his mercy. He also thanked God for giving him the gift of forgiveness. After six months, Gideon had felt able to go home and make peace with the neighbours who had threatened and attacked him. Gideon asked us to pray that others who had been attacked might find it in them to forgive. He knew it wasn’t easy for those who had lost homes and family but he felt the country would never heal without it. “Forgiveness is essential,” he told us, “or the bitterness festers.”

All around the region, there is evidence of the violence and destruction that followed the elections. Derelict houses, their mud walls crumbled, their wood beams charred, sit in patches of overgrown weeds where once were carefully tended crops. Small temporary homes, looking like large garden sheds dot the countryside, each one bearing a gleaming metal roof with “Red Cross” written large across it. IDP camps litter the landscape. The largest of these camps, we were told, is inside what used to be the Eldoret Showground, where more than a year after Kofi Annan brokered a peace, thousands of people still live, too frightened to return to their homes.

One of the worst incidents to take place during the post election violence happened on New Year’s Day 2008. The small settlement of Kiambaa, just south of Eldoret, was almost entirely peopled by members of the Kikuyu tribe. Most of the families had originally come from the Kiambu slum in Nairobi and had travelled up-country to this remote spot in search of a better life. They lived in houses made of mud, with banana thatch roofs, and they grew crops to feed themselves and to trade for an income. The post election violence left them vulnerable. Most of the homes in the little hamlet were burned by the mobs, and the inhabitants took shelter in the one building they believed would be safe – their church. The women and children were put inside the building while the men stood guard outside. The belongings they had salvaged from their houses were also left outside, since there was no room within the little church for them, and this was to prove fatal, because among the possessions were mattresses, that burned easily.

On New Year’s morning, the mob arrived. Witnesses put its number at anywhere between 800 and 4000 strong. Whichever is the true estimate, it was too large for the handful of defenders, who were quickly slashed with machetes, stabbed with sharpened sticks and knives, and shot with bows and arrows. Some of the guards died. Some were horribly injured. Some fled.

The mob grabbed the mattresses and piled them up against the church, blocking escape routes. Then they set them, and the building, on fire. Women, children, the old and the disabled screamed and struggled to get out. Some managed to escape the inferno only to be cut down outside. Others perished in the smoke and flames. Thirty seven are known to have died, the figure may have been higher. Some of the bodies were so badly burned they were never identified. The youngest victim was two months old.

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