In Kenya, a visit through the violence

The Baltimore Sun

As I raced toward Nakuru, a town northwest of Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of February, I kept wondering how bad things could get.

Taking advantage of a lull during the chaos that rocked my country, Kenya, I decided to visit my mother, who lives in the Rift Valley Province, the epicenter of the violence that left 1,200 dead in the weeks after the December presidential election. I last saw her a few days before the election, and we had planned to have New Year's together. That never happened.

I would be traveling to the United States for the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships in mid-March, and the urge to see my mother before I left far outweighed the risks of being caught up in the killing fields.

I left Nairobi as the sun's rays touched the ground. I was nervous. I alerted Eliud Miring'uh, my newspaper's bureau chief in Nakuru, that I would call him at regular stops to let him know where I was, just in case I needed help.

"If confronted, make a sharp U-turn by stepping on the accelerator and holding and releasing the hand brake, and don't stop for anyone on the way," said Miring'uh.

When violence broke out it was usually at midday, and I decided that I would wake up early and take off before any of the groups had barricaded the highway.

I got to my mother's safely in five hours. At home, there was too much to talk about - the bad shape of things in the country, what would happen to my mother and my younger siblings if peace was elusive. All the options were painful. I felt helpless. Sometimes I thought I was uncaring to plan to leave my family in the thick of things.

"Things will work," my mother said. "God loves Kenya."

I was not sure about that given the atrocious killings that I had witnessed. During times of unrest, a journalist sees and sifts through the gory details of a story that people like my mother do not see. Like the picture of the people burned alive in a house in Nakuru lying sprawled in a mortuary, or the arrow lodged in the scalp of a man writhing in pain at Nakuru General Hospital. Often, this makes us negative, cynical or cold. You never learn to trust that anything can work out. You lose feelings, that humanness that causes you to empathize.

By the time I was finished with my mother, it was approaching 7 p.m. A 9 p.m. curfew had been imposed in Nakuru and I knew what it would mean to be caught by the ruthless General Service Unit police. That sent a chill down my spine.

"Call me when you get to Nakuru," my mother said. I nodded as I fastened my seat belt.

Halfway, I thought of my helpful colleague at our bureau and called him.

"I am in Marigat and I fear that I will be late," I said. "Do you think you can alert the police at all roadblocks that I am on my way. ... My license plate number is KAZ 441M."

My phone went off. The battery was low. One of the survival tips when your battery is low is to remove it, then put it back and switch it on fast. That worked the magic. I called him again and he said the officers were switched daily so I should pray hard that I would not be caught.

There was no car following me, and none ahead of me. I pressed the accelerator hard and got to Nakuru 15 minutes past curfew. I drove straight to a hotel and checked in. I was lucky.

From the window of my room, it appeared Nakuru had gone to sleep early. And with the curfew ending at 6 a.m., the town would wake up late. It was forlorn, lonely, eerily silent.

I called my mother to tell her that I was safe. The country was still bleeding from the violence, and over and over as I lay in my bed I wondered how bad things could get.

The fury, the arson and destruction, the blood bath were mind-boggling. One of the abiding memories is that of throngs of old women and mothers with small children queuing to get food rations at a camp for the displaced at Jamhuri Park in Nairobi. There was a stampede as word spread that gangs were approaching the camp. Thoughts about a second Rwanda flooded my mind.

At the outset, all indications were that the 2007 presidential race would be close, but few Kenyans imagined that it would end in such horror.

By world standards, the campaigns were at the cutting edge. Money was splashed on primetime advertisements and newspaper pages. Giant billboards were erected along the rutted highways, and everyone waited as the next big thing took shape in Africa.

"I am the bridge to a future of wealth and prosperity," said the principal opposition candidate, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement.

"Give me five more years so that I can complete the projects I started," said President Mwai Kibaki, who was seeking a second term.

The two main parties, the PNU for Kibaki, and the ODM for Odinga, tried to outsmart each other in throwing mud. The PNU made an issue out of Odinga's alleged role in a failed coup 26 years ago, for which he had served seven years in solitary confinement.

The ODM jumped on this, retracing the steps the country had taken since independence from the British in 1963. Odinga attributed the chronic problems of land ownership and national wealth and resource distribution to tribalism, blaming the Kikuyus - who inhabit most of Kenya's Central Province and are Kibaki's tribe. It was the turning point in the campaign. His comments struck a chord with many of the peasants across the country where most of the Kikuyus have settled.

In the end, with the election results in dispute, it was all against one - about 42 tribes against one. Thousands of Kikuyus were driven out of their homes and farms, and their property looted or burned in the ensuing chaos.

Fortunately, the chaos did not follow me to Nakuru, and my overnight stay there after I saw my mother was uneventful.

The next day, as I drove into Nairobi, it was announced that Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, had secured a power-sharing agreement between the feuding parties. That was comforting.

Yet Kibaki and Odinga haggled for weeks about naming a Cabinet, and Kenya was on a knife edge. The people's patience was wearing thin. Despite widespread poverty, Kenya has a thriving, educated middle class. And the squabbles were disrupting their way of life and most wanted to move on.

Eventually, a Cabinet of 40 ministers - the most ever - was chosen.

"We have a beautiful country, and everyone has a right to live, work, conduct business or own property anywhere," Kibaki said during the swearing-in of the new Cabinet.

"I am determined to provide decisive leadership and build democratic institutions that will enshrine truth and justice. ... We have the strength to deliver prosperity with equity and accountability," said Odinga, now the prime minister in the coalition government.

Whether the two will deliver, time will tell.

Andrew Kipkemboi, features editor of The Standard in Nairobi, Kenya, is an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at The Sun.

Kenya after independence

1963: Kenya gains independence from Britain, with former rebel leader Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, as prime minister.

1964: Kenyatta elected president.

1960s-1970s: Kenyatta carries out land and wealth distribution policies that some say favor the Kikuyus.

1978: Kenyatta dies in office. Daniel arap Moi becomes president

1982: Kenya becomes a one-party state. Moi survives a failed coup.

1991: Repeal of constitution gives way to elections in 1992 and limits presidents to two terms of five years each.

2002: Mwai Kibaki elected president

2007: Kibaki and Raila Odinga face off in the president election

2008: 1,200 killed in clashes after Kibaki's re-election is disputed by opposition and international observers.

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