Benson stood in line for five hours on December 27 to vote for Kenya’s next president. He is a construction worker at the small Catholic hospital I run in Western Kenya. Over 8 million Kenyans went to the polls that day. The voting went smoothly, and at the district level the vote counting was orderly and transparent. Each ballot was painstakingly inspected by agents of all the political parties before it was recorded. But according to international observers, irregularities in tallying and reporting the votes developed at the central offices of the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK). And three days later, despite these irregularities, the chairman of the ECK in Nairobi announced that the current president, Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, had defeated the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga. The opposition cried foul and the country erupted in violence. As of January 22, more than 650 people have been killed in rioting and targeted attacks.
The losing coalition and members of other tribes, enraged at the ECK’s decision, took revenge on Kikuyus throughout the country. Kikuyu houses, farms, and businesses were burned, and tens of thousands of people were forced to flee. At 22 percent of the population, the Kikuyus are the largest group in Kenya. They are also an industrious people who have migrated throughout the country to set up shops and businesses. As a result, many other tribes resent their relative prosperity and political dominance. As one local political commentator observed, “We do not have political parties in Kenya; we just have tribes.” The ethnic cleansing of the last month is one of the greatest tragedies in the history of postcolonial Kenya.
The hospital where I work in Kiminini is not far from Mt. Elgon, a massive, forest-covered natural wonder. Not long after the election results were announced, the mountain began to burn. Our local bishop, Maurice Crowley, rushed to the area and brought back truckloads of terrified Kikuyus to our town, placing them in local churches. They had been burned out by their longtime neighbors of the Sabaot tribe. Bishop Crowley’s voice was full of anguish as he told me about the destruction he had seen: charred buildings with dead bodies inside, including many children. He reported large numbers of people fleeing. Many of the surrounding roads quickly became impassable because gangs of youths—some as young as ten, many of them drunk—set up road blocks made of rocks and tree branches.
Approximately two-thirds of Kenyans profess Christianity, and many denominations seem to flourish here. Given the reverence many Kenyans have for the Christian faith, it is not surprising that they would seek refuge in a church. Thus one of the most disturbing reports during the initial violence was that women and children had been burned alive in a Pentecostal church in Eldoret, about an hour’s drive from Kiminini. As our bishop observed sadly at Mass the following Sunday, “The blood of tribalism is thicker than the water of baptism.”
In the days following the flight of Kikuyus from Mt. Elgon, our hospital overflowed with sick and traumatized people. They were simply members of the “wrong” tribe. I met a pregnant sixteen-year-old who had a raging fever; she made me think of the vulnerability of all girls and women during such upheavals. We had many patients who needed to be transferred to a larger hospital at Eldoret, but it was overwhelmed.
Still, there are glimmers of hope. Winnie, my hospital’s nurse and midwife, is a Kikuyu. Her father moved here over forty years ago to work as a teacher. Winnie grew up in the area and speaks only the two national languages, Swahili and English. Her best friend is a physician-assistant named Vanessa, a Sabaot. Like Winnie, she does not speak her tribal tongue but communicates in the national languages. Winnie’s parents, fearing they might be burned alive, abandoned their home during the unrest and slept outside in the forest. The authorities protected them, and they have since returned to their home. They have been able to continue living among neighbors who are members of other tribes.
Still, there is a sense of foreboding and of loss. The opposition has called for demonstrations and boycotts. They believe the election was stolen and that they have been betrayed. As Winnie puts it, the big men will steal the money, put it in foreign banks, and find a safe place for themselves to live. She and everyone else will suffer. They have no other place to go. What they need is a leader of integrity, but that is hard to find here. The real heroes are people like Winnie and Vanessa. As missioners, we feel privileged to work alongside them and to support their hopes for a better Kenya.
About the Author
Susan Nagele, MD, has spent over twenty years in Tanzania, Sudan, and Kenya as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner.