A family stands at Kenya’s crossroads
After last year’s divisive election, Kenya slipped into chaos. One family’s disparate experiences show the cruelty, and courage, of the days that followed.
Watamu, KenyaSkip to next paragraph
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The remnants of Kenya’s postelection violence are still visible along the road to Eldoret. Tents lie pitched at the edge of town. Burnt-out houses dot the landscape like lingering accusations, constant reminders of what occurred. Neighborhoods – entire towns – that were once ethnically mixed aren’t anymore, leaving it unclear whether this country will remain united or devolve into a collection of warring tribes.
Politics here have always broken along tribal lines. Last December, when incumbent Mwai Kibaki, head of the Party of National Unity (PNU), was declared the winner in his race against Raila Odinga – a Luo and head of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) – most Kenyans saw the outcome as a victory for Mr. Kibaki’s fellow Kikuyus at the expense of Kenya’s other tribes. Luos in the west and Kalenjins in the Rift Valley claimed the election had been stolen.
What followed was a spasm of looting and violence on all sides that brought Kenya to the brink of collapse. More than 1,300 people were killed and 350,000 others were forced from their homes. Some chaos was expected, even inevitable, people here say. It marked the release of tensions that had been building for years. But the scope and intensity of the violence shocked almost everyone. Ask Kenyans about the future of their country and the response is often solemn and grave. They are hopeful, but hardly optimistic.
From almost all stories of chaos and cruelty emerge tales of the opposite, of people risking their lives to save others, their compassion outweighing their fear. These gestures often get lost amid the suffering. But they’re telling and important, especially in a country like Kenya, which faces two starkly different possible futures. One family’s experience attests to the potential for both scenarios. Its members, separated by a few miles, saw the best and the worst that people here have to offer.
Joseph Maina and Sarah Waraguru, a young Kikuyu couple, were living in Maili Nne, a dirt-road town just outside Eldoret, when the election results were announced. Sarah was nursing their son, Bravin, who was two weeks old at the time, while Joseph watched the news on a television in the little room they shared off a courtyard behind a grain-and-cereal store.
Maili Nne – and Eldoret as a whole – is predominantly Kalenjin; within minutes of the announcement, Joseph recalls, crowds filled the streets. Attacks on Kikuyu businesses and homes began immediately. Shops were looted and burned while drunken, machete-wielding youths set up roadblocks, making travel impossible. Gangs of PNU supporters in nearby Kikuyu neighborhoods took up arms as well. Within hours, the tribes were at war.
Joseph and Sarah huddled in their room. They were afraid to leave, but it was not safe to stay. “It’s a small town,” Joseph says now. “We knew we would be targets.”
Not long after the unrest began, they heard a knock at their door. Standing outside was their Kalenjin neighbor, Nancy Jerono Kong’a. They lived behind her shop.
Nancy had known Joseph and Sarah about a year and considered them friends. “I told them they weren’t safe,” she says now. “I didn’t want to see anything happen to them.... They were innocent. Whoever stole the election, it wasn’t them.” She led them across the courtyard to her small bedroom, and there the family stayed for four days. Nancy fed them and washed the baby’s clothes, hanging them concealed beneath a sheet to dry. She stayed with the family despite rumors that the Mungiki, a savage Kikuyu gang, were coming to town for revenge. “I thought of leaving, but how could I?” she says.