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.

By , Contributor

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    Lost, and found: Joseph Maina, Sarah Waruguru, and their baby son Bravin (l. to r., above) escaped ethnic violence in Maili Nne with the help of their neighbor, Nancy Jerono Kong’a.
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Watamu, Kenya

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.

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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.

Almost every night, gangs of men gathered in front of the store, sometimes banging at the door and demanding the whereabouts of the Kikuyu who lived out back. Nancy said they had taken their belongings and fled.

Things were so dangerous, Nancy says, that she hid the family’s presence even from her 8-year-old son. Early each morning, she sent him away. At night, she kept him out of the bedroom.

“He couldn’t know they were there,” she says. “He might have said something without knowing. We all prayed. We said, ‘God, you are our protection.’ And He delivered us.”

•••

About seven miles away, on the other side of Eldoret, Sarah’s parents and little brother were facing their own ordeal. Rather than being sheltered by their neighbors, it was their neighbors who came to attack them.

On Jan. 1, a mob descended on the Kikuyu village of Kiambaa. Margaret Mwangi, Sarah’s mother, had taken shelter in a small church along with her 6-year-old son, Njenga. When the mob arrived, she says, its members carried machetes, bows, and arrows. They were covered in war paint, their faces caked in ghostly gray ash.

They were singing, shouting, and throwing stones, she says. Then they set the church on fire. A Molotov cocktail was tossed through a window. Mattresses and clothes were scattered about; it all seemed to go up at once. Dozens were killed.

Margaret, though, was fortunate: She and Njenga escaped, and walked four hours to the hospital in Eldoret. Her husband, Steven Mwangi, had been beaten in the churchyard. After police and relief officials arrived, he approached the smoldering ruins of the church, certain his wife and child had been killed. Steven searched the burnt remains, but there was no way to tell if they were among the dead.

He found his wife in the hospital that night. “I cried so much when I saw him,” Margaret says.

But her gratitude has given way to anger. She lives with her family in a camp in Ngecha, just north of Nairobi. She and Steven have nowhere to go and little to do. Her old life is gone.

“I’m bitter when I think of what I’ve been reduced to,” she says, still wearing the sweater – singed at the shoulder – that she wore the day of the fire.

•••

In Maili Nne, where Joseph and Sarah were hiding, things had gotten worse as the days wore on. On the third day of unrest, Nancy overheard talk that a gang was planning to ransack her place. “They said if they found any Kikuyu, they would burn me along with them,” she says. “It got to be too much. It was no longer safe.”

Early the next morning, during a lull in the violence, she escorted the family to an overpass on the outskirts of town that marked the edge of a Kikuyu neighborhood where they would be safe. They said their goodbyes and haven’t seen one another since.

Sarah had heard about the Kiambaa fire and didn’t know if her family was alive. When she got through to her father, the conversation was short and emotional. “I said, ‘Are you all there?’ ” she recalls. “ ‘Are you all alive?’ ”

Among people who have lived through the violence, the impact of their experience is clear in the way they speak of the future. Margaret grudgingly admits her gratitude for the woman who saved her daughter’s family – but insists it counts for little going forward. She thinks the peace won’t last in Kenya, that the collective memory won’t allow it.

“The youth here have seen too much violence,” she says.

“These were our neighbors who did this to us,” Steven says, his voice rising in outrage. “These were people I’d been kind to, who’d been kind to me. How can I trust them?” Steven says he will not return to Kiambaa, his home for more than 20 years.

But Joseph thinks peace is possible. “It is the politicians who incite the people,” he says. “We were living together.” He points out his former neighbor’s courage: “She risked her life to save us. We are so grateful to her.”

Back in Maili Nne, when the subject of Kenya’s future comes up, Nancy looks dismayed. “There is a barrier now between Kikuyu and Kalenjin,” she says. “It may take a long time to break it down. But it is just our minds that are taking us apart. Kenya is for all of us.”

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