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In Kenya's hotbed of postelection violence, a bishop sows seeds of peace

Cornelius Arap Korir is starting to unite the two warring ethnic communities through their common desire to grow the food that will help them to rebuild their lives.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 14, 2008

Eldoret, Kenya

They came at 10 a.m. on Jan. 3 to Jane Wanjiku's land, just a day after the presidential election results were announced. More than 200 young men in red shorts, shouting tribal war cries, and carrying machetes and sticks, spears and torches, they forced Ms. Wanjiku out of her home before they burned it down.

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But today, Wanjiku is back on her land, planting maize and beans – and, remarkably, surrounded by some of the same Kalenjin neighbors who chased her off because of her Kikuyu ethnicity. She and other Kikuyus, who supported Kikuyu candidates in December's elections, have now been welcomed back.

"This is my land," she says, walking into her hilltop farm, "and that is my house," – a charred mud-walled home. "I feel comfortable coming back," she says, blaming the national political leaders for the attacks. "They manipulate the people. If it was just between me and the locals, it would have been easier."

The peace deal mediated in February by former UN chief Kofi Annan certainly bought Kenya time to put the country back together. But the true test of lasting peace and reconciliation will be found here in the smaller rural communities of the Rift Valley, where much of the country's food is grown, and where most of the estimated 1,000 post-election murders took place.

Often, the hard work of rebuilding relationships starts with a simple seed distribution ceremony hosted by a Roman Catholic bishop.

"There is hope, but it is still a very alarming situation right now," says Jacqueline Klopp, a Kenya expert at Columbia University in New York. "The only alternative is to do what the bishop is doing in reconciling communities. But there needs to be a sustained effort. People need to build peace committees and learn lessons from what went wrong this time so that politicians don't do it again."

More than 400,000 still in camps

Out of the estimated 600,000 Kenyans who fled ethnic violence that followed the country's contested Dec. 27 elections, only around 180,000 have started to leave makeshift refugee camps and, and a smaller fraction, such as Wanjiku, have actually been welcomed home.

Tensions within the government – with the President Mwai Kibaki's party on one side and Prime Minister Raila Odinga's party on the other – could still push Kenya back to the brink of violence, and if those politicians who incited ethnic hatred are not punished, Klopp says, Kenya's days of machetes could return. "If there is not punishment for someone somewhere, then all the work the bishop and others are doing will be torn asunder."

Here in Eldoret – the center of Kenya's bread basket, and the fiery heart of the postelection violence – there wouldn't seem to be much common ground for communities to build on. Almost a quarter of the murders following the Dec. 27 election took place here, 35 of them in a single horrifying incident – the burning of a Pentecostal church crowded with women and children. Even today, nearly 20,000 people seek shelter in a camp at Eldoret's agricultural show ground, the largest concentration of displaced people in Kenya. Some, like Wanjiku and her sons, venture out every day to cultivate fields they fled, and return home to the camp at night. Many are terrified even to leave the showground at all.