A SMALL creek runs through this western farming village. Its waters divide most of the homes and small farms of members of two of Kenya's main tribes, the Kalenjin and Kikuyu. People on both sides of the creek have worked together and formed friendships over the years. But this cooperation ended abruptly last month.
Grace Kabiru, a villager on the Kikuyu side of the creek, vividly recalls what happened on May 16th: "I heard shouting. I went behind the house and looked across the river. I saw many people running toward us. I asked my mother to run. When we got as far as the sawmill, I looked behind and saw my house already burning. Then I saw my neighbor, an old man. Many people started to attack him. They shot him with an arrow and hit him with an ax. One of the young people [attackers], I know him."
Eyewitnesses to the incident estimate that 300 members of the Kalenjin tribe, many of them teenagers, swooped across a broad plain, crossed the creek, and attacked Kikuyus. Some 3,000 Kikuyus fled the village and surrounding area. Earlier this month, on June 17, there were renewed clashes in the region. Fifty homes reportedly were burned and three people killed.
The attacks are two of dozens that have occurred in recent months between various tribes in western Kenya. They occur against a backdrop of old tribal tensions fanned by recent statements from Kenyan politicians speaking in favor of their tribes against other tribes. Kenya's first-ever multi-party presidential elections will be held by next March.
Many Kenyan tribes have had historical disputes over cattle raiding and land, but the current wave of attacks and murder is something new. The violence interrupts friendships that have built up across tribal lines in recent years.
The Kalenjin and Kikuyu "were peaceful, friendly, before," says Samuel Ngarachu, a Kikuyu and pastor of the African Inland Church in this village. Kalenjins and Kikuyus "were real close friends," says a Kikuyu man whose house was burned down in the attack. Now he shakes his head and calls the Kalenjins "useless people." Local church officials estimate 12 people, mostly Kikuyus, were killed in the attack.
The attacks began late last year in other parts of Kenya. They were launched by Kalenjins, a cluster of small tribes which together make up one of Kenya's largest ethnic groups. Politicians from the Kalenjin, Kikuyu, and other tribes have made statements aimed at reserving their voting areas for their own tribe. Non-Kalenjin tribes have launched counterattacks.
The tribal fighting has not only taken the lives of an estimated 200 Kenyans, it also has rent the fabric of social and economic life for thousands. "There's a terrible disruption of life," says a church official in the nearby town of Londiani. "Their world falls apart. Fear is a disintegrating element," says the official, who prefers not to be identified.
Mrs. Kabiru lost not only her home, but everything in it: furniture, schoolbooks, clothes, blankets. Most of her 12 children were in school at the time of the attack, and no one in her family died. Her family has rented a small room in Londiani.
Kabiru and some other Kikuyus return to the village by day to work on their small farms, but most of them are still too afraid to stay overnight. "We might go home and it [the violence] could come again," says another Kikuyu woman from the village who temporarily is living in Londiani. She, too, was afraid to give her name.
MANY farms, including some in prime agricultural areas, have been abandoned, reducing Kenya's food production at a time when severe drought is already reducing crops. Once-independent farmers chased from their homes by the violence now must depend on handouts from local churches.
Schools in the region, with the notable exception of Londiani, have either shut down or have few students still attending. Many teachers, pupils, and their parents have fled.
But at the Londiani Girls' Secondary School, where students board, full classes continue as usual, despite the fact that the school is close to the scene of the May 16 attack. Headmistress Eva Gilchar told the students, who include both Kalenjin and Kikuyu, that she does not regard them as members of one tribe or another, but simply students. The school was provided a police guard after the attack, but only for a few days. Recent visitors to the school found Kalenjin and Kikuyu girls laughing and talking
together after class. Local residents of both tribes say peace will return eventually, if residents are not goaded to further violence.
"There are victims on both sides," says Jacob Langat, a Kalenjin and local official of the government party, the Kenya African National Union. He is helping to organize the feeding of clash victims in this area. "If people are left alone to do their own things, people will [get along] the way they did before."
But for now, life for most people here is far from normal. A few Kalenjin can be seen walking the streets in Londiani, but most, like their Kikuyu counterparts, are afraid to return to the town.
Here in the village of Londiani Farmers, Kabiru has not begun work on a new home. "If there is peace, I'll rebuild," she says, standing amid the charred ruins. Kikuyus in the village were too fearful to cross the creek to where their Kalenjin neighbors still lived, so I had to go alone.
On the other side of the creek, a young Kalenjin man carrying a machete approached warily in the rain. After I explained my work as a reporter desiring to talk to villagers from both tribes, the man said, indicating the Kikuyu side of the creek, "If someone comes from that side, I'm afraid."
He claimed he did not attack the Kikuyu but had fled like they did, returning only recently. Kikuyu villagers, however, claim their Kalenjin neighbors showed the attacking young Kalenjins where the Kikuyus lived.
Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi, a Kalenjin, is accused by leaders of opposition parties of allowing the fighting to start and being slow to try to stop it. The government, on the other hand, accuses opposition leaders of fanning tribal tensions. President Moi has assigned extra police to the clash areas. The government also reports making more than 800 arrests, including 55 Kalenjins on the day of the attack.