As Kenya's Olympians run, a divided nation has chance to unite

Ethnic divisions following the 2007 elections drove some Kenyan communities to violence. Some now see the upcoming Olympic Games as a chance for national unity.

Noor Khamis/Reuters
Kenyan 800 meters world record holder David Rudisha (front, r.) runs during the men's Olympic trial race at the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi, Kenya, June 23.

Training in the urban Karura forest just northwest of the heart of Nairobi in an attempt to retain the “strong lungs” that comes from breathing in the thin air of Kenya’s high-plateau altitude, the Kenyan Olympics team is preparing for the July 27 – Aug. 12 Games in London.

Most of the team members belong to a single ethnic group. Indeed, most of the athletes come from one particular town. Yet, the recent ethnic violence that has emanated from the town of Eldoret in the Rift Valley – driven by a combination of political ambition and ethnic resentment – makes the dominance of ethnic Kalenjins on the Kenyan Olympic team a matter of some concern. Will Kenyans set aside ethnic differences during the Olympic games, and unify as one nation?  

“When the games begin, Kenyan will sit together as citizens of one country and cheer their runners,” says Ben Mutsotso, a sociologist at the University of Nairobi. “The games bring us a sense of pride, fame, and unity to all Kenyans regardless of their tribes, race, or class. That will benefit peace.”

Four years ago, Kenya descended into a bloody post-election violence following a dispute over a tightly contested presidential election. The violence erupted Dec. 28, after President Mwai Kibaki, from the Kikuyu tribe was declared the winner and Raila Odinga, from the Luo tribe. Later the prime minister said the polls had been stolen.

Within hours, the Rift Valley town of Eldoret erupted in flames, as youth from the Kalenjin tribe, who had supported Mr. Odinga and his Kalenjin allies, attacked their Kikuyu neighbors, who were presumed to be supporters of Mr. Kibaki. Kikuyu youth in Kenya’s Central Province responded soon afterward with attacks on Luo and Kalenjin neighbors. Some 1,300 people were killed and 600,000 displaced from their homes, before both sides settled down to negotiations to form a coalition government.

Even today, thousands of displaced Kenyans live in displacement camps around Eldoret and Kapsabet, but the government hopes these people will return to their homes ahead of the next general elections, scheduled for March 2013. Church pastors and community leaders have attempted to open lines of dialogue between the various communities, but civic activists say that the Olympic Games this summer could be a building block for bridging the remaining gap between these communities.

“The games will present a moment for all Kenyans to unite in cheering the team without thinking of their tribal background,” says Col. Benjamin Muema, the spokesperson of the Political Parties Collaborative Leaders Forum, an umbrella body for Kenya's political parties. “I think we need to galvanize that as we approach the elections.” 

In practice, Kenyans do tend to unite around their sports figures, regardless of ethnicity. In 2008, despite the violence, Kenyans across the country united in front of television screens to cheer on their team at the Olympics in Beijing. And while Kalenjins do dominate the Kenyan team, athletes from other ethnic groups -- such as middle-distance runner David Rudisha (a Maasai) and 1500-meters runner Helen Obiri (a Kisii) -- help to spread out the pride.

For Douglas Wakiihuri, a former long distance runner, who won Kenya’s first gold medal in the Marathon in the 1987 World Athletic Championship in Rome, the question is whether that unity can continue after the games. “There already some fears, but as a nation we should carry that spirit of unity to the elections,” he said.

Political campaigns in the past have often reminded Kenyans of their ethnic resentments, with one ethnic group complaining about the supposed economic and political advantages of other ethnic groups, and some Kenyan politicians have already started campaigning for the March 2013 elections. Civic activists say these politicians should borrow a page from the Olympic athletes’ playbook and set aside their ethnic identities to work for the advancement of the country.

“Maybe we should have the politicians train with the athletes, so that they can learn something about unity,” says Colonel Muema.

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