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Let them drink milk

Nicholas van Praag's picture

Reflections on a journey through the Rift Valley..

My main take-away from a visit to Kenya last month is that the ‘post-electoral violence’ has deep pre-electoral roots.  While inter-ethnic violence is not uncommon, the legacy of the displacement of tens of thousands of people in early 2008 seems to have created a Balkanization of Kenya. There is so much poverty, so much hatred, so much fear, and so many politicians willing to exploit this, that I felt a long-term peace is still elusive.

Driving up the Rift Valley, ground zero for much of the violence that erupted after the disputed elections in December 2007, I got a chance to hear tale after tale of loss and disruption, and to learn about people’s hopes and fears for the future.

   Hoping for a better future. Photos © Nicholas van Praag

At first it is hard for me to remember all the ethnic groups and follow the history of decades of social and ethnic disparity.  In many places Kikuyu were attacked by Kalenjin.  In others, Kikuyu gangs killed and displaced Luos and Luyas and Kalenjins.

The outcome today is a redrawing of many towns and villages along ethnic lines.  Most prominent of all is the town of Naivasha, reknowned for its flower farms that export roses and carnations around the world.  Once home to many different groups, it is almost entirely Kikuyu now. Luos and Luyas have been kicked out, their jobs taken.  None dare to return.

In the early morning sun, metal roofs glint at us as we drive up the pot-holed road that leads north to Uganda and Rwanda.  Every few miles you catch a glimpse of the new settlements set back from the street. 

The glinting roofs are the homes of the more fortunate displaced people; ones who have benefitted from government-provided building materials.  Things are not perfect but these people are beginning new lives on land they have clubbed together to buy with cash received from the government.

We saw for ourselves one of the better new settlements at Kamoyo near Eldoret.  Mud walls (which people want because they are hard to set on fire).  Agricultural extension services.  Support from the African Development Bank.  A police post nearby. Things look pretty good.

Down the road at Ndungulu, a neighboring village, children were streaming home from their over-crowded school.  Their uniforms suggest order, routine and a rote-learning kind of dullness.  But their anachronistic outfits cannot disguise the continuing uncertainty that hangs over the community. 

  Uniform uncertainty. 

In most of the communities I visited, metal roofs are just a glint in peoples’ tired eyes.  On a bright chilly morning at Afraka, a tented camp just outside the town of Salga, near Nakuru, the children emerge into the sunlight. They are coughing after another cold night in their flimsy shelters. 

After months of pleading with the local government, this group still lives in worn-out tents patched with tarps, held together with sticks and string.  They have purchased 4 acres of land but worry whether they will be allowed to stay.  It seems to require better connections, more sway, than this ethnically mixed community can muster. 

“This is a negative peace—the absence of fighting.  A spark could set it off again”, said Anastasia, UN OCHA’s field representative in Eldoret.  Her fears are shared by almost everyone I spoke to.  They pose questions but offer few answers: How to reconcile when no-one is held responsible?  How to rebuild trust with so many suspicions? How to heal a country in a political void?  How can there be justice in a culture of impunity? 

Talk of impunity was on everybody’s lips—from displaced people in camps, to officials struggling to breathe life into the government-sponsored peace committees, and intellectuals and activists in Nairobi.  Impunity, impunity, impunity... The words still echo in my ears.  Too many people have gotten away with too much for too long. 

There is a yearning for leadership. “We want someone who can express what we clamor for”, said Mutuku Nguli, the chief executive officer of PeaceNet Kenya, a prominent civil society organization.  In the village of Chepkonga, Christine, who only gave her first name, was more straightforward. “We need our elders to sit down and drink milk together”.  There seem to be few takers.

Meanwhile, the average Kenyan, in a hierarchical society that defers to its leaders, is left struggling for solutions to problems for which poor people always pay the highest price.
Two years after the Kofi Annan-brokered accord produced a fractious coalition government, the structural and political stresses that lay at the heart of the violence remain unresolved.  Reform is snail-paced.  Social marginalization is increasing and unemployment is high.  Meanwhile, political fragmentation and mobilization along ethnic lines—made more dangerous by armed militias in the service of political parties—is a stark reality that leaves everyone uneasy.

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