One year after disputed presidential elections in Kenya triggered horrific clashes between different ethnic groups, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless, how is the country coping? Joanne Offer, who works with the International Rescue Committee in Nairobi, has been talking to communities in West Kenya to find out.
The physical scars of the violence that rocked western Kenya after last year’s disputed presidential election are still clear to see. Drive along the main, potholed road from Eldoret to Kitale and you can’t miss the burnt-out crumbling shells of former shops and restaurants, targeted and destroyed because their owners were from a rival ethnic group. In this photo, women stand next to a home that was burned down when three separate mobs rampaged through their village in late December 2007.
Rhoda Mukamba, 54, pictured here with her four-year-old granddaughter Shareen, lost her husband during the violence. A retired army officer, he’d stayed behind to guard their property while Rhoda and their children fled from Geta to a camp in nearby Gitwamba. Soldiers later told her he’d been attacked by a mob. Now on her own, and with her house burned down in the violence, Rhoda lives in what used to be her kitchen hut and manages her small farm alone. She says, “Do I fear it will happen again? As much as I fear, even if I wanted to run away, where would I go? I don’t have money to go anywhere else.” Rhoda did manage to plant a maize crop this year, thanks to seeds, tools and fertilizer donated by the IRC. But the harvest was small because the violence delayed the planting season. “The crop might not be enough to last until the next farming season,” worries Rhoda. “I hope the government will help us with food and fertilizer.”
Although Rhoda and many like her have now returned home, more than 8,000 people still live in tents in Gitwamba camp for displaced people. They receive food handouts once a month and this is a vital lifeline, with rising food prices putting even basic staple foods out of reach for those who lost everything when they fled here. According to residents, last year a sack of maize was about 1,300 Kenyan shillings, but this year, it’s soared almost 70% to 2,200 KSh.
Peter Mwangi Macharia is a shoe maker. He, his wife and their nine children have been living in one tent (above) since the 1st of January 2008. They managed to salvage a handful of possessions from their former home, but he estimates he lost about 200,000KSh worth of corn that he’d stored from last year’s harvest. “They attacked at five in the evening. No one was hurt because we heard them coming, but the house was destroyed and I lost crops and farm tools,” says Peter. “I was given 25,000 KSh by the government. I’ve bought iron sheets for the roof and timber. But I don’t have windows or doors. If I had doors, I would move in right away. Living in a tent with nine children is too hard. It will be better at home.” He adds: “Most people are rebuilding, but they’re rebuilding smaller houses because they don’t have enough money.”
Across Gitwamba camp, not far from Peter lives Josphat Gicheru. A silver-bearded man with a beaming smile, Josphat has been a tailor for more than 20 years. He just restarted his sewing enterprise under a home-made awning added to the front of his family’s tent. “Business is slow now,” says Josphat, “because people don’t have money, so my earnings are low. My shop was destroyed and all the stock: I lost all the material and two sewing machines. I sold a cow to buy this new one. “At least the tension is now low. There have been no more attacks but there are still verbal threats, people still say things to us. But he adds: “I don’t want to show any animosity to the people who did this. I have forgiven them. I want to get on with my life.”
Back in Geta, the local women’s group also preach a message of forgiveness. Even those like Priscilla, (pictured), who can’t afford to rebuild the homes they lost and now live and cook among the rubble. She says, “We go to the same churches and pray together. We are Christians, we’ve decided to forgive the people that did this.” Building on such messages of peace, organizations like the IRC and HI have been holding peace forums around Trans Nzoia, encouraging different communities to come together to talk about issues that were at the heart of the violence. Community leaders and elders have been leading discussions that aim to find local solutions to local problems.
But not everyone shows such understanding. One man tells me, “I saw my neighbor take my cow and my table from my house, I saw him walking away with them. How can I forgive him knowing what he did, how can we live together?’ As their children play among the village’s broken down buildings, people also voice their skepticism about the effectiveness of the Waki Commission – a body set up to look into the root causes of the violence and make recommendations on how to move forward. Will the Commission’s findings mean a better future for their children? “I don’t think the Waki report will change anything,” sighs one man as he walks on his way along the road. “The government will just protect its own like they always do.”
It's almost a year since Kenya, one of East Africa's most stable and prosperous nations, went from being known as a land of big cats and safaris to a country beset by brutal mob violence; a place where a church full of terrified worshipers could be set ablaze with dozens inside burned alive. In the chaos that followed the disputed presidential elections of December 27, 2007, more than 1,100 people were killed and a further 350,000 forced to flee their homes. So one year on has Kenya been able to heal her wounds?
The truth is that it's been quite a rollercoaster year for Kenyans. The violent fallout from the elections left them stunned - many of my friends still talk of their embarrassment and disappointment that their country could have exploded in such dramatic style. High food prices and ongoing drought left the north of the country in dire need for much of the year, while rising fuel prices made the cost of everyday life spiral throughout Kenya.
Moods were then dramatically lifted by victory for Kenya's favorite son Barack Obama in the US elections, (the Kenyan government even called a public holiday to celebrate). However, Kenyans are once again looking inwards as their politicians dawdle over implementing the recommendations of the Waki Commission, the body set up to look into the root causes of the violence. The report suggested politicians had fanned the flames of the fighting and should be brought to justice by a Kenyan tribunal, but progress along this route has been slow.
In November, the European Union even threatened sanctions if the report's recommendations were not implemented quickly. But most Kenyans I speak to have little faith that the root causes of the violence will ever be thoroughly examined. As one man who lost his house in last year's violence told me: "I don't think the Waki report will change anything. The government will just protect its own like they always do."
Given this apparent lack of faith in higher powers, how are communities themselves coping? Have they been able to move forward, to forgive and forget and to rebuild their lives and their homes? This is a hard question to answer, because you can visit two communities, only kilometers apart, and their situations are subtly different.
Standing in a field in Sikhendu, Trans Nzoia district, for example, there's no sign that it once housed hundreds of families chased out of their homes by angry mobs. The former camp's tents are long gone, the last of the rubbish has been collected, and local school children now play on the grass in between lessons.
At first glance, there are no IDPs (internally displaced people) left here. But after a few moments I'm approached by a small group of women who are living just outside the camp in cramped, rented accommodation. These are the 'invisible IDPs' - the camp may have been closed, but that doesn't mean they've gone home.
In fact many had no 'home' to go back to. They were squatters, working and living on other people's land in return for a salary and a small plot to farm themselves. Understandably they're reluctant to go back and work for communities that chased them away. But since they're no longer in a camp, they're not receiving government assistance.
"At first, we got jobs on farms here, but now the harvest is in and we have no work. Between now and April - the next farming season - it will be hard. We don't know what we will eat," says a spokeswoman for the group. "The government said we had to go home to get money, but it's better to be somewhere peaceful like this than in a place where there's food but the threat of being killed."
Just down the road in Gitwamba, there's nothing invisible about the IDP presence here. Their now-grubby white tents are still visible on the horizon long before you reach the village. More than 8,000 people remain living under canvas, almost twelve months after they first fled their homes, although most tell me they're desperate to move out and get on with their lives.
Families have been given 10 to 25,000 Shillings (about $130 to $325) compensation by the Kenyan Government, but this won't rebuild and furnish a complete family home. "I'm rebuilding my house but I ran out of money so it's not finished yet," says one elderly camp resident. "It's cold living in a tent and I want to be in my own place. I have forgiven the people who did this - it's money not fear that is stopping people going home."
Along the side of the camp, small businesses are starting to re-establish their trades. But it's not easy, having seen all of their stock burned along with their stores last December. Local farmers are also struggling to replace tools stolen by looters and to buy fertilizer to grow a healthy crop next year. Organizations like the International Rescue Committee have been supporting them to restart their livelihoods, but one year later, the need is still great. As one man admits: "I want to be independent again but I can't take care of my family. That makes me feel bad in my heart."
I've read articles criticizing the remaining camp residents as spongers, layabouts, people trying to extort the system. This seems an easy way to dismiss the IDP problem, to pretend it no longer exists and that things are back to normal. But there are still camps in Trans Nzoia with thousands of residents and overwhelmingly the people I meet are desperate to regain their independence. They don't want to be stuck in limbo for another year.
As one woman says: "People are hard working; they don't want to be refugees receiving handouts. They want to work with their hands and sweat, but they need to be given some means to do this." Just a small support now - maybe farming tools or fertilizer - would make a huge difference to people who lost everything.
All photographs and text by Joanne Offer.