Unhappy valley

by robbie | June 1, 2011 7:37 pm

Mary Nyok­abi and her 3‑year-old daugh­ter, Ann Wan­jiru, tidy the grave of Nyok­abi’s moth­er, who died in a church fire in Kiambaa. (rcb)

KIAMBAA, Kenya — Joseph Kairuri, a 54-year-old maize farmer in Kenya’s Rift Val­ley, remem­bers that the attack­ers wore T‑shirts and ban­dan­nas, and that they came armed with blades and stones and arrows. He remem­bers that some of them had con­cealed their faces with white clay, but that the young man who ulti­mate­ly cut him down—slicing him so deep across his right fore­arm that Kairuri lost use of his hand—had not.

It was mid-morn­ing on New Year’s Day 2008, two days after a hard-fought pres­i­den­tial elec­tion had been called in favour of the eth­nic Kikuyu incum­bent, Mwai Kiba­ki, spurring ful­mi­nant vio­lence through­out much of the valley—Kenya’s west­ern “bread­bas­ket” of maize fields and ver­tig­i­nous escarp­ments. Along with the oth­er men of Kiambaa village—a pock­et of Kikuyu fam­i­lies sur­round­ed by the Kalen­jin, who had backed the opposition—Kairuri had staged an ill-starred last stand out­side the Kenya Assem­blies of God church, where more than 100 women and chil­dren sought refuge in the hours before the charge.

Over­come by the mob and writhing in pain on the ground, Kairuri could only watch as the women inside the church—which had been doused in petrol and set alight—made what would be, for many, a final deci­sion: stay inside and burn to death, or run out and face their assailants. He said he was not sur­prised so many chose the for­mer: “Once you see an arrow point­ing at you, you go back inside and take your chances with the flames.”

That morn­ing, more than 30 peo­ple were killed in an attack that last­ed bare­ly half an hour. More than three years lat­er, the plot where the church once stood has a decid­ed­ly unfin­ished aspect: plans for a memo­r­i­al remain unre­alised, and noth­ing but grass lies behind a lone rock wall. There are 36 graves far­ther back, just before the land gives way to bush, but instead of prop­er head­stones they are marked with wood­en stakes, some of which no longer stand upright. Sur­vivors iden­ti­fied 13 of the bod­ies, but the stakes for the remain­ing graves read sim­ply: “RIP Unknown.”

To refer mere­ly to ‘the post-elec­tion vio­lence’ in Kenya is to be insuf­fi­cient­ly spe­cif­ic: three of the past four pres­i­den­tial elec­tions have led to wide­spread fight­ing along trib­al lines.

Between 30 Decem­ber 2007, when the poll results were announced, and 28 Feb­ru­ary 2008, when Kiba­ki and his oppo­nent, Raila Odin­ga, agreed to a pow­er-shar­ing deal, more than 1,000 Kenyans lost their lives and hun­dreds of thou­sands were displaced.

Attempts to estab­lish a local tri­bunal to pros­e­cute per­pe­tra­tors of the vio­lence foundered in par­lia­ment. Last Decem­ber, Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court Chief Pros­e­cu­tor Luis Moreno-Ocam­po iden­ti­fied six alleged organ­is­ers of the unrest and accused them of crimes against human­i­ty. But the Kiba­ki wing of the coali­tion gov­ern­ment has launched a cam­paign to refer the cas­es to local courts, and the sus­pects them­selves have tak­en to paint­ing The Hague process as an impe­ri­al­ist vio­la­tion of Kenyan sovereignty.

In broad strokes, this state of affairs—in which the pas­sage of time is tasked with bring­ing about a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that would ide­al­ly be effect­ed by account­abil­i­ty and reform—is noth­ing new, par­tic­u­lar­ly for res­i­dents of the Rift Val­ley. Although the vio­lence in 2008 was ini­tial­ly described as an aber­ra­tion, a blem­ish on the record of a coun­try gen­er­al­ly seen as sta­ble, cam­paigns and chaos have been inex­tri­ca­bly linked here since the rein­tro­duc­tion of mul­ti­par­ty pol­i­tics in 1991. Indeed, to refer mere­ly to “the post-elec­tion vio­lence” in Kenya is to be insuf­fi­cient­ly spe­cif­ic: three of the past four pres­i­den­tial elec­tions have led to wide­spread fight­ing along trib­al lines.

And the val­ley has been at the cen­tre of these con­flicts. It was here—as well as in neigh­bour­ing provinces—that British colo­nial­ists expro­pri­at­ed land from Kenyan farm­ers after arriv­ing around the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry. At inde­pen­dence in 1963, Prime Min­is­ter (and soon to be Pres­i­dent) Jomo Keny­at­ta redis­trib­uted new­ly recov­ered plots to mem­bers of his own Kikuyu tribe. In areas where the Kalen­jin had been estab­lished pri­or to colo­nial­ism, this pol­i­cy cre­at­ed a volatile fault line along which new arrivals abutted fam­i­lies that had been displaced.

For 15 years, from 1992 to 2007, Tabitha Nyam­bu­ra, a 42- year-old Kikuyu, wit­nessed the result­ing tur­bu­lence from her two-acre plot near Koibatek dis­trict, which lies direct­ly on the fault line. The dis­trict was part of the pow­er base of Daniel arap Moi, who suc­ceed­ed Keny­at­ta as pres­i­dent in 1978 and shared his predecessor’s pen­chant for using land to shore up trib­al sup­port: In the 1992 elec­tion, the first mul­ti­par­ty vote since inde­pen­dence, he tried to expel from the val­ley mem­bers of tribes that were unlike­ly to vote for him, fuelling vio­lence that killed 1,500 and dis­placed 300,000.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Nyam­bu­ra, Moi, who ruled until 2002, is a Kalen­jin, mean­ing that for 10 long years she was on the los­ing end of the valley’s trib­al pol­i­tics. In that first elec­tion, as riot­ing Kalen­jin mobs approached her home, she and her fam­i­ly took cov­er in a near­by shop­ping cen­tre. They returned to wreck­age once the vio­lence sub­sided. “Every­thing was loot­ed in the house—mattresses, clothes, even the uten­sils in the kitchen,” she recalled recently.

Five years lat­er, dur­ing an elec­tion that was sim­i­lar­ly marred by vio­lence, Nyam­bu­ra and her fam­i­ly decid­ed to remain on their land even as homes near­by burned to the ground. They sur­vived unscathed, but in the years that fol­lowed they refrained from invest­ing in their prop­er­ty. “We were think­ing that every five years our homes would be looted.”

The elec­tion of Kiba­ki in 2002, how­ev­er, brought Nyam­bu­ra a sense of secu­ri­ty she hadn’t felt in years, and a series of upgrades fol­lowed: a two-bed­room stone house replaced the orig­i­nal struc­ture of wat­tle and daub; cows and goats and chick­ens were pur­chased; a tim­ber gra­nary was con­struct­ed and filled with maize dur­ing har­vest time.

When the next vote came in 2007, at the end of a cam­paign in which can­di­dates again attempt­ed to use trib­al divi­sion to their advan­tage, Nyam­bu­ra went to the polls hop­ing the val­ley would remain calm. The first indi­ca­tion that this hope would be dashed came when she saw young Kalen­jin men gath­er­ing in groups that after­noon, and heard rumours that they intend­ed to dri­ve the Kikuyu all the way east to Cen­tral Province. That night, the first of the hous­es was set afire.

Defeat­ed, Nyam­bu­ra and her fam­i­ly, which includ­ed 11 chil­dren at the time, head­ed for the home of a Kalen­jin neigh­bour will­ing to shel­ter them. Their new house and gra­nary burned. Many of the chick­ens were also lost in the fire. The cows and goats were stolen by the mobs.

The fam­i­ly even­tu­al­ly land­ed at Mawingu, an IDP camp on the bor­der between Rift Val­ley and the Cen­tral Province. Nyam­bu­ra has lived here with her hus­band and children—who now num­ber 13—for the past three years, their assets reduced to the piles of cloth­ing and cook­ing uten­sils that fit inside two tents of 10 feet by 10 feet.

Although the two aban­doned acres remain in the family’s pos­ses­sion, she said she had every inten­tion of remain­ing at Mawingu through the next elec­tion, expect­ed in late 2012. Asked why she had not been tempt­ed to return, she said, “If we plant on that land, by the time the crops are ripe the Kalen­jin will take them from us.”

Nyam­bu­ra is not alone in her sense that vio­lence next year is inevitable; she could very well be in the major­i­ty. To be sure, there are those who dis­agree, who think the last cri­sis was so ruinous that no one would think of incit­ing a repeat. In recent inter­views, how­ev­er, even those res­i­dents of the Rift Val­ley who tried to con­vey opti­mism con­ced­ed that there had been no sub­stan­tive effort to stay the forces under­ly­ing the fighting.

Joseph Kairuri, for instance, said he had come to terms with the fact that those who car­ried out the burn­ing of the church in Kiambaa were unlike­ly to be charged any­time soon. He knew the man who had slashed his forearm—because the assailant had not dis­guised his face, Kairuri recog­nised him instant­ly as a local live­stock trader—and said he did not mind that the man con­tin­ued to live freely. “If he comes and apol­o­gis­es, I will be ready to for­give him,” Kairuri said.

But when asked if he thought an apol­o­gy was forth­com­ing, Kairuri, stand­ing on ground where the church once stood, sur­round­ed by the stakes mark­ing 36 graves, smiled, shook his head and said no.

The orig­i­nal ver­sion of this arti­cle can be found here. Click here for the PDF.


Source URL: http://robbiecoreyboulet.com/2011/06/unhappy-valley-2/