The Kenyan Elections are this Monday, March 4, 2013. It’s a very big deal, and the reason has a lot to do with how the community of Shalom came to be.
In the last elections held on December 28, 2007, the results showed President Mwai Kibaki defeating his opponent Raila Odinga by a very slim margin. Polls and early figures had suggested Odinga would win by a large margin. When Odinga declared the vote rigged, his supporters hit the streets immediately, and for more than two months, Kenya was very nearly torn apart by violence and chaos.
What was mixed up in all this populist anger were deep grievances concerning land and economic privilege, all of it drawn neatly along ethnic lines. Unfortunately, these lines had been falsely drawn by an elite political class for decades. The grievances had more to do with a government that had grabbed land for decades and sold it to wealthy and corrupt business partners and entitled family members.
The land issue in Kenya actually goes further back than that. It goes right back to the thousands of European settlers that made Kenya their home in the post-World War 2 era and in the process, made themselves very rich off of its land and people. The British Colonial government pushed indigenous families off their ancestral (and often very fertile) land, and sold it cheaply to the settlers. When most of the settlers left after independence in 1963, the new Kenyan government claimed the land or facilitated the sale of it to business and political elites. Mostly, these were rich Kikuyu men, the same tribe as the first president, but the elites hailed from all tribes. Nevertheless, thus began the view of Kikuyu being nepotistic land grabbers. From here politicians from other tribes, like the Kalenjin, used this vision to rally their tribe into voting along tribal lines, and Kikuyu then used that rallying as a means of rallying their own tribal base, and so on…What was lost in all the shouting is that only the rich and connected Kikuyu got land. Poor Kikukuyu got the same thing every other poor person in Kenya got: nothing.
These forty plus years of simmering bitterness finally tipped into the frenzied violence of 2007. A new generation that had heard vile rumours about certain tribes all their lives was now coming of voting age in a Kenya with a crushing 40% unemployment rate. The promises had been heaped on in this election: for their candidate not to win meant they as a community lost.
With members of political parties agitating these youth for months, the rallies were already getting violent by time Kenyans queued to vote. President Kibaki is a Kikuyu, Raila Odinga is a Luo, but across the nation, tribes were aligning themselves on one side or the other. All of this was fuelled by a youthful rage, which was outwardly about politics and ethnicity but was really just a chronic symptom of inequality and corruption. When Raila Odinga declared the election rigged on December 30, 2007, his supporters took that to mean the whole country was rigged. They were right but not about a particular tribe. Kenya had been already been rigged by the powerful and corrupt. In spite of that, in late 2007 and early 2008, Kenyans went to war with themselves.
To hear Kenyans speak of that time is fascinating but it can be a little confusing. That’s apparently what it was like though for people living through it. The escalation of violence was so quick and jarring it left Kenyans disoriented and very fearful. By February 28, 2008, when a power sharing deal was reached and the violence had subsided, over 1,200 had lost their lives.
Out of this madness, hundreds of thousands were “displaced”, which is a pretty bland term to describe being brutally and permanently forced from your home. Houses were burned, property destroyed or stolen, and lives were lost. Some estimates put the number of displaced in Kenya because of the post-election violence at over 600,000 people.
The folks living in Shalom and the thousands of others living in the dozen other IDP (Internally Displaced Peoples) camps in Rongai District were among those people chased from the lives they had built. Despite bravely moving forward and building new lives for themselves, the effects of that traumatic period are still felt today.
Months ago, meeting some of the families living in Shalom, I heard this firsthand. Our minds were wounded somehow, I was told. I didn’t ask how long it would take to heal, and I’ve wondered ever since.
One man told me about his father’s farm. This farm was bought legally 20 years back, with the proper documentation from a landowner, who happened to be from a different tribe. This man’s father is a Kikuyu, the former land owner was a Kalenjin. For over 20 years, the land had produced well, and at the time of elections, this gentleman that I was talking to was managing it as his father got older. He also had a small retail business in the nearby town. He was working, he said, so he could save enough to start a family comfortably with his new wife. Sensing the impending chaos in 2007, he stockpiled maize in a warehouse on the farm. In early 2008, a Kalenjin mob, fuelled by the national chaos, came to reclaim the land as their tribal right. He was beaten severely but escaped as the warehouse burned to the ground. When he reached home he discovered his shop was destroyed as well. He and his wife left the next day for a temporary camp for displaced people.
Once in these camps, reliant on sparse food aid from government and NGO’s, and unable to support themselves or their families, many languished in a confused despair. One person told this was the time that it finally became a reality. All that madness in such a short time, it took this moment of drawn out limbo to piece it all together. It still didn’t make sense, and, I suppose, for many of them, it won’t ever make sense.
I’ve heard stories like this, but also about the long term effects of the violence. I heard of friends who were listless, depressed or alcoholic. I heard of older relatives going to bed with fear and sadness, and not waking up.
“No, it will never happen again. We won’t even let it begin to happen again,” Joseph Sorpai told me. Joseph is a chairman of the Manjanimingi community, and he is a Kalenjin. Moses, the chairman of Shalom, is a Kikuyu and he nodded along. It was small and natural but felt moving just then, standing in the midst of makeshift tents and twirling dust devils.
Manjanimingi is a community of displaced people, deep in the heart of the Rift Valley, and is a stark reminder of how far this country has to go before the five year old scars of the post-election violence will heal. While many IDP’s carry scars of that particular time within themselves, there are thousands unsettled people from that time, now living in a squalid temporary manner that makes the abuses of the past graphically visible. There are thousands that are still unsettled, unable to begin their lives anew, and unable to leave the terrible past behind.
From the temporary camps, many were placed into more permanent communities, like the one in Shalom, where they were provided tin sheets to build houses and plots of land to farm. A smaller number of IDPs opted to go home to try to rebuild from whatever was left. Many moved into the cities, filling slum neighbourhoods already at claustrophobic capacity. And some temporary camps turned into permanent settlements. This has been the plan for years for Manjanimingi, but as the population has grown to over 4500, the journey towards permanent living has been slow.
In a last-minute effort, the government has begun surveying the land for houses as well as donating the building materials to at least give the impression they have followed up on promises and are after all, worthy for their vote. The people of Manjanimingi though are tired of the neglect. Many are worried whether Monday’s election will give them a new government that will promptly forget the promises previously made.
The people of Shalom, on the other hand, openly talk of how blessed they feel to be finished with the temporary lives, to be “placed” and no longer dis-placed. However, they aren’t easily going to forget what it was like to be torn from their homes, nor what it was like to live under sticks and canvas, waiting to see if there was a permanent place for them in this country. This has led to a sense of solidarity among settled and unsettled IDP’s, especially between the community of Shalom and Manjanimingi. “We were once [living] like them, and helping them makes us feel good in a very clear way,” Moses told me after the Shalom community donated some of their maize harvest to Manjanimingi.
Ethnically, Shalom is a community that is mostly Kikuyu, but with plenty of other tribes living together. From this, a different kind of cultural identity is growing. Stephen, a student teacher from Nyanza province, told me that he has never seen such young students easily conversing in Swahili as he did at Shalom Primary. Parents in Shalom tell me they want their children to learn Swahili before they learn their native language. Outside home, with children coming from so many different tribes, there’s no way to play without speaking the same language anyways. At young ages in Shalom, language is shaping children to associate themselves with each other as friends, regardless of their tribe.
A community doesn’t just happen, it takes time and effort and as many people as possible. Starting with nothing meant everyone in Shalom had to give something together, regardless of age, religion, or ethnicity. This how they could build homes and businesses and a thriving school.
This kind of solidarity seems to be spreading across to other communities too, like the way Shalom has helped Manjanimingi during the harvest season. Manjanimingi is predominantly Kalenjin with a remaining mixed tribal make up like Shalom. In 2007, Kalenjin and Kikuyu were among the people groups who clashed the most fiercely and yet out of that burnt out hate has come a sense of empathic community across tribal lines. They share survival through the darkest period in Kenya’s history, and proud resoluteness to start new and better lives as Kenyans first.
It might be a bit utopian to think that settled IDP’s will instantly change the way Kenyans have thought for generations, but in a small way, it’s happening already. This is why we need to continue investing in these progressive new communities to support youth better. We need to help nurture this way of understanding and acceptance, which are two things kids often do better than adults.
Additionally, we can’t responsibly support these communities if we don’t try to better understand the context that brought the communities into existence. But with a grasp of the past we should be looking to the future and seizing this chance to help educate a new generation of Kenyans. This generation might leave their rural communities ready to change the way many Kenyans think of Kenya.
So please think of Kenyans this Monday, March 4, 2013. Think of them as they vote in their next leaders, leaders who may or may not keep promises made to displaced folks around the country. And think of the diverse young Kenyans in Shalom, Manjanimingi, and all the other IDP camps in the Rongai district. The younger ones might not remember the last elections very well, but if we continue to fully support these communities’ futures, these young Kenyans could be the last Internally Displaced People this country sees.
References and further reading:
IRIN News: No Ordinary Election: http://www.irinnews.org/Kenya2013/index.html (an interactive web documentary on the 2013 election includes video interview with a variety of Kenyans, including an un-settled Kenyan woman)
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre: http://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/kenya
International Land Coalition: Irregular and Illegal land acquisition by Kenya’s elites: http://www.landcoalition.org/sites/default/files/publication/906/ERIN-KLA_Elites_web_14.03.11.pdf
The Economist: Don’t Mention the War: http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21572821-voters-are-preparing-trouble-during-presidential-polls-are-too-close
Wikipedia: 2007-2008 Kenyan Crisis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%9308_Kenyan_crisis
Wikipedia: History of Kenya: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Kenya#Kenya_Colony
A brief overview of the state of Kenya’s economy in 2012: http://www.indexmundi.com/kenya/economy_profile.html