Kenya attacks hit home

African natives in Baltimore pray for peace as violence ravages nation

January 05, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

One talks on the phone with relatives, who describe hiding in their homes while watching mobs attack neighbors and loot houses. Another speaks of a young niece, sick with malaria, who has been unable to pass through dangerous streets to see a doctor.

For native Kenyans living in Baltimore, the past few days have been filled with anxiety as they try to maintain contact with family members in their home country, where a disputed election has plunged the usually peaceful African nation into chaos.

"I don't think that the wildest imagination of any Kenyan would have even thought of this," said Omulo Okowa, 37, a special-education teacher at Patapsco Elementary/Middle School. "It caught us totally off guard."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's Maryland section misidentified the Kenyan tribe to which Rosedale nurse Peter Gachucha and his family belong. They are members of the Kikuyu tribe, the same as President Mwai Kibaki.
The Sun regrets the error.

The violence began Sunday after the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the victor, despite allegations of a rigged election. Early reports had shown opposition candidate Raila Odinga leading by a substantial margin. Protests quickly turned to violent riots. The Kikuyu, members of Kibaki's tribe, have been the targets of many attacks. Members of the Luo, Odinga's tribe, and other groups, have been killed in retaliatory violence.

About 300 people have been killed and nearly 100,000 have fled their homes. On Tuesday, about 50 Kikuyus were killed when the church in which they had sought shelter was barricaded and burned. Yesterday, the Peace Corps evacuated 35 volunteers from western Kenya, and the U.S. Embassy warned Americans to weigh the risks of staying or fleeing the country.

About 40 Kenyan natives gathered in a church in Hamilton yesterday evening to pray for peace in a vigil organized by the Kenyan Christian Fellowship of America. They raised their arms and swayed as they sang hymns of praise in Swahili, a language shared by members of the nation's several dozen tribes. Some wept.

"We don't have anything else to do but call upon God," said Patricia Njenga, a 36-year-old elementary school teacher from Baltimore.

Njenga, who immigrated to Baltimore about 15 years ago, explained that she, her sisters and her mother have been transfixed by news reports about the conflict. They try to speak with their relatives in Kenya every day.

"Nothing can happen in Kenya that doesn't affect us," Njenga said. "It is never far away."

Her sister, Catherine Njenga, 37, said that she has spoken with relatives, members of the Kikuyu tribe, who have been hiding in their homes in Nairobi, the capital of the East African nation. Some saw looters carry things from neighbors' homes, she said.

Catherine Njenga, who immigrated to Baltimore in 1989 to attend Coppin State College, said she normally associates her home country with rhythmic drumming; dishes like ugali, a sort of corn porridge, and pilau, a spiced rice; and a laid-back atmosphere.

Normally, the nation is marked by a "general calmness," said Njenga, a third-grade teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School. "We have never had anything happen like this."

Since the Kenyan government has limited the local media, many Baltimore residents have found themselves in the unusual position of keeping relatives in Kenya informed of the conflict.

Okowa, the special-education teacher, said that he scours the Internet and international news service for reports of attacks and riots to share with his family.

He said that he is frustrated he cannot do more to ensure that his relatives, members of the Luo tribe, have food and clean water or to help his niece, who has been ill with malaria for five days, to reach a doctor.

James Onyango, who studies at Morgan State University by day and works as a parking garage attendant at night, said that he too has felt powerless to help his family. One brother told him that he had been roughed up by police, and another has been unable to return to law school because of dangerous roads, Onyango said.

Some relatives have money, but are unable to buy food, while others have no money because banks are closed and ATMs have been emptied of cash, said Onyango, 35, who lives in Parkville.

Peter Gachucha, a nurse from Rosedale, said he and Kenyan co-workers have been riveted by televised footage of their home country.

The violence is shocking, Gachucha said, because the country was relatively peaceful until a few days ago. When he spoke with relatives on Christmas, they were "happy and eagerly awaiting to go and vote," he said.

Although his family are members of the Luo tribe and supporters of Odinga, Gachucha said that he mourns for all those affected by the violence.

"It's depressing to see your people dying. It's Kenyans who are dying, regardless of tribe," he said. "Every two minutes I cannot fail to think about what's going on in Kenya."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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