In Kenya, a visit through the violence

Looking for hope amid the chaos of a disputed election

April 27, 2008|By Andrew Kipkemboi | Andrew Kipkemboi,Sun reporter

As I raced toward Nakuru, a town northwest of Nairobi, Kenya, at the end of February, I kept wondering how bad things could get.

Taking advantage of a lull during the chaos that rocked my country, Kenya, I decided to visit my mother, who lives in the Rift Valley Province, the epicenter of the violence that left 1,200 dead in the weeks after the December presidential election. I last saw her a few days before the election, and we had planned to have New Year's together. That never happened.

I would be traveling to the United States for the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships in mid-March, and the urge to see my mother before I left far outweighed the risks of being caught up in the killing fields.

I left Nairobi as the sun's rays touched the ground. I was nervous. I alerted Eliud Miring'uh, my newspaper's bureau chief in Nakuru, that I would call him at regular stops to let him know where I was, just in case I needed help.

"If confronted, make a sharp U-turn by stepping on the accelerator and holding and releasing the hand brake, and don't stop for anyone on the way," said Miring'uh.

When violence broke out it was usually at midday, and I decided that I would wake up early and take off before any of the groups had barricaded the highway.

I got to my mother's safely in five hours. At home, there was too much to talk about - the bad shape of things in the country, what would happen to my mother and my younger siblings if peace was elusive. All the options were painful. I felt helpless. Sometimes I thought I was uncaring to plan to leave my family in the thick of things.

"Things will work," my mother said. "God loves Kenya."

I was not sure about that given the atrocious killings that I had witnessed. During times of unrest, a journalist sees and sifts through the gory details of a story that people like my mother do not see. Like the picture of the people burned alive in a house in Nakuru lying sprawled in a mortuary, or the arrow lodged in the scalp of a man writhing in pain at Nakuru General Hospital. Often, this makes us negative, cynical or cold. You never learn to trust that anything can work out. You lose feelings, that humanness that causes you to empathize.

By the time I was finished with my mother, it was approaching 7 p.m. A 9 p.m. curfew had been imposed in Nakuru and I knew what it would mean to be caught by the ruthless General Service Unit police. That sent a chill down my spine.

"Call me when you get to Nakuru," my mother said. I nodded as I fastened my seat belt.

Halfway, I thought of my helpful colleague at our bureau and called him.

"I am in Marigat and I fear that I will be late," I said. "Do you think you can alert the police at all roadblocks that I am on my way. ... My license plate number is KAZ 441M."

My phone went off. The battery was low. One of the survival tips when your battery is low is to remove it, then put it back and switch it on fast. That worked the magic. I called him again and he said the officers were switched daily so I should pray hard that I would not be caught.

There was no car following me, and none ahead of me. I pressed the accelerator hard and got to Nakuru 15 minutes past curfew. I drove straight to a hotel and checked in. I was lucky.

From the window of my room, it appeared Nakuru had gone to sleep early. And with the curfew ending at 6 a.m., the town would wake up late. It was forlorn, lonely, eerily silent.

I called my mother to tell her that I was safe. The country was still bleeding from the violence, and over and over as I lay in my bed I wondered how bad things could get.

The fury, the arson and destruction, the blood bath were mind-boggling. One of the abiding memories is that of throngs of old women and mothers with small children queuing to get food rations at a camp for the displaced at Jamhuri Park in Nairobi. There was a stampede as word spread that gangs were approaching the camp. Thoughts about a second Rwanda flooded my mind.

At the outset, all indications were that the 2007 presidential race would be close, but few Kenyans imagined that it would end in such horror.

By world standards, the campaigns were at the cutting edge. Money was splashed on primetime advertisements and newspaper pages. Giant billboards were erected along the rutted highways, and everyone waited as the next big thing took shape in Africa.

"I am the bridge to a future of wealth and prosperity," said the principal opposition candidate, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement.

"Give me five more years so that I can complete the projects I started," said President Mwai Kibaki, who was seeking a second term.

The two main parties, the PNU for Kibaki, and the ODM for Odinga, tried to outsmart each other in throwing mud. The PNU made an issue out of Odinga's alleged role in a failed coup 26 years ago, for which he had served seven years in solitary confinement.

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