Charity in the Face of Crisis
How are Kenya’s poorest citizens coping with the upheaval sparked by the country’s flawed elections?
January 30, 2008
How has Mercy Center been affected by the upheaval over the election?
We are facing a humanitarian crisis. The Kikuyus — the most populous ethnic group, to which President Mwai Kibaki belongs — who lived in mixed areas around Lare have been pushed into our area for fear of violence by the roving groups who belong to the Kalenjin and Luo tribes, and other opposition supporters. People are camping all around our site. People are also camping near the government chief’s house for protection.
How did your staff first react to the crisis?
Initially, we had to close our medical clinic because the nurses were scared and we focused on providing water to the people camping in Lare.
What is the situation like now?
Our biggest problem is that the boreholes for the well run on generators that require diesel fuel. So our staff has to drive to another town to purchase the diesel. They run the risk of meeting violent people. The diesel is also very expensive, so we have had to ration the amount of water each family can take per day.
Has the Kenyan government helped at all?
Just last week, we were able to get two policemen to guard the medical clinic so we could reopen. We have people who are wounded from the opposition forces who need treatment, but also people who have become very ill from drinking water from mud. We are doing the best we can even if our mission is not to deal with emergency situations.
How about additional help? What about international organizations?
The Mercy Center bank account in Kenya is empty, but we still are lucky to have five people from our board of directors and five people who work at the clinic to keep the work going. Imagine that we are the only similar organization in an area that now — with the influx of refugees — includes over 150,000 inhabitants!
The Red Cross came to Lare last week and dropped off dried beans, but it wasn’t much help considering the beans have to be cooked to be useful! It’s possible that by now other groups like Catholic Relief Services have reached the area but I don’t know.
What motivates you and your organization to keep working?
My faith tells me that when the people are hungry you give them to eat. When they are thirsty you give them to drink.
Did you expect the violent reaction to the election in Kenya?
First of all, I am of the Kikuyu tribe. We Kikuyu were really taken by surprise. But looking back, there were many signs of what was to come.
If I listen to the opposition leader Raila Odinga’s campaign speeches now, I realize that it was a hate campaign against the Kikuyus. Odinga did not talk about issues, but mostly about how the Kikuyu tribe had been in power too long — and had eaten up everything in Kenya.
I think it is very telling that during the campaign Odinga quoted Churchill. He said, “We will fight them by sea, by land and by air.” We were not in a war, so who was he going to fight?
Do you believe the violence was planned ahead of time?
My friends and family back home are now convinced that the violent opposition to the election results in my area, the Great Rift Valley, was organized beforehand.
I know Kikuyus from the area near the Mercy Center that were told by their Kalenjin friends — one of the other major ethnic groups in Kenya — that something bad was going to happened after the election. If it was not planned, how is it possible for people to wake up one day and decide to kill their neighbors?
So you reject the notion that the election was rigged — and that the opposition is being suppressed?
Neither side is innocent, I am sure. But I don’t understand why Odinga will not let his case go to the courts. You can’t say, “The election was stolen,” and then not follow a process. Odinga and his followers have other cases pending in the courts, so I don’t understand why they cannot just let this case go to court too.
The opposition keeps talking about having a movement like Gandhi or Martin Luther King — but they were uniters, not dividers. They professed non-violence. The opposition is looting, burning and raping! This is not peaceful! It is contradictory to talk about Gandhi and King and carry sticks and stones at the same time.
What about the Kikuyu people? Are they engaging in violence?
Well not now, but my fear is that being attacked and pushed to the brink they will start to defend themselves. I fear that the Kikuyus will want to start taking revenge.
Was there always trouble between the various tribes living in the Great Rift Valley?
Actually, no. Growing up in the Great Rift Valley, we were all mixed. In school, we were Luos, Kikuyu, Kisii, Meru, Kalenjin and others. If I needed something from my neighbor — from whatever tribe — I asked. We went to each other’s ceremonies.
So when did the tension between tribes arise?
The bulk of the trouble started in 1992 with the first multi-party election when the Kikuyu were blamed for stealing the land. The politicians started to use old problems to secure votes based on tribal lines.
What sort of old problems?
The old problems go back to colonial rule. Back then, in the 1960s, the land was still owned by British settlers. After independence in 1964, the British started to sell their land. Kikuyus formed societies to buy the land — and this is how they ended up with more land than the other groups.
The areas in the Great Rift Valley where there is a mix of tribes are areas that the former president Daniel Arap Moi gave to some landless groups. Moi also gave a lot of land to his own people, the Kalenjin. It’s a very complicated situation — but needless to say, we used to all get along. It’s the politicians that have manipulated old hatreds in order to get power.
Do you believe the media is addressing the story fairly?
My sources on the ground in Lare and in other villages in the Great Rift Valley tell me that the correct number of victims is not being reported. I was told that in a small hamlet near Lare the opposition forces killed all of the inhabitants — dozens of people.
What about the portrayal of the struggle between Odinga and Kibaki?
In my opinion, the media is also taken by Odinga and his anti-corruption rhetoric. Odinga attracts crowds by talking about the corruption of the Kibaki government. All of this talk attracts people who are poor — and want things to change.
In Kenya we say, “An empty container makes a lot of noise,” and this is the case here.
So you think Odinga is an empty vessel, so to speak?
The hypocrisy is that Odinga has been part of the power establishment in Kenya for many years — and he hasn’t contributed to the development of his hometown or the Kibera slum where his supporters are from. The Kibera slum in Nairobi is one of the biggest slums in all of Africa.
What do you think of the allegations of corruption in the current government?
I believe that it is possible that people around Kibaki could be corrupt. But Kibaki himself is not a corrupt man. He is a quiet man and he believes that Kenyans have to work to achieve greatness. The problem is that, just five years ago, Kibaki inherited a corrupt system. How could he undo over 25 years of corruption in just five years?
So you think corruption is intractable?
Corruption is a way of life in Kenya and it goes all the way down to the grassroots level. I remember traveling by bus near my village just a couple of years ago and witnessing the bus driver pass a cash bribe to a police officer that had blocked our bus.
This was during the time that anti-corruption hotlines had been established and it was all the talk of the people.
I confronted the bus driver and asked him how he could complain about all the big shots in government being corrupt if he was there perpetuating the same corruption. Now usually those bus drivers are very rude and loud, but that shut him right up. It is hypocritical to accuse politicians of corruption and to perpetuate the system through your own daily actions.
What do you think could be the solution to the political stalemate and violence in Kenya?
The problem is that now people vote along tribal lines. It’s very sad. It’s time to get to work for the people — and stop the political fighting. No matter how many mediators and observers go to Kenya, nothing is going to be resolved until Kibaki and Odinga sit down and decide what they want.
The hypocrisy is that Odinga has been part of the power establishment in Kenya for many years.
Odinga hasn't contributed to the development of his hometown or the Kibera slum where his supporters are from.The Kibera slum in Nairobi is one of the biggest slums in all of Africa.
No matter how many mediators and observers go to Kenya, nothing is going to be resolved until Kibaki and Odinga sit down and decide what they want.
It is hypocritical to accuse politicians of corruption and to perpetuate the system through your own daily actions.
Corruption is a way of life in Kenya and it goes all the way down to the grassroots level.