Kenya’s Rift Valley Tragedy

Like dusty and deserted cowboy towns in an American western, the empty villages crop up one after another along the cracked roads of Kenya's Rift Valley. Some, like Mau Summit, once a bustling community, have been reduced to ramshackle assemblages of burned-out shacks, broken storefronts and empty streets littered with the detritus of weeks of violence. In Mau, all that remains of the Good Start Nursery School is a neatly lettered sign. Kalenjin youths from the neighboring town of Kericho came in early Saturday morning and torched the town's main square and most of the surrounding buildings. A few arrests were made, but they came as little condolence to the 3,000 Kikuyus huddled into St. Kizitos Catholic Church down the road, where buses were being organized to relocate people lucky enough to have somewhere to go. Loading furniture and other household goods onto a waiting truck, Joseph Kariuki, the church's harried chairman, explained, "These are the things from the people affected by this war."

With Kenya's disputed election crisis showing no signs of easing, the once serene Rift Valley is awash with disturbing signs of mayhem and destruction. Amid the verdant greenery of the plains and the picture-postcard views of lush pastures is the debris of countless homes and shops burned to the ground by gangs of angry, vengeful men whose loyalty appears to lie largely in the chaos that has descended over much of this part of the country. Kalenjin tribesmen roam the countryside armed with bows and arrows, spears and other makeshift weaponry. According to several locals they are hunting Kikuyus—any Kikuyus. In the village of Mkutano, two small boys standing at an intersection warned a passerby of just what was happening. "Don't pass this way," the older of the two hissed, "There are roadblocks ahead—Kalenjins are killing Kikuyus there."

Overall, the violence that has left more than 1,000 dead in postelection turmoil seems two-pronged, split between the organized aggression of gangs and the spontaneous eruptions of angry, ethnically based flash mobs fighting over resources and political divisions. The tribal targeting of the killings—which mostly pits the opposition Kalenjin and Luo tribes against the Kikuyu majority of President Mwai Kibaki—led U.S Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer to describe the Rift Valley violence as "ethnic cleansing." Signs of hope are few. Opposition leader Raila Odinga has announced yet another protest for Wednesday in a bid to rally supporters behind him as he tries to oust Kibaki from the presidency he claimed after the deeply flawed election of Dec. 27. And former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan's attempts at mediation hit a snag over the weekend when Kibaki's government rejected the intervention of South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa as a possible intermediary in talks with the opposition. Ramaphosa, a prominent trade union leader during the struggle against apartheid, was instrumental in mediating his country's transition to democracy. As the political stalemate continues in Nairobi, the violence elsewhere is becoming more generalized, broader and, many believe, much more difficult to control. "Kalenjins and Luos are burning cars and usually killing any Kikuyu who pass," said a Masai police officer escorting vehicles through a risky stretch of highway in the Rift Valley earlier this week. Pointing at the smoking remains of a double-axel trailer truck that had been torched the previous night, he said the victims had been Kikuyu. "Anything can happen at any time."

Certainly, Kibaki and Odinga's clumsy handling of the botched election has done little to reduce tensions. On a recent Sunday morning outside the town of Eldoret, scene of some of the worst clashes in the days after the election, Pastor Joel, a priest from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, monitored a highway roadblock. Many of the displaced, now estimated to number around 350,000, were from Eldoret. Now they live in U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees tents and eat Red Cross food. The Kikuyu, who were brought in during the 1950s by white farm owners to work the land, have come to consider this vast region home, having lived and worked the land for generations. But among the Kalenjin, who claim ancestral, precolonial rights to the area, resentment against the Kikuyu runs deep.

Joel believes the election served as the "spark," but that widespread anger and resentment about land distribution are now the primary drivers of the violence. "The people have no faith in any other way, so they do this," he said.

Scenes of heartbreak are everywhere. In devastated Mau Summit, at the top of the Rift Valley escarpment, stood Ester Njenga, a 44-year-old mother of five. Four days after a fire left her and thousands of other Kikuyus in this small province homeless and destitute, Njenga still stood there, staring blankly at the charred plot before her, immobilized in disbelief.
As for so many others, once-ignored ethnic origins had suddenly become a matter of life and death. A Kalenjin, Ester had lived with her Kikuyu husband and their Kalenjin neighbors here peacefully for many years, only to be driven away last week when mob violence resulted in the killing of a local Kalenjin man and subsequent retaliation for his death. "He was our neighbor," remembers Njenga, shaking her head and crying. The Kalenjin torched the entire area, burning and looting hundreds of homes and businesses. "I am worried about my children. Where will we go? How will I feed them?" she asked. For the last several nights she has been squatting in the Kenya Power and Lighting Company office down the road.
"This fighting will continue until President Kibaki offers Raila the post. Otherwise this will continue for years," said Peter Kirui, 30, a Kalenjin who saw the bodies of two Kisii men carried off his farm the next day. "We don't want Kisii and Kikuyus here, because they are helping each other to kill Kalenjins. No Raila, no peace."
"This happened in 1992 and 1997, but it was never this bad," said one resident of the town of Londiani who was salvaging scraps of metal from a still-smoldering yard. Picking up a piece of corrugated tin roof, once a ceiling, now a weapon, his look of hurt turned to anger. "This isn't about the election anymore. It has gone too far." For mediators trying to find a political settlement, that's a disturbing prospect.