Yeterday, as Kenyans went to the polls to elect a new president, voters cast their ballots with hope and trepidation. Almost 1,500 people died during widespread violence that erupted following the last, disputed election in 2007, the result of long-simmering ethic tensions as well as politics.
“The violence of 2007 and 2008 was the worst,” says 50-year-old Simon Muchiri, a farmer born and raised in Tarakwa, a small town in the Rift Valley where rival ethnic groups, the Kikuyus and Kalenjins, clashed over election results. “Violence stops our development and lives are lost,” says Simon, who now works as a peace activist. “I want to see people vote wisely and peacefully.”
In 2008, elders from all ethnic groups in Tarakwa met to reexamine their situation. “Many people were displaced and living in camps, and the politicians they had fought for had abandoned them,” explains Jebiwot Sumbeiywo, the programme manager for the International Rescue Committee’s Peace Initiative Kenya (PIK), a peace-building project with seven Kenyan partner organisations. The leaders came up with activities and groups that would bring people together, including a peace choir and the Rural Women’s Peace Link.
“We women wanted to build a market so that we could meet, share and do business together,” says 55-year-old Esther Kangogo, a leading member of Rural Women’s Peace Link. “It opened in 2009 and is a wonderful place! Women from different ethnic backgrounds have stalls side by side. Once a week they come from their farms in the villages and we hear reports on how things are back in their homes.”
Esther well remembers how things were just a few years ago. “I had a house on seven acres of land,” she recalls. “After the 2007 elections and the violence started, people came and killed my four cows and set alight three hundred bags of maize that we had in the store.” Her entire property was razed. “We had built a study area for our children with two computers in it. Everything was destroyed.”
She and her family lived for one year in tents in a camp for displaced Kalenjins—one of four camps divided by ethnicity. Tensions remained high as the community remained divided. “To get from one part of the town to the other, we had to pass through the Kikuyu center, but if we did, we would have been killed,” says Esther. “So we had to take a small bus just to go a few metres.”
Esther again farms her seven acres and plans to build a new home on a new plot, which her children helped her buy. She is hopeful about the future and grateful for the work of the PIK.
“Its impact has been very good,” she says. “Many organisations hold their peace meetings in the hotels in Eldoret, 50 kilometres away, but PIK holds meetings in the villages under the trees, sharing with people and asking them what they want and how they feel about peace. They tell us they don’t want a repeat of 2007. People are saying enough is enough.”
PIK also sponsors the training of peace monitors, who watch for early signs of violence, and helps reconstruct damaged schools, organise sports activities for young people, and provides aid and support for victims of violence.
“The two communities have completely integrated and embraced inclusivity by taking on and practicing intercommunity initiatives,” says the IRC’s Jebiwot Sumbeiywo. “So anything that they plan and implement has equal representation and participation of both communities.”
Kenya’s situation is in some ways epitomised by the journey of 39-year-old Wilson Mulua, who despite a congenital disability that confines him to a wheel chair, has become a community leader. But in 2007, disappointed by the election and frustrated by his own situation, he told his fellow Kalenjin villagers, “I wish I had legs like you and I would torch the whole of those houses.” The Kalenjins heard him and promptly set fire to houses belonging to Kikuyus.
After the violence died down, Mulua reflected on his actions. “I realised that during such times I am very vulnerable,” he recalls. “I do peace work now so that I and others like me can be safe and go about our daily lives. The communities have accepted me the way I am. They don’t see my disability but my unique abilities in bringing people together,” he says.
Today, Mulua travels throughout the entire area spreading the message of peace with his colleague Francis Biu, chair of PeaceNet Kenya, a PIK partner. He and Biu, a Kikuyu, make an unlikely duo, yet are well known throughout the area and are called upon regularly by local leaders and ordinary people to settle disputes.
PeaceNet Kenya has set up an intercommunity Peace Choir, a group whose 55 members range across all ages. “The choir is showing people the need to work and live for peace and to see the dangers of violence,” says Biu. “We tell people not to take the law into their own hands but that there are legal ways to do things.”
Simon Muchiri believes that the peace building over the past five years has encouraged co-existence in Tarakwa, but he also feels that Kenyans have more confidence in the country’s new constitution, and he is hopeful local people will have more voice in government. “We also have the International Criminal Court that will be trying some of our leaders for crimes against humanity,” he adds. “People are scared—if the top people can be prosecuted, then what about them? No one preaches hate anymore around here.”
In another encouraging sign, one of the tickets running for president is made up of a Kikuyu, Uhuru Kenyatta, and a Kalenjin, William Ruto, his running mate. The alliance has helped to engender peace in the entire Rift Valley.
“It is true that the alliance is contributing to peace in this particular region,” says Jerotich Seii Houlding, the IRC’s country director in Kenya. “But we mustn’t forget the importance of the peace initiatives such as PIK. They have contributed a lot because ordinary people in the villages and at the grassroots are able to come together and share their concerns and work through them. They have added a lot of value to the peace process.”
Jerotich is mindful that any new government must address the deep-rooted issue of land reform in areas where differing ethnic groups live together precariously. “We are confident that there will be peaceful elections,” she says. “However, we also have contingencies in place should the worst happen and are ready to assist throughout the country should we be needed.”