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Tension and hope in Kenya

Kenya, December 20, 2010

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Wounds heal slowly in Kenya and can easily be ripped open. That’s why last week’s public accusations by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against six high-profile Kenyans — including the finance minister and a former police chief — were awaited with excitement and dread.

The ICC charges sought to bring accountability to those who allegedly inflicted Kenya’s last serious wound. When presidential elections became hotly contested in December 2007, supporters of the incumbent Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga participated in a wave of violent attacks. The conflict was about a complex mix of politics, tribal divisions and long-simmering disputes over resources like land.

The results were tragic: more than 1,100 people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. At the center of the conflict were bands of unemployed and angry young people who were manipulated by tribal and political leaders. The violence only ended after the two presidential candidates announced a power-sharing deal.

The world sat up and took notice. Kenya, a country that had enjoyed relative political stability for years and is the economic powerhouse of East Africa, had descended into chaos. What had gone wrong?

The truth is that Kenya’s stability has been tenuous for years. The country’s dozens of tribes are often pitted against each other for political influence or access to resources. Many Kenyans I spoke with think that tribal divisions are overblown to suit the ends of power elites. But for people who are poor and hopeless, the lures of suspicion and hatred can be hard to resist.

When I recently visited Kenya — shortly before the ICC announced its charges — I talked to many people who were working hard to heal their communities. I spent several days visiting Mercy Corps peace-building projects in the Rift Valley, ground zero for the post-election violence almost four years ago. I found a lot of optimism for Kenya’s future, but also recognition that Kenyans have a long way to go.

I met people like Mary Njoki, who lives in Kimuri village, near the city of Eldoret. Kimuri is a quiet place, but in early 2008 it was a flashpoint for violence. As we drove into the village, my Kenyan colleagues pointed out one spot on the tranquil landscape and said, “That’s where they burned an old man to death.” I shuddered.

At an idyllic clearing under a cluster of trees, Mary led what’s called a “peace dialogue” of several dozen Kimuri residents. These dialogues bring together people in the community to hash out their differences, identify common needs, and find solutions. Immediately after the 2007-2008 violence, these gatherings were difficult, often even impossible to conduct. But slowly over the course of more than three years, people have started talking and weaving a delicate fabric of trust.

I noticed right away that Mary, a mother in her mid-40s, is strong. She facilitated the dialogue in a way that was loving yet forceful, drawing out even the shyest people to offer input. Mary is a living example that Kenyans can overcome their differences; she is Kikuyu and her husband is Kalenjin. During the conflict, close family — her father, her brother — were killed. Yet she soldiers on. When I asked how, she told me simply, “I am still alive, and these are my people.”

Last week’s ICC allegations have thus far been met with relative calm. But for Kenyans, a single set of accusations or trials won’t solve their problems. Peace will only be won, as they say in Swahili, “pole, pole” — slowly, slowly, one step at a time.