8 February 2008
LUGARI DISTRICT, Kenya - Two weeks ago Friends (Quakers) in Kenya held a Peace Conference in Kakamega sponsored by the Friends Church in Kenya, Friends United Meeting--Africa Ministries Office, and Friends World Committee for Consultation--Africa Section. [NB: See right sidebar for links to read documents out of that peace conference.]
At that meeting, it was decided to form a committee which has been titled "Friends Church Peace Team" (FCPT). I was appointed to the committee. The committee has formed an "Emergency Relief and Reconciliation Programme."
As its first major activity, yesterday about 30 Friends visited a number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Trans Nzoia District next to Mt Elgon in the Rift Valley. [NB: The nearest major city is Kitale; the area borders Uganda.]
With funds donated from the United States, England, and elsewhere through FUM, a truckful of food--maize (corn), beans, rice, sugar, salt, cooking oil, blankets, and soap were be to delivered.
My wife, Gladys, and I were assigned to provide the forty 200-pound bags of maize because maize is cheaper here in Lugari District, as this is the maize belt region of Kenya and has a surplus for export elsewhere. Gladys spent Monday and Tuesday with two youth bagging the 40 bags at Florence and Alfred Machayo's home.
Then on Wednesday, she waited all day for the truck she had hired to take the maize to Kakamega. It never showed up so she arranged for another truck to come at 5:00 AM on Thursday morning. When it had not shown up by 8:00 AM, we called John Muhanji of FUM who was organizing the distribution. He decided to have the truck from Kakamega coming with the rest of the goods drop by the Machayo's to pick up the maize (and us as we traveled the five miles or so to her house). This worked out well and actually saved the transport costs.
The people who had gathered in Kakamega came up north in three vehicles and together with the truck we drove to a junction near where we were going to distribute the food. Henry Mukwanja who works for the National Council of [Churches] of Kenya (NCCK) in that region had identified about ten places where approximately 4000 people had not received any assistance from the Red Cross, the Government of Kenya, or the World Food Program.
The people noted that the Red Cross trucks passed them by to deliver food and supplies to the Kikuyu who were in an IDP camp down the road--they as non-Kikuyu saw this as another example of the Government's favoritism to the Kikuyu over the other people in the country.
Gladys and I joined the third group which was going to a small shopping center (5 or 6 small shops) on the side of the road called Misemwa with a Seventh Day Adventist Church. Officially there were 1600 people in 259 families (for an average of about 6 people per family).
The amount of food we unloaded seemed massive--14 two-hundred pound bags of maize, for example.
[NB: more than a ton of the staple crop, 'maize'--white corn with large kernels, similar to hominy, that is coarsely ground and mixed with boiling water to make a thick porridge or paste called "ugali."]
Yet each family was given about 10 pounds of maize, 2 pounds of beans, a blanket, a cup of sugar, a half cup of salt, a few ounces of cooking oil, and for the families with children, some rice. This would only be enough for a few days!
Of course the place was packed with people waiting patiently for the distribution--many women (I estimated that 2/3 of the families were headed by women), many small children (the older ones, I hope, were in school), old men, youth, etc.
These people were not Kikuyu, the group usually targeted in the violence in western Kenya, but mostly Luhya and some Sabaot (Kalenjin group). There was no internally displaced persons camp as we are going to in Turbo since the people live in houses in the area. For example, in the small Seventh Day Adventist Church eight women were living with their children. Others had rented a room in the area and a few were staying with relatives. One woman told me that she had moved in with her husband and four children--and a fifth was well on its way--to live with her sister who also had four children and there was not enough food all of a sudden for this vastly expanded family.
All the displaced people had come with nothing more than what they could carry.
As usual when one delves into the details of conflict, the situation here is different from the usual simplistic explanation of Kibaki versus Raila, Kikuyu versus Luo. These people had fled from Mt Elgon where there has been an active conflict for the last year and a half.
Background on the Mt Elgon conflict
Human Rights groups in Bungoma had tallied 400 dead and 150,000 or more displaced before the election violence began on December 30. Note that this compares to the official count of 1000 dead and 300,000 displaced in the election violence. In other words, some conflicts are "more important" than others. But the fact that this conflict was not properly dealt with in that time indicates why so much of Kenya could erupt into similar violence.
The [earlier and long-running Mt. Elgon] conflict was over land between two clans of the Sabaot group, the Soy and Ndorobo.
The first group of Sabaot, [the Soy] which thinks that they have not been dealt fairly in the land distribution by the Government, have formed the Sabaot Land Defense Force (SLBF). They have automatic rifles and retreat into the forests on Mt Elgon to hide. We had seen an area on Mt Elgon where every house on the hillside had been destroyed. The election results were used by the Sabaot Land Defense Force to attack anyone from another group in their area. This included the Kikuyu who fled to the camp nearby and then the Bugusu of the Luhya group.
I had heard of a case where 11 Bugusu were executed by the SLBF and the bodies thrown into a latrine. While I have never heard any reference to this massacre in the media (compare this to the 17 who were burned to death in the church near Eldoret), this was confirmed by a doctor at the Webuye Hospital where the exhumed bodies were later taken. So it did not take much for the Bugusu to flee.
Then the Ndorobo who were supplied by the Kikuyu in their trading across the border into Uganda attacked the Sabaot for attacking the Kikuyu. So Sabaot also had to flee to Misemwa.
I talked at length with Mildred, one of the 8 women living in the church. She has six children, the youngest on her shoulder as we talked. Her husband had left for the day when the SLDF in red uniforms (ie, this is an organized rebel group) came and told them to leave. So she did. She has no idea where her husband is and there is really little way of him finding out to where they have fled.
She does not want to return to her farm on Mt Elgon where she had lived for 12 years, but has little idea of what the future will bring for her.
Andrew and his family of wife and four children (he was also holding his youngest child on his shoulder) were attacked in the middle of the night and fled down the mountain with nothing but what they had on. He lives in a room in a house nearby. He says that he survives by doing day labor when he can. He also told me he did not want to go back.
When I asked people [about their former homes], they told me that the land on Mt Elgon is very fertile and well-watered and that is why they had bought plots there in the past.
While the media, both internationally and locally, reports (as the Government would like them to) that the situation in Kenya is calm and returning to normal, this is clearly not the case on Mt Elgon. The previous night there had been some killings (unconfirmed) and hundreds more had fled down the mountain. These newly displaced people were not on the list of 259 families to receive the aid we had brought.
Evaluating the distribution efforts and impact of intervention
After three hours at Misemwa distributing the relief supplies and talking with the people, after a short sermon and prayer, we left and joined the people at a small "hotel" where we all got a snack and discussed the pro's and con's of what we had done for the day.
For example, in our case, since the site was not a "camp" and this was the first time that the group had received any assistance, there was no distribution system in place as occurs with the Lumakanda group in Turbo. On Saturday Gladys and I will go to Kakamega to meet with the Friends Church Peace Team to decide what we will do next.
Although the food seemed to be little in relationship to the need, I still felt good knowing that we had helped as we are able. In this kind of work, one cannot get discouraged by the unmet needs, but must focus on what you have accomplished. --David Zarembka
[NB-Words of wisdom for all of life, isn't it, Friends?]
If people only eat well for a few days, it is still better than having to scrounge around for a little food and going to sleep hungry. Moreover, as I have learned in the past, visiting people who have been the victims of violence is perhaps one of the most important peacemaking activities one can initially do.
As the Burundians say, "A real Friend comes in the time of need" (I am the one who capitalized the "F" in friend).
Donations for the Relief and Reconciliation Programme of the Friends Church Peace Team can be made online by clicking here, or by mailing a check to:
Friends United Meeting
101 Quaker Hill Dr
Richmond IN 47374
[Kindly earmark your contribution: "Kenya Relief Fund."]
Some links to stories and background on the Mt Elgon conflict: