Friends' Fortitude in Response to the Violence in Kenya

On January 6, my wife, Gladys Kamonya, aand I attended Lumakanda Friends Church. It was exactly one week after hearing the disputed results of the Kenyan election, an election that had initiated much violence aimed at Kikuyu, the ethnic group of Mwai Kibaki, in our area of western Kenya. Gladys later told me that she knew a non-Kikuyu woman who was hiding a Kikuyu in her home. On the evening the election results were announced, her Kikuyu neighbor had gone into labor and so she brought the woman to her home. If the rioters found out that she was harboring a Kikuyu they would have burned down her house. A few days later, I met a Luo whose brother was also hiding a Kikuyu; the Luo are the ethnic group of Raila Odinga, who believes the election was stolen from him by Mwai Kibaki. As time went on, I learned that it was rather common for Kenyans to give refuge to neighbors of differing ethnic groups, yet I have never found this mentioned in reports by local or international media.

On that same Sunday at Lumakanda Friends Church, we collected a second offering to support the local Kikuyu victims of the violence, formed a committee, and visited the local primary school where 2,400 displaced people were being housed. With assistance from Bristol Meeting in England and AFSC, the committee was able to provide some relief. The Red Cross, which was responsible for the area, had only brought corn and beans, but had not supplied cooking oil, salt, sugar, rice, soap, or other necessary items. We were not the only church to respond to the needs. Alamenda Friends Church in Kakamega went to the local police station, where more displaced people were being housed, and dug latrines to ward off disease while Eldoret Friends Church housed 65 people in their church compound.

By January 8, the leaders of the Friends Church in Kenya had issued a very strong statement on the applicability of the Peace Testimony to Kenya’s crisis, which was published in the March issue of Friends Journal.

Malesi Kinaro is the founder of Friends for Peace and Community Development (FPCD), a local peace organization based in the Friends Peace Center-Lubao, near Kakamega. He organized listening sessions for the bicycle taxi drivers, one of the groups in Kakamega responsible for burning Kikuyu shops and homes. The youth were angered because they felt that they had been neglected by the government and society and that they had no future. By the end of the third listening session, the youth in attendance felt more positive and began making plans to start small businesses in town.

Gladys and I were able to go to Eldoret prison with Malesi and two other Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) facilitators for a listening session with the prison staff. Many of the staff had been trained in nonviolence by participating in AVP workshops led by FPCD. This group was very ethnically mixed and all had witnessed the violence in Eldoret, one of the towns worst hit by ethnic cleansing. I was surprised to hear how many of the people present, and their families, were intermarried with other groups. In one case, a woman talked about helping her in-laws who were of a targeted group and then being threatened herself.

The AVP program has also held 42 one-day listening sessions with the staff of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Kisumu. CDC is a U.S. government agency based in Atlanta, and they have a large program in Kisumu that employs Kenyans from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Off in a nature preserve in the Rift Valley, three young, experienced AVP facilitators conducted workshops for youth from the slums of Nairobi who had participated in the violence there.

The Friends Church in Kenya, Friends United Meeting—Africa Office, and Friends World Committee for Consultation—Africa Section held a conference for the leaders of the 15 Kenyan yearly meetings. Some participants from Nairobi traveled by bus and saw the gas station in Nakuru on fire. This was the beginning of the extensive violence there. As the violence escalated, the roads were closed and they had to return to Nairobi by plane. We heard many stories of how people had been affected by the violence. One Friend had his business looted in Nairobi by youth who he had believed were on the same side as he. Another in the north Rift Valley was confined to his house with other people for two days. They ventured out on the third day and ran into a group of enraged, violent youth carrying weapons. The Friend, Henry Mukwanja, called out, "God loves you!" One of the youth responded, "No he doesn’t." His heart froze as he wondered what would happen next. There was a pregnant pause, and then everyone started laughing. The tension was broken and all was well.

During the consultation with the Kenyan yearly meetings, I learned that four Members of Parliament are Quakers; two on each side, including Musalia Mudavadi, the vice-presidential candidate for the opposition party. During the consultation, we discussed how we might reach these politicians. One major outcome of the conference was the agreement that Quakers, as peacemakers, should not take political sides, but should remain as neutral as possible.

The consultation set up a relief committee that was later named "Friends Church Peace Team." This committee is distributing supplies bought with donations from Friends in Europe and the United States to the thousands of displaced people who have not been reached by the Red Cross, the World Food Program, or other government agencies.

A few weeks after the crisis began, a woman at Lumakanda Friends Church preached that a good Christian does not kill, loot property, or destroy under any circumstances. This same woman had to move from her rented house in Eldoret because it was owned by a Kikuyu and the youth had told her to leave so that they could burn it down.

There are at least 130,000 Friends here. These are stories about the activities of only a few Quakers in Kenya.

The road to recovery is going to be long and hard. There were similar, smaller outbreaks of violence in Kenya at the time of the 1992 and 1997 elections. Following each of these eruptions the basic problems were ignored: youth alienation, land distribution issues, government corruption, favoritism of the Kikuyu over others by the government, and a very economically unequal society.

On the whole, Friends in Kenya are middle-class, by Kenyan standards. This is partly a result of the excellent Quaker schools (hundreds of primary schools and at least 200 secondary schools). By now these schools have lost their Quaker uniqueness. Attendees at the Consultation discussed bringing counseling and the Peace Testimony into the institutions in which there is still strong Quaker influence.

This crisis will soon disappear from the news, but the work of rebuilding and healing will last for years. Friends outside of Kenya can support these endeavors. I invite you to come and visit the Kenyan Quaker programs and see what is being accomplished.

David Zarembka

David Zarembka is the coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams. He and his Kenyan wife, Gladys Kamonya, are members of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, sojourning at Lumakanda Friends Church in western Kenya.