Displaced Kenyans wish for 'normal'; Missions agencies provide hope


KENYA — A man in ill-fitting, dirty clothes picks his way around mud holes to the front gate of the compound. He looks out to the main road and spies nothing. He paces back to his pile of furniture and checks on his children.

He sits for five minutes, then jumps up and paces back to the front gate. Thomas and a thousand other internally displaced Kenyans at this camp impatiently await buses promised by the government to transport them safely to their ancestral homelands.

"I didn't vote for this," Thomas says, referring to the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election that sparked weeks of ethnic animosity and violence in Kenya. "I didn't vote so I would get kicked out of my home of 15 years. I didn't vote so my friends and family would be killed.

"In fact, I regret voting!" the father of four continues. "I wish things could go back to normal."

"Normal" is a relative term in Kenya now. Businesses are back to normal hours — but they are losing millions of dollars as tourists cancel vacations and because the transportation of goods is hampered. Public transport is back to normal — except that an armed escort is required in some areas. Church and civic meetings are back to normal — except these meetings now have only one tribe represented instead of the traditional ethnic mix.

Kofi Annan, head of a United Nations peacekeeping envoy, met with the two opposing political parties at a secret location recently in an effort to solve these problems. Initial plans are to find a way of implementing a "shared government" until the country is stable enough for a re-election in the next year or two — but the two sides have yet to agree.

Fighting between tribes has subsided. Some districts have been "ethnically cleansed" by the busload, so there's no one left to fight.

Kenyans flock back to their ancestral homes out of a continuing fear for their safety. Buses and trucks packed with people from one tribe head southeast while another tribe heads northwest. Children from different factions lean out bus windows, waving to each other at the crossroads.

For many Kenyans, this is their first visit to their ancestral homeland, despite it being only an eight-hour drive. Thomas says he is lucky. He has close family back "home" and knows he can stay with them. His friend, Darius, is not as fortunate.

"My grandfather left the shamba [farm] years ago. No one has been back since," a middle-aged Darius explains. "I do not even speak my ancestors' language. Where will we stay? What will we eat?"

Most of the internally displaced load into buses at one camp and get off at the next camp. The United Nations estimates more than 600,000 displaced Kenyans live in 300 camps around the country. Many of these camps are being disbanded by the government as they transport people back to their homelands. Officials admit this estimate may be low. There is no way to know how many displaced are living with relatives, friends or on church compounds.

Where there are no camps, people like Darius must find "long-lost relatives." One elderly woman is housing 20 distant relatives whom she'd never met before they showed up at her doorstep. Kenyan culture requires that she house and feed them. Her garden and granary, which normally feed her for the entire year, already are depleted.

For many, there are no available government services. The Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund tries to meet some of these needs by providing food packets for homes and churches absorbing the influx of displaced.

Some residents open their homes to strangers displaced by the post-election violence. John, who heads up the peacekeeping committee in one community, says the chief and assistant chiefs decided against opening a camp for the displaced. Instead, community members house nearly 5,000 homeless Kenyans.

Those who are not hosting people help with food and supplies. A church in the community serves as the storeroom for donated clothes, shoes and food.

"These people have been traumatized from rioting youths and their neighbors of differing tribes. The camps also can be a traumatic event as you sit helplessly or stand in line for hours to receive food," John says. "We wanted to be part of the solution and not add to the problems."

The approach seems to work in this community. The atmosphere is almost a surreal calm when a group of the displaced gathers to receive clothes. In the camps, fights break out over a single shirt. Here, everyone calmly looks through the clothes and shoes, helping each other pick out things for their children.

A displaced pastor calls the group together for prayer and a time of testimony. The mood under the flimsy shelter is one of great sadness. No one smiles. As one man shares the story of finding his neighbor's head but not his body, others stare off in the distance, reliving their own nightmares from the violence.

Besides food and shelter, counseling is one of the greatest long-term needs in Kenya. Millions witnessed the rage and hatred firsthand. The ethnic divide runs deep. International observers admit it will not be solved immediately; they just hope for stability.

Kenyans wish for the same thing as Thomas — for life to go back to normal.

Agencies partnering to help
World Relief and local churches are distributing food to families affected by the violence and providing shelter to vulnerable families forced to flee their homes.

The churches are doing their best to respond to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of more than 2,000 displaced people.

Despite the security problems, many of World Relief's local staff members continue to report to work and are praying for an end to the violence.

"I could sense brokenness and a spirit of repentance as staff took turns to pray and repent on behalf of their tribes and communities," said Jean Paul Ndagijimana, World Relief's country director, according to a report from World Relief.

"We are committed to making our homes and villages places that are free from hatred, suspicion and animosity."

Plans to build peace
Yet even as they grieve over their nation's recent bloodshed, World Vision team members in Kenya also are working hard to address the deep-rooted ethnic issues that have contributed to the country's violence.

Efforts are underway to establish long-term plans for peacebuilding and tribal reconciliation. One such plan includes organizing sports leagues to help heal the deep divisions.

"Right now, children are hearing messages of division and conflict, and we fear seeds of discord are being planted," says Patterson Siema, World Vision's emergency response communicator in Kenya. "These leagues will allow tribes to come together and find common ground by participating in organized sports."

World Vision also plans programs in music, arts, and writing to further promote messages of peace and healing among Kenyans.

Since December 27, more than 300,000 people have been displaced and 1,000 people killed. World Vision has been responding to the immediate needs of the displaced in Nairobi, the Rift Valley, as well as the Nyanza, Western and Coast provinces. Distributions include more than $1 million worth of relief supplies such as food, blankets, mosquito nets, tarps and mobile toilets.

World Vision
World Relief
World Hunger Fund

Press releases contributed to this report