Science - January 10, 2008

‘Peace is something we can no longer take for granted’

The presidential elections in Kenya on 27 December have been followed by demonstrations and riots. The estimated death toll is now over six hundred and a quarter of a million people have fled their homes. A number of Kenyan PhD students are currently doing research in their own country, and their supervisors have been in touch with them in recent days.

Unrest and violence in Kenya.
The turnout for the elections was high and, when the electoral committee announced that current president Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity had beaten the opposition leader Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement, widespread riots broke out: in the Nairobi slums, Nyanza Province, the Rift Valley and the coast, all areas where opposition to Kibaki is strong.

Peter Oosterveer of the Environmental Policy Group has a number of PhD students who are currently in Kenya. One is doing research in the slums of Nairobi. ‘He didn’t dare leave his house and put a temporary stop to his research.’ Another of Oosterveer’s PhD students was supposed to return from Kenya on 2 January but could not leave the country.

Winnie Wairimu is doing a master’s in International Development and she managed to get back to Wageningen on 3 January. She spent the past six months in her home country for her internship and thesis research on property rights, mobility and re-designing lifestyles of Maasai pastoralist communities in South-Central Kenya.

When the big time looting started, Wairimu was in the coastal area where here parents live. ‘People were trying to get hold of what they did not have or own and in the process destroying other people’s property,’ she tells in an e-mail. ‘They were indiscriminate about who they were looting from – friends and foes were all included. The demonstrations and police-civilian battles were a nightmare. Curfews were declared. People stayed indoors, and the violence cut off supplies of major commodities like sugar and rice.

‘The point where it got to deaths as a result of the skirmishes, that’s the part I’m still trying to come to terms with. I still have so many unanswered questions. At what point did we forget that the person living next door is the one we run to when we need help? How do people forget so easily and start looking at each other in terms of their tribes? The saddest part is that it is the poorest of the poor who are involved. The middle and high income earners are well protected behind their iron gates.

‘By the time I left, things had cooled down in affected areas, but as they say, absence of violence does not mean peace. Schools were still closed, and neighbouring countries are suffering: Uganda has fuel shortages for example. It also messed up New Year celebrations for many families.’

It’s not easy for Wairimu now being away from her family and friends. ‘But nevertheless I’m positive. I think this situation gives the leaders and politicians a good opportunity to start to address the unspoken problems that have been eating at our society. They have a choice – whichever way they decide to solve this, I pray that they will act with reason and logic and save our beautiful and beloved country and uphold the ideals of democracy.

‘Someone asked me whether I was ashamed to be Kenyan because of what has happened in the past few days. I replied that I will still wear my T-shirt with the slogan ‘truly and proudly Kenyan’ because I know when all this is over we will end up stronger as a country. As a Kenyan I’ve realised that peace is something we can no longer take for granted. For decades we have housed refugees from Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan. Today Kenyans are displaced within their own land and country.’

Re:act