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As Kenya strife eases, refugees continue to suffer

LIMURU, Kenya (BP)–A 1-year-old girl died of pneumonia in May at a refugee camp on the grounds of Word of Faith Church in Limuru, northwest of Nairobi.

Despite the shortage of firewood for heating and cooking, carpenter John Kimani* -– himself a camp resident and survivor of the post-election violence in Kenya -– built a coffin for the child. The small, rough-hewn box sat awaiting her body on a sunny afternoon as several Southern Baptist relief workers visited the IDP (“internally displaced persons”) camp.

This child’s death made no headlines inside or outside Kenya. Months have passed since the disputed Kenyan presidential election on Dec. 27 unleashed weeks of frenzied political and tribal violence, killing more than 1,000 people and driving at least 300,000 from their homes.

Other international crises have arisen since. Other disasters have claimed the world’s attention.

The political powder keg that threatened to explode into civil war in once-stable Kenya was defused -– at least for the moment -– when President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga struck a power-sharing deal in February. Kibaki retained his presidential post; Odinga became prime minister in April. By late May, the government and the Kenya Red Cross Society claimed that up to 250,000 displaced Kenyans had returned to their homes (or resettled in their own tribal areas) with the promise of police protection and security.

But many thousands of Kenyans driven from their houses, farms and businesses fear going home -– or have no home to return to. Undercurrents of ethnic hatred, economic resentment and longstanding disputes over land ownership burst into the open in the election’s aftermath. Towns and districts where different groups once lived and worked side by side, even intermarried, may never return to peaceful coexistence.

“I’m not sure how many people are going to be able to go back,” said Southern Baptist missionary Doug Lee. “Their homes have been burned.”

Lee recently completed a trip to survey churches sheltering displaced people in the vast Rift Valley, site of some of the worst “skirmishes,” as the political-tribal clashes are called. The churches received food and other aid from Baptist Global Response, a Southern Baptist relief and development agency.

New “police stations” -– often, tents manned by three or four men -– dot the area. Other returning refugees pool their savings and hire private security guards to accompany them to farm fields during the day. But those measures won’t solve the real problem, Lee noted.

“I’m sure there are a lot of places where the violence was not that intense and people just left in fear,” he said.

“They can go back. But the people who were really affected, whose houses were stolen and burned, there is no peace for them. The people [who drove them out] still feel like, ‘You’re on our land.’ It’s a land dispute between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin [tribes]. The government has done a good job identifying the problem, but they’re not going to solve it by pushing them back home. It’s going to re-emerge.”

Jesse Maina, who teaches several children of displaced families at a Kenyan Baptist church school, put it this way: “Somebody is living in your house. He is still there. Maybe the cow he is milking is yours. How do you go home without fear?”


Hunger is making the situation even worse. Kenya, like many other countries, has seen the price of staple food items double, even triple, in recent months. Fertilizer and fuel prices have soared with the cost of oil. The violence prevented the planting of crops in many areas.

So, thousands of homeless people remain in IDP centers like the Word of Faith camp in Limuru, which continues to shelter about 500 people, mostly Kikuyu. Nearly 500 more come daily from temporary dwellings nearby for food. Dome tents and latrines surround the church. The scent of sewage and sweat mingles with cooking smells as adults and children line up for meals. They hold bowls while volunteers ladle out food. Clothes and mattresses hang over a makeshift fence to dry.

One of the displaced families is led by Kimani, builder of the child’s coffin. A Kikuyu, he fled with his wife, mother and three young children from Eldoret, site of perhaps the most notorious atrocity of the post-election violence: the New Year’s Day burning of a church with terrified men, women and children inside. Dozens of people died in the flames, including Kimani’s father-in-law. His wife, Mary, escaped from the fire with burns from her shoulders to her heels. She shows some of the long scars that streak her arms and legs.

“We are not going back to that land,” Kimani fiercely asserted. “We are not going back. And if the government forces us to go, we are going back for revenge. The one who burned the church is my neighbor. I can’t stay with someone who burned my father.”

Food, medicine and other supplies from the government and major aid agencies have slowed to a trickle inside the camp. But local Christians and other community members continue to help however they can, assisted by missionaries and groups such as Baptist Global Response, which has delivered food, water and other aid.

“These disasters are kind of cyclical, where at the beginning you get a lot of interest, especially from the outside, so you get a lot of aid coming in,” said BGR Africa coordinator Mark Hatfield. “But then the world gets tired of it after awhile, the aid stops coming and the whole process slows down.”

Camp warden Joseph Njoroge welcomed Hatfield and his wife Susan during their recent camp visit and showed them overflowing latrine pits. He was worried about the threat of disease (BGR funds paid for the pumping out of three pits a few days later, improving sanitary conditions in the camp). It’s just one of the many concerns he’s dealt with since frightened and hungry people first arrived at the church a few days after the election.

“When they came, they met me here,” said Njoroge, an active member of the church. “From the first day I have been here.”

He looks after the refugees’ physical needs, works with volunteers who come to help -– and keeps a close eye on moral standards in the camp. “This is a sanctuary of God, and we do not defile the altar,” he explained. That means preventing child abuse and rape in the camp. He doesn’t tolerate drunkenness, either.

The constant need weighs on him, but he feels he can’t turn his back on the people.

“You see this mama here?” he asked, pointing to an elderly woman sitting in a wheelchair near the feeding line. “She does not know where to go. Why she is here, she does not know. It has become a requirement and a need for me to come here. If I do not come for a day, I feel as if I’ve committed a crime. I’m a part and parcel of these people.”

Many Kenyans, galvanized by what they witnessed during the worst of the violence, have demonstrated the same commitment to helping their neighbors, regardless of tribe. But they’re also searching for answers that will last longer than emergency food and shelter.


A hint at a more permanent solution can be found in another IDP camp, located on the grounds of a police station in the Nairobi slum of Babadogo. Conditions for the 350 displaced people languishing there are worse than in Limuru: little food, no medicine, families crammed into dingy tents. The children have been unable to return to school.

Kenyan Baptist pastor Jecktone Owiso has been aiding people in the camp since the beginning of the crisis, when it was dangerous even to walk the streets in the area -– now scarred by burned-out shops and kiosks. Owiso leads a small church in nearby Kasabuni. Some of his own members were driven to the camp during the skirmishes.

Assisted by missionaries, he brought food and hope to the camp’s residents, who include members of multiple tribes. He hopes to help them find new homes, medical care, schools for their children. But more than that, he challenges them to live in peace through Christ.

“I am Luo by tribe, but when I come here I have to be neutral, to bring a message of peace and tranquility,” Owiso said.

One of the camp residents is Eunice, known as “Mama Sheila,” who has six children. Despite an illness that confines her to a cot in her tent, she shares what little she has with other mothers and children in the camp. A Luo tribe member, Eunice was driven from her neighborhood, only a few blocks away, by hostile Kikuyus.

“Most of her things were taken away. She ran for her life to the police camp,” Owiso said.

There she found faith in Christ through Owiso’s ministry. On a recent visit, he went to Eunice’s tent to check on her family’s needs, then gathered camp residents under a shade tree for an impromptu worship service. They sang, swayed and clapped their hands. Owiso preached a message of reconciliation.

“Let us accept one another!” he appealed to the group. “Let us not see differences. Let us not see tribalism. Open wide your arms. You will give an account of your life to God, so don’t worry about the people who do bad things -– even those who caused you to be in this camp. Are we accepting those who are ugly, who are not lovable? Even when we were lost in sin, Christ loved us and gave His life for us.”

Heads nodded. Voices said, “Amen.”

Later, Owiso reflected on the unity among the different people in the camp.

“I love these people,” he said. “They have changed my heart. You see how they are open to the Word. I wish some of the tribal leaders could come to the camp and see how we love one another.”

Perhaps that is the long-term answer for Kenya’s troubles.
*Name changed for security reasons. Erich Bridges is a senior writer for the International Mission Board. View and listen to an audio slideshow based on this story at (LINK). For more information on ministry in Kenya, go to www.imb.org and click on the human needs ministry link under the “Give” tab, or go to the Baptist Global Response website, www.gobgr.org.
To view an audio slideshow about Kenyan refugees, please click here.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges