NAIROBI, Kenya (BP)–Few cars pass as we walk the many miles from my house to the City Centre of Nairobi, Kenya. Finally, a yellow-striped matatu stops and we hop aboard the unusually empty mini-bus taxi.
Amid the clatter and clanging of the rundown bus, my friend leans over and whispers: “It is best to say you lost your identity card if anyone stops us.”
The only other passenger nods his head vigorously in agreement. He explains that if people storm the bus you never know which side they support, referring to ongoing post-election violence in Kenya.
More than 300 Kenyans have died since the Dec. 27 elections. Around 250,000 people have been displaced due to riots. Media accounts say the election violence smacks of ethnic genocide, warranting the concern of my fellow passengers.
“If you don’t have your identity card, they might just beat you a little and let you go” the passenger continues. “Otherwise, you might be part of the wrong tribe, and they will rape you or beat you severely.”
We hit a roadblock and unload.
Since public transport is pretty much nonexistent these days, my friend had a five-hour walk from her house through some pretty rough territory -— houses burning, young men and police fighting, people looting and destroying roadside stands, roadblocks and checkpoints -— to get here.
We see truckloads of soldiers with guns sticking out in every direction. Police stand shoulder-to-shoulder, forming a human barricade around Uhuru Park where a protest rally is scheduled. It is canceled just minutes before it is to start. My friend grows concerned for my safety, so she makes me turn back.
That’s typical of the Kenyans I’ve come to know over the past decade -– more concerned for my safety than their own.
The truth is, I —- as well as all International Mission Board missionaries in Kenya -— am safe and sound on my compound. Americans have been advised to stay home during these turbulent times.
(OK. I have to be honest. I’ve snuck off my compound several times just to see what’s happening. You can’t keep a journalist confined to a house when the world around her is in chaos!)
Yet just because we are safe behind our security walls doesn’t mean we don’t feel what’s happening to our Kenyan friends. We hear gunfire, some can see smoke from the riots and at times hear chants.
Kenya has long been the symbol of peace in turbulent East Africa. Neighboring countries are constantly in conflict —- Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo —- and Kenya has been a symbol of hope, always trying to help negotiate peace.
Now, “peace” is simply a chant shouted by enraged rioters.
There have been times this week when I felt helpless. There was nothing I could physically do to help my host country. Other times, I felt selfish. I had food while hundreds of thousands of Kenyans had none.
Food is scarce in many parts of Kenya. In the section of town where I live, it is difficult to find simple items like meat, milk and bread. Vegetables and fruit are also hard to find. But I can find them while my friends in the slums of Nairobi and outlying areas around the city cannot.
The Kenyan Red Cross makes hourly appeals for any extra food people might have because hunger is spreading fast.
I stood in line for an hour at the grocery store yesterday. It was the first time stores and businesses were open since the elections, so it was as crowded as last-minute Christmas shopping in the United States. The lady in front of me said she stood in line longer to buy the meager groceries she found than she did to vote. She waited two hours to cast her ballot for president, three hours to buy rice, flour and some mchuzi mix.
I called one of my friends to see if his family had food. He lives in one of the areas where young men are constantly rioting. All of the roadside stands have been burned or looted, he says. Police barricades keep people from leaving and make them feel as if they are in a prison.
I offered to bring supplies. “No,” He replies, “it is not safe for you. We will be fine without food as long as we know you are safe.”
Another friend and partner in ministry went home for the holidays. She told me last night rioters came to her father’s place and tried to torch the garden and burn their house. Luckily, neighbors heard the commotion and helped put out the fire.
This evening as I talked to her by phone, I heard screaming in the background. She rushed outside to see what was happening. Tonight, the rioters had returned to torch her neighbor’s house.
After she helped put out the fire, she sent me the following text message: “All is fine now and I am praying for your safety.”
The National Council of Churches of Kenya has declared Sunday, Jan. 6 as a National Day of Prayer. Christians all around the country will pray for peace to return and for the safety of their fellow Kenyans.
Kenyans are praying for my safety. Join me in praying for Kenya. Join me in praying for the safety of my friends.
Sue Sprenkle, an overseas correspondent for the International Mission Board, has been reporting from Africa for 10 years.