1,133. That’s the official number of people killed during the post-election violence in Kenya a year and a half ago. When President Kibaki was declared the winner of a close and questionable election on December 31, 2007, deadly riots erupted all over the country, catching Kenya and the rest of the world by surprise.

Opposing candidates exploited tribalistic prejudices and longstanding disputes over ancestral lands to provoke brutal attacks by vigilantes of opposing tribes in both urban slums and rural areas.

News about the impending trials for perpetrators of the violence still dominate the national papers.

News about the impending trials for perpetrators of the violence still dominate the national papers.

The losses added up to more than just lives. Property was destroyed, thousands were displaced from their homes, the economy ground to a halt, and any respect for government leaders evaporated. But the most tragic consequence of the violence is the deep feeling of distrust between Kenyans that lingers in many places.

This wall in Kibera was torn down during the violence and then rebuilt.  The mural depicts the right of every person to vote in peace.

This wall in Kibera was torn down during the violence and then rebuilt. The mural depicts the right of every person to vote in peace.

Although tribal affiliation doesn’t necessarily pose barriers to friendship in ordinary circumstances, these cross-tribal friendships are meaningless in the middle of a crisis. The result is a more divided society.

Take Kibera slum for example. The 1.5 million people who live there have traditionally settled in neighborhoods according to tribe, but overlapping communities meant that interaction and friendship between Kikuyus, Kambas, Luos, Luhyas, and others were common. Churches, schools, and businesses were often mixed.

Since the post-election violence, however, much of that tolerance disappeared. Outraged by the election results, vigilante gangs violently evicted minority families from neighborhoods dominated by a tribe different than their own. Rape and brutal murders were common.

When news of these attacks reached the televisions, gangs who identified with the victims retaliated against tribal minorities living in their neighborhoods. Eventually, the army sent soldiers to close off the roads into Kibera in order to keep the violence from spilling into the rest of the city.

Pastor Fred

Pastor Fred of Tumani Church inside Kibera described these three weeks of heavy fighting as hell. Soft-spoken and articulate, he graciously filled me in on the violence from his perspective. As a man, he was expected by his neighbors to spend every night in the streets outside his home, armed with a utility knife he borrowed from a friend. The rationale was that men would either die on the street or inside their house, so they should be outside defending their families.

Pastor Fred leads with humility and wisdom.

Pastor Fred leads with humility and wisdom.

Pastor Fred didn’t intend to spend his time in the street fighting, however. Instead, he risked his life (multiple times) to rescue endangered families from violent mobs and smuggle them to safer neighborhoods within Kibera, or into different parts of the city altogether. He even arranged for Kikuyu and Luo families to swap houses since they had been living in areas dominated by the opposite tribe. When members of his own tribe realized what he was up to, they threatened to turn on him, too.

Now, so many months after the fighting, Pastor Fred was brutally honest with me about the challenges still facing Kenya. Many are still in bondage to powerful politicians who incite violence by appealing to tribal loyalties.

Some people may naively mistake the calm which exists right now for peace. But the reality is that division and distrust still dominate the Kibera mindset. Families who fled during the violence are not returning to their homes, and his own church is now more segregated than before the elections took place.

35

35. That’s the total number of people who attended one of the Alternatives to Violence Programme (AVP) workshops at a community center in Kibera. As I entered the room that Friday morning, I realized this was a truly diverse bunch of Kenyans. 20-year-olds and 60-year-olds. Men and women. Muslims and Christians. People belonging to different tribes, and living in opposite ends of Kibera.

AVP facilitator Leah told the group, “We are all learners and teachers.”

AVP facilitator Leah told the group, “We are all learners and teachers.”

All of them belonged to various chapters of a peace initiative society who had invited the AVP facilitators to train them on how to build peace in their communities.

When I was first invited to visit this workshop, I was almost giddy with excitement. Since reconciliation is a passion of mine, I’d been searching for peace-building programs everywhere in Nairobi. Now I had finally found a real, on the ground opportunity to see this work in action.

Over the course of 3 days, these men and women discussed the many forms of violence they encounter in their daily lives, confronted the violence in their own nature, received training in creative conflict resolution, and caught the vision for a future characterized by non-violence and peace. Lofty goals, right? Yes, but these people were dedicated to making them a reality.

When I asked them what they hoped to do with their training, they told me they planned to pass on the information to their family members and neighbors, and many wanted to continue in more advanced AVP leadership courses. That’s real progress toward a better future!

In the midst of sharing his traumatic stories about the violence, Pastor Fred made two statements that point to such a future. First, he told me that the good thing coming out of the violence what that it showed people “what they were really made of.” No, he wasn’t referring to the brawn and bravery they were capable of mustering in the face of danger. He meant the deeply-rooted prejudices that he and the rest of Kibera’s citizens were forced to acknowledge had taken hold of them.

AVP participants came up with many definitions for “non-violence.”

AVP participants came up with many definitions for “non-violence.”

In his second statement, Pastor Fred told me, “It is dark, but there is a ray of hope.” This might have been a cliché conclusion to a painful story, but after really listening, I saw sprinkled throughout his account all the places he found hope.

He glimpsed evidence of hope in grassroots peace-building efforts (like AVP workshops) occurring in cities throughout the country. He saw it in pastors’ meetings where church leaders were talking honestly for the first time about their prejudices and worked to build trust between their congregations. Hope was found in the reconstruction of homes and businesses all over Kibera that had been destroyed.

So can tribalism be overcome?

Yes, but not easily. Pastor Fred will be the first to tell you that he is still dealing with his own ingrained prejudices. And yet, he has faith in God’s ability to transform the minds of individuals.

Speaking about his own congregation, he told me that everyone is at a different place in that transformation journey; but as each person chooses to value their shared identity as brothers and sisters in Christ above their tribal identity, real trust can grow.

Hope

Hope. I see it in 35 committed people learning to resolve conflict non-violently. I see it in one pastor who is courageously leading his community into relationships based on truth and trust. I see it in a God who can transform minds and spirits.

It is dark, but there are rays of hope.

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Next Steps
    • Pray for transformed minds and relationships in Kenya that allow people to confront deeply ingrained prejudices and to trust.
    • Go to the website for Kenya's Nation Newspaper to read about the ongoing investigations and possible prosecution of the instigators of the 2008 post-election violence.
    • Pray for justice to come without renewed fighting.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Jessica Shewan is a journalist with World Next Door. She graduated in 2009 from The University of Evansville with a bachelor's degree in History. She loves making new international friends and is passionate about seeing the global church pursue justice and peace!

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Comments

  1. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    August 4th, 2009 at 6:46 am  

    Why does this play out so often around our world? Prejudice to dehumanization to slaughter. And don’t think we aren’t more than capable right here in the “land of the free”. I long for the day when the lion will lay down with the lamb and the nations will walk together into the beautiful city of God.

    Great reporting Jess. We will follow with bated breath and pray for our brothers and sisters in Kenya to learn to love again.

  2. Michelle said... 

    Reply

    August 4th, 2009 at 12:14 pm  

    One of your best articles, Jess, not only for articulating the reality of prejudice and its devastating consequences in Kenya, but also to cause us to acknowledge the same attitudes here in the U.S. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could engage in intentional reconciliation efforts before some event triggers and exposes our prejudices? Thanks for sharing Pastor Fred’s example of breaking through these barriers and aspiring to trust our common identity in Christ.

  3. Dad said... 

    Reply

    August 4th, 2009 at 8:19 pm  

    Jess – Yes, your best article yet. I’m happy for you to have found this reconciliation work going on first hand. I appreciated having both a first person account coupled with a glimpse of the solution taking place. We all are deeply driven to establish an identity for ourselves from which we find our worth. And as you’ve shown, it’s a hunger only God can and wants to satisfy. I love how His way creates rich community, where man’s way destroys community altogether. How awesome are His ways.

  4. rob said... 

    Reply

    August 5th, 2009 at 2:45 pm  

    What am I truly made of under stress? Apart from Christ, the answer scares me and embarrasses me. It is good to be reminded of the potential for unacknowledged prejudice.
    Yesterday I heard an NPR (National Public Radio) story about a man who decided to use art, in Kibera, to stir people towards peace. Great timing.

  5. Kerry said... 

    Reply

    August 6th, 2009 at 1:44 am  

    Its so wonderful to hear firsthand steps that are being taken towards peace. Which comes to show yet again that God is at work – everywhere, all the time – even those times when its nearly impossible to see.

    “May Justice and Praise become my embrace.”

    There are so many rays of hope, and its great to know that Jesus is the light. Can’t wait to hear more.

  6. grandma Mack said... 

    Reply

    August 8th, 2009 at 6:43 pm  

    Ditto to your folks’ comments. A WOW! report. Oh , how much I take for granted. I am so glad you got to witness this “conflict resolution” meeting in person and have the heart to share their struggles and Hopes. I am praying differently because of your obedience to God’s call . Thank you for letting me be a part of this. Love to you!

  7. Jessica Shewan said... 

    Reply

    August 10th, 2009 at 8:43 am  

    Just reading your comments reminds me that we all really do have a role to play in reconciliation,whether it’s at home or in Africa. Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice wrote a great book on this called Reconciling All Things. I highly recommend it!

  8. Breanna Sipple said... 

    Reply

    February 22nd, 2011 at 11:29 am  

    It encourages me to see that a diverse group of people gathering together and living Psalm 34:14 by seeking peace, pursuing it, in a time where so many are responding differently. What a light they are to those around them, and I know God will bless them as they continue on in spreading peace:)
    Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

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