Displaced Kenyans Wish for

by Sue Sprenkle

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 were waiting impatiently for 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-which the two sides agreed to on February 28.

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 estimated more than 600,000 displaced Kenyans live in 300 camps around the country. Many of these camps are being disbanded by the government as people are transported 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 has been 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 can 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.

Baptist Press

Sue Sprenkle is an international correspondent for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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