Kenya | Unhappy Valley

The unhealed wounds of tribal politics and election violence

01 June 2011

JOSEPH KAIRURI, a 54-year-old maize farmer in Kenya's Rift Valley, remembers that the attackers wore T-shirts and bandannas, and that they came armed with blades and stones and arrows. He remembers that some of them had concealed their faces with white clay, but that the young man who ultimately cut him down—slicing him so deep across his right forearm that Kairuri lost use of his hand—had not.

It was mid-morning on New Year's Day 2008, two days after a hard-fought presidential election had been called in favour of the ethnic Kikuyu incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, spurring fulminant violence throughout much of the valley—Kenya's western "breadbasket" of maize fields and vertiginous escarpments. Along with the other men of Kiambaa village—a pocket of Kikuyu families surrounded by the Kalenjin, who had backed the opposition—Kairuri had staged an ill-starred last stand outside the Kenya Assemblies of God church, where more than 100 women and children sought refuge in the hours before the charge.

Overcome by the mob and writhing in pain on the ground, Kairuri could only watch as the women inside the church—which had been doused in petrol and set alight—made what would be, for many, a final decision: stay inside and burn to death, or run out and face their assailants. He said he was not surprised so many chose the former: "Once you see an arrow pointing at you, you go back inside and take your chances with the flames."

Robbie Corey-Boulet is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He has covered international justice issues in Cambodia and East Africa.

Keywords: kenya election violence Kibaki Kikuyu Rift Valley tribal politics