11.02.08 14:21 Age: 4 yrs

Kenya: Living Letters allow churches to affirm peace, grasp a complex conflict


The brunt of the crisis has been borne by women and children, like these Luhya women from Nyanza and the Western province, who had to flee the tea farms in the Central province where they used to work. They found shelter at the Tigoni camp near Limuru, in the outskirts of Nairobi, along with some 6,000 other refugees. Photo: Juan Michel/WCC


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With peace seemingly returning to the country, churches within and outside Kenya take stock of the experiences made during a month of unrest and violence. Ecumenical visitors recall moving encounters and seek to understand.


Kenyans will remember for a long time 27 December 2007 as the day in which havoc wreaked across a rather peaceful and stable country following the contested results of a presidential election. The political dispute around the poll results triggered an unprecedented bloodshed along ethnic lines. Nearly 1,000 people were killed and over 300,000 fled their homes.


While many churches were divided before the election, pulled by the tribal loyalties of their constituencies, the outbreak of violence found them united in calling for peace and in providing emergency relief to the victims.


"Churches responded a lot and quickly", says Dr Geeske Zanen, a biologist from the Netherlands. A member of the board of the World Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), Zanen was working as a volunteer in Kisii, in the Nyanza province, when the violence started. There she witnessed how "churches opened their premises, provided food and aid, worked with the Red Cross and offered a certain security to people fleeing the violence".


At the end of January, Zanen joined an international ecumenical team who paid a solidarity visit to the country on behalf of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Part of the council's Living Letters initiative to accompany churches facing situations of violence, the visit took place from 30 January to 3 February 2008, while violence was still rampant and the political mediation led by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan was in its initial stages.


Hosted by the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the Living Letters team met top level representatives of the two parties engaged in the political stalemate. "Kenyans would like to see their political leaders affirming peace and sorting out their differences, for which a political compromise is needed", was the clear message conveyed to them.


The team met as well with religious leaders, both Christian and of other faiths, civil society organizations, women's networks and local communities.


Neighbours against neighbours


The visits to communities on the ground provided most moving and insightful glimpses into the complexity of the Kenyan conflict.


In Nakuru, the fourth largest Kenyan city, located in the Rift Valley at some 160 kilometers from Nairobi, the team met with local pastors. More than 60 people had been killed there a few days before and the city was still under curfew. Some 6,000 people were sheltered in a makeshift camp at a sports stadium.


"This is a fight between the poor, incited by politicians on the basis of real issues like the land distribution", the team was told by Rev. Michael Mandia, from the Presbyterian Church in East Africa. "Kenya is one of the most unequal countries in the world and this unleashes tribal clashes every five years", said Rev. Naftaly Mwenda Mburugu, from the Methodist Church in Kenya.


From Nakuru, a bumpy, dusty rural road burning under the sun brought the team to the rural heart of the Molo district, in the Rift Valley. The road was bordered by empty houses. Glasses had been shattered, roofs partially taken off, furniture looted - that is, when the houses had not been burnt to the ground. No one was in sight. The vehicles ran slowly, their silent passengers staring at the desolation.


In Kihingo, the team met a community of Kikuyus that had been attacked by their Kalenjin neighbours and were sheltering in a school. When the delegates met them, they were returning to their homes for a few hours to salvage some maize, potatoes - just something to eat. "About 30 of our people were killed by arrows and 'pangas' [machetes]", Samuel Macharia Wamai, the chief, told the visitors while members of the community gathered around them.


Wamai also reported cases of rape against girls and women and the dire situation of some members of the community living with HIV and AIDS who could not reach the Nakuru hospital to get their medicines.


To the question "Who killed your people?" the chief answered: "I don't want to name tribes, but they were killed by their neighbours, people they knew by their names. They begged the attackers not to kill them, but in vain." Wamai blames conflicts which predated the electoral dispute for the violence: "This was triggered by the elections, but the root cause is not political, it is the land. There is a community who claims this is their ancestors' land and wants to chase out other communities whom they see as invaders."


After praying with the Kikuyu community, the team of visitors met with the Kalenjin community just across the road, on the opposite side of the small valley. The name of the place is Mauche. The houses were intact but life was nonetheless difficult. No tourists were stopping by the small shops, schools were closed, people were afraid to go out of the village.


Presided by the community chief, a spontaneous assembly gathered around the visitors, who had the opportunity to listen to elders, pastors, women leaders and youth. They reported five people from their community had been killed.


"Our youth are unemployed, our widows without assistance, we cannot go to town, we do not receive relief aid", said Mary Rotich Chepchumba, a women's leader. "The issues here are historical; since the independence there has been a wound that never healed and that now hurts again", said an elder. "We need peace, but we also need to share resources and opportunities equally", said Henry Langat, a retired teacher.


Robert Bett, a young member of the community, added: "We need an all inclusive constitution that lifts the aspiration of all Kenyans; we are educated, young and energetic, we want to go forward; we know about democracy and governance, we want change and we are pressing for change until change comes; we know the Kenya we want: a democratic, fast growing Kenya, a Kenya with a future."


Like in Kihingo, in Mauche, too, the gathering ended with a prayer.


Taking stock of the Living Letters experience


After five days of intense and moving encounters, the Living Letters team members prepared to return to their countries, where they would report to their churches and in some cases to their governments about the needs on the ground in terms of financial support, humanitarian aid, and long term capacity building.


"I am very impressed by the work the Kenyan churches are doing", said Rev. Stig Utnem, a pastor from Oslo and former general secretary of the Council on Ecumenical and International Relations of the Church of Norway. "In particular, the inter-religious forum in which they participate is an achievement they can be proud of."


"Coming face to face with people allowed us to see the reality in all its complexity", said Graham Gerald McGeoch, a ministerial candidate of the Church of Scotland and member of the WCC central and executive committees. McGeoch was impressed by the churches "humility to recognize that the people of God have, in some instances, acted in a partisan manner".


Rev. Dr Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and head of the Living Letters team, underlined that "to the extent that religious communities are organized along ethnic lines, they have contributed to the problem, but they are also being part of the solution."


Prelate Dr Stephan Reimers found "the Living Letters idea very productive as it helped the NCCK to affirm its peace message to the political establishment, which was still in an antagonistic tension". The representative of the Evangelical Church in Germany to the European Union, Reimers highlighted the importance of continuing funding the good work done by the NCCK.


According to Zanen, "women's voices were missing during the conflict as well as during the mediation. Young women didn't get the chance to speak in the communities and women church leaders were missing during the visit". So, one of the challenges is "to put the women's agenda on the table".


"Unfortunately, it will take years for the situation in Kenya to come back to normalcy", affirmed Bishop Thomas Olmorijoi Laiser, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. "The issue of what went wrong at the elections needs to be addressed in order to ensure that the citizens' political will is respected. This is valid not only for Kenya, but for other African countries as well."


Another pressing issue is tribalism. "Can Africa survive with this kind of tribal-related identities that confine us to a narrow perspective?", wondered Ms Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda, a Zimbabwean recently appointed general secretary of the World YWCA. "We need to introduce a new language into the public discussion about who we are."


For Rev. Canon Peter Karanja, general secretary of the NCCK, Kenyans "need to understand that the interests of any ethnic community are linked to all the others and that the country is large enough for all of us to have a place. This is something that cannot be sorted out by Kofi Annan or anyone else, but only by Kenyans ourselves."



(*) Juan Michel, WCC media relations officer, is a member of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.


More information on the Living Letters visit to Kenya


Watch a video report on the visit on the PBS website


Photo story


National Council of Churches in Kenya


Background information on the Living Letters visits


Decade to Overcome Violence