Kenya

I wrote this story during Kenya’s tribal violence of early 2008. Taking a break from bogged-down negotiations at a luxury hotel between feuding politicians, I ventured into Nairobi’s Kibera slum, where some of the worst violence had taken place. There, I found a community clinging to hope and met a remarkable woman on a crusade for peace. 

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Inside Kibera there is hope; Africa’s second largest slum tries to turn its back on violence that erupted after the disputed Kenya election

     – copyright – Calgary Herald
      Friday, February 8, 2008

      By Robert Remington
      NAIROBI, Kenya
      One week after he was treated for a machete wound to the head, Zuberi Mije sits in an unlit room in his tin-roofed shack in the Kibera slum and smiles.
      “I am feeling much better,” he says to nurse Lucia Buyanza, who treated his cut. “I am so thankful.” 

Lucia Buyanza (Photo by Robert Remington)

Lucia Buyanza (Photo by Robert Remington)

      After checking on her patient, Buyanza steps outside into the sunlight, where a small garden manages to grow alongside Mije’s mud hut in Kibera, the second-largest slum in Africa behind Soweto in Johannesburg.
      “You see this,” she says, touching a small shrub. “Even in a place like this, it is possible to grow flowers.”
      The scene of some of the worst violence in Kenya’s ongoing post-election crisis, the sprawling Kibera slum, home to more than one million people, saw neighbour turn against neighbour after a Dec. 27 election that international observers say was rigged in favour of President Mwai Kibaki.
      The disputed election unleashed pent-up tribal divisions over land, wealth and power dating from colonial rule. More than 1,000 have been killed in ethnic and tribal clashes, most of it directed at Kibaki’s tribe, the Kikuyu, who dominate politics and much of Kenya’s economy.
      Looting and riots erupted after calls for anti-government demonstrations by the Orange Democratic Movement party of Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, who narrowly lost the disputed election and who has a Luo stronghold in Kibera.
      Buyanza, who grew up in Kibera and works in a clinic on the edge of the slum, treated people like Mije for machete cuts to the head and legs. Others came in with poison-tipped arrows in their abdomens.
      “It was very bad,” says Buyanza, who at the height of the crisis walked to the clinic every day from her home inside Kibera.
      While most people cowered inside their tiny shacks, Buyanza walked the deserted street to the clinic, sticking close to the roadside ditch so she could dive into it for cover should violence erupt.

      “I was very scared.”
      Buyanza, 34, is among a group of young community leaders who are organizing a peace march through Kibera on Sunday.
      Other peace initiatives have also sprung up in the slum. 
      Artist Solomon Muhandi, 31, has painted hundreds of messages all over the Kibera, on curbs, speed bumps and on the rusty corrugated metal walls of houses and businesses in the sprawling shantytown. His graffiti reads “Peace Wanted Alive,” “Keep Peace” and “Kenya Needs Peace.”
      Buyanza says people are weary of the violence. 
     “They feel they are being used. We are burning our own houses and nobody is coming to help us, and at the end of the day, it is my neighbour who is crying,” she says. 
      On Wednesday, Kiberians refused to heed the latest ODM call for demonstrations, opting instead to return to work and send their children to school.
      Buyanza says people in Kibera feel abandoned by the country’s leaders, who have been huddled all week in a heavily guarded Nairobi hotel for mediation talks headed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
      “Politicians are talking and drinking fancy teas and having lunches at the hotel. They should come down here, but they are saying they don’t have the security to come to us. Where is the security for the common man when they are killed? They need to come to us. We are not that violent. We are their people.”
      If there is hope for Kibera and for Kenya, it lies not with the feuding Odinga and Kibaki and the perpetuated tribal cronyism of Kenyan politics, but with people like Buyanza and others like her.
      “People do not want this to continue,” says James Bundi, 25, a Kibera community youth worker who is also involved in organizing the peace march. As the community turned against itself, he says Kiberians came to realize they need to take care of each other because nobody else was going to look after them.
      “In Kibera, we know that we need each other, Bundi said. “The politicians do not come here to help us. The city does not even come here to spray for disease. So, we must stick together.”
      Indeed, the sense of community in Kibera is strong. You can feel it as you walk along the railway line made famous from a scene in the movie The Constant Gardener. You can feel it in the narrow winding mud alleys, where children run up to you and people wave and reach out to shake your hand.
      “Thanks for coming to Kibera,” says one shop owner. “You are welcome in this place.”

After weeks of bloodshed, life is now returning to normal in the slum. People are selling food, clothes and radios. Parents are beginning to send their children back to school.

Most people in Nairobi are afraid to come to Kibera, and its international reputation is one of AIDS, violence, disease and despair.

“The media is going to where there is violence, but they are forgetting there are areas of Kibera that have not been touched,” says Buyanza, whose name means “full of joy.”

“It would be good to show the nation that not all the slum area is bad.”

Among the community projects developed in Kibera is a public toilet that converts human waste to methane gas for fuel to power lights and heaters. At Buyanza’s Catholic Church, currently under construction, the round roof drains into a rainwater collection system.

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Kibera sprang up after the First World War as a temporary settlement established by the British colonial government for Nubian soldiers from Sudan, who had been part of the King’s African Rifles. Plots were allotted to soldiers as a reward for service on land that was then a forest on the outskirts of Nairobi.

The name Kibera comes from “kibra,” a Nubian word for forest, but there is no forest in Kibera anymore — just dust and mud and the stench from latrines and rotting garbage.

The slum today is a collection of numerous villages, many split along tribal lines.

Tired of being used as political pawns, Buyanza, Bundi and other second-generation Kibera community leaders are using faith to reach out to the young, unemployed youth who make up the majority of those taking part in the violence.

“We have been having talks with other youths to avoid being used by politicians to fuel violence,” she wrote in a recent e-mail to a friend.

“We youth are having serious prayer meetings in the evening to seek God’s forgiveness and see each other as children of one mother Kenya. There are banners of peace that have been prepared and so on Sunday we shall walk with them around the villages to show solidarity and peace in Kibera.

“I know it is the politicians who are using the young people to kill other innocent Kenyans. We have refused to be used and that is why we are engaging ourselves in this activity of prayer, because we have been born in simplicity and our lives have been guided by virtues that uphold humanity.

“We are sitting on a time bomb, and that’s why the violence must be stopped. Justice and peace must prevail, but the leaders are dragging their feet.”

Although Buyanza is Catholic, she credits her peace activism to a non-denominational Ismaili Muslim organization.

“I took my nurse’s training at the Aga Khan school. It is unlike other nursing schools because they teach you that you can be things like a nurse leader, or a nurse politician, or a nurse journalist. I have chosen to be a nurse leader.”

On the narrow pathway that serves as a dividing line in Kibera between Kikuyu and Luo areas, Buyanza points to a building that was burned in the recent rioting. “This was the war zone,” she says as we walk past other burned-out buildings.

Many Kiberians, says Bundi, realize the violence is a result of what historian Martin Meredith and others refer to as the “Big Man” politics of Africa — where elected leaders grab entitlement for themselves, their families and their tribes.

Few, however, know how to change it.

Yet, this much, says Buyanza, is certain: “They are wasting the nation.”

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