Truth and lies in Eldoret

Last week, eight of us from the Concerned Writers Group went to visit Eldoret, the town at the epicentre of the clashes in Kenya. Having been born and brought up in the Rift Valley, I know this area well. We spoke to groups of displaced people.
We talked with Archbishop Korir, who is legendary for saving the lives of many people who would have been killed in the clashes of 1992—and now, of 2008.

We stayed in a hotel, Poa Place, with excellent service and food. When we arrived, on a Sunday, there were families having a Sunday out—children swimming, people eating goat meat. In the bars and cafes, people were cautious, and you could overhear conversations about ordinary things: school, work, love. Until we made a mistake: in a bar, we started to talk to each other about politics, and people looked at us with that look. The maintenance of normality was the highest priority.

We met a young man, clean-faced and earnest, who told us that when the militias came to his home to collect the boys to fight, he hid. When we left Eldoret cathedral, I met a young man who has five-month-old twins. He stopped me and asked me to buy him one packet of milk, just one, he said, to feed his twins today.

In whispers in some places, we heard about the rise of a nation and its militia. That the many groups and subgroups of the Kalenjin were uniting, and invoking all the military and war language they knew to make sure that they had their way, and that Kikuyus were removed from the area. We heard that Kikuyus were being armed, heard reports even that Mungiki, a Kikuyu militia, had been sneaked into various parts of the Rift Valley.

Reports from both sides diverged substantially. Who started what, and when? Unsurprisingly, everybody is speculating, and there is a lot of political propaganda being spread by both sides.

There are many stories circulating about the church just outside Eldoret that was torched. There are those who say that some Kikuyu men were using it as a shield to attack Kalenjin positions from. There are those who say that it was an act of naked desecration—the deliberate killing of Kikuyu women and children. The main thing here is the lack of evidence presented. Both sides use the church as a kind of cheap campaign platform to score points. One side screams genocide. Another screams oppressed peoples of Kenya.

The truth has no currency.

President Mwai Kibaki, who by now has a reputation for hiding when he needs to be seen—such as when we have a famine, or when Kenyans are in hospital after events like this—finally presented himself to the refugees at the Eldoret cathedral. He did not have any meetings with their leaders. He simply spoke to them, and told them the most impossible and patronising things: that they would be back home in two weeks, that the government would make the area peaceful. Nobody believed him.

There is a joke going around that Kibaki is in bed, his head under a pillow, as he asks his wife Lucy to look out of the window and see it if it all over.

As he spoke on national television, we could see things burning in the background. It seemed as though he was living in another country.

The refugees in Eldoret had already met and decided not to go back to their homes.

“This is the third time in 10 years that I have lost everything,” said one. “We need a permanent solution.” They were not even angry. They were bewildered.

Meanwhile, the Orange Democratic Movement leadership continues to ask for mass action, a term that translates into “kill, burn and loot”, and they pretend that it is a noble quest for a sort of lavender revolution of the people.

On our last day, a woman with a Mohawk haircut, very funky clothing and an English private-school accent stumbled to our table at Poa Place. She was drunk and clearly very upset.

“You know what?” she said. “You know what? I don’t care. I don’t care anymore. People want to kill each other. Let them …”

She and her sister had brought the kids out to swim. She had seen her neighbours butchered the day before.

As we drove back to Nairobi, the tension started to get to me, and I found myself thinking the unthinkable. What would happen if Kenya stopped holding it together?

In Nairobi, at a mini-market, I found a man at the till, a Luo man telling the Kikuyu lady at the till that he spoke five languages. He spoke to her in Kikuyu, and she giggled.

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