A Kenyan in the U.S. Helps His Family Escape

Ken Okoth on his family's escape

In the summer of 2007, Ken Okoth gave disposable cameras to kids from three schools in Kenya. Courtesy of Ken Okoth hide caption

Gallery: Kids Share a Haunting View of Kenya's Slums
itoggle caption Courtesy of Ken Okoth
A Kenyan boy holds a machete.

A Kenyan boy carries a machete he found inside a burned-out market. Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

As the killing mounted in Kenya, Ken Okoth spent the last few days making desperate calls to his family in the Kibera slum of Nairobi.

Okoth grew up poor in Kibera, but he got out — first to an American university on scholarship, and then to a job teaching history in McLean, Va.

When mobs angry over the result of Kenya's disputed presidential election began burning shanties and killing members of rival tribes, Okoth knew it was time for his family to leave.

The idea was to get them to neighboring Tanzania, where they would board a bus and flee to safety.

"It's been very sad, but I'm happy to report we succeeded in getting seven members of my family out," Okoth says. They're staying in a hotel while they wait to see whether the situation in Kenya improves or spirals out of control.

Through the years, Okoth has kept close ties to the slum. He returns every summer on his vacation, and he runs an orphanage in Kibera called the Red Rose Nursery and Children's Centre. Now he fears for the children of the Red Rose Nursery.

"The school is safe, but the kids are not," he says. The students come from homes in the slum, where some of the worst violence has taken place. "Many of their families can't be tracked down," he says. He thinks some of them are living in camps for the displaced run by the Red Cross.

One of the worst acts of violence in recent days was the burning of a church where mothers and children had taken shelter. At least 50 people died when a mob torched the building and attacked the people inside with machetes. Okoth says that even if workers at his Red Rose Nursery had the means to care for a large group, it wouldn't be safe to gather there.

"We can't use the school as a sanctuary, because they'd be a target," he says. "Getting them to the school would just be asking for trouble."

The teacher says life in the slums of Kenya has historically been defined more by class than by ethnicity or tribal affiliation. Kibera is "a huge slum and the people are totally neglected by the government. Anyone who moves to the city and has no where to start, they start in the slum," he says. "They coexist regardless of their tribes. These are people who live on $2 a day, and they help each other out every day."

But after the weekend's disputed election, members of the Yuo tribe began attacking people from the Kikuyu tribe — whose own ranks started to retaliate. That conflict followed the tribal distinctions of the presidential race, with the Kikuyu incumbent Mwai Kibaki defeating Yuo opponent Raila Odinga.

Okoth describes the tribal fighting as unprecedented in Kenya. "This is very unfortunate," he says. "It's very shocking."

Okoth, a Luo, believes Odinga must now issue an unequivocal call for his supporters to stop lashing out. On Thursday, Odinga called off a "million man" march after police scattered demonstrators with tear gas and water cannons. Odinga has indeed urged his backers to remain peaceful — even as he continues to question the outcome of the election.

The politicians bear responsibility for the killing, Okoth says. "It's just the way the politicians have played the elections," he argues. "The poorest people who are being riled up to go out and ask for their rights — feeling they have no other way — have attacked innocent Kikuyu."

People living in the Kenyan slums have been trying to band together, Okoth says, though their efforts are scarcely noticed by the outside world. He says they've formed committees to work for peace.

"The people have shown great capacity for working and living together," he says. "They're not different from Americans. They're very generous to each other."

On our blog:

Ken Okoth writes about the Red Rose Nursery and Children's Centre.

Gallery: Kids Share a Haunting View of Kenya's Slums

Odinga Calls Off Rally in Kenya

Opposition leader Raila Odinga called off a rally in Nairobi, Kenya, today after police met scattered protests there with tear gas and water cannons. Odinga had earlier billed the demonstration as a "million-man" march over what many are saying was a rigged presidential election. Odinga lost to incumbent Mwai Kibaki. Since then, more than 300 people have lost their lives in ethnic violence over the disputed results, reports Douglas Okwatch of the East Africa Standard.

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(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ALISON STEWART, host:

The sounds of the streets in Kenya. Teargas and riot police awaited protesters who attempted to rally in Nairobi, Kenya, in support of one politician over the incumbent - some say election-stealing - president. However, Kenya's opposition leaders called off the march because of the potential for more violence, calling for a peaceful meeting on January 8th. And this all follows four days of violence and mayhem in reaction to the reelection of President Kibaki, a false election, says his rival opposition leader Raila Odinga. More than 300 Kenyans have been killed, and 70,000 displaced.

With us on the phone from Nairobi is Douglas Okwatch, editor of the East African Standard. His office is overlooking the site of what would have been the march.

Mr. Okwatch, thank you so much for taking the time. I know it's a really, really busy day for you.

Mr. DOUGLAS OKWATCH (Editor, East African Standard): Yes.

STEWART: Now, even though the march was called off, did people assemble, and did they do so peacefully?

Mr. OKWATCH: Yeah. Yeah. People did assemble in two parts of Nairobi - on the southern part of Nairobi, and also on the eastern part of Nairobi. Although the demonstrators were peaceful, police used force to break up the demonstration, and at least one or two people have been shot dead.

STEWART: Can you tell me a little more about the instructions the police have been given in dealing with protesters, either at this rally or in general in the past few days?

Mr. OKWATCH: Well, in a lot of places, the police have been instructed to use maximum force to break up demonstrations. In a number of places in the country, most of those killed have been killed by police. In Kisumu, for example, the newly elected (unintelligible) say they encountered 64 bullet-riddled bodies. So while it is true that the communities have been fighting against each other and that they have been killing each other, to a large extent, the number of people who have been killed have been killed by police, who have used live ammunition to break riots and to shoot people both at night and daytime.

STEWART: Mr. Okwatch, the Western media has reported that the violence occurring in Kenya since Sunday, they describe body counts, wire services, reporting as many as 300 dead, many displaced - thousands displaced, a church set on fire, machetes in the streets. Can you tell us, is it widespread? Is it just in Nairobi, or is it concentrated in certain areas?

Mr. OKWATCH: Well, the killings are widespread, I could say so. The killings are widespread, but concentrated mostly in Nairobi and the western province, Nyanza province and Rift Valley and some part of Coastal Kenya - which, really, are the strongholds of the Orange Democratic Movement, who's leader Mr. Raila Odinga, believes he won the election and was stolen from him unfairly.

STEWART: Let me ask you to explain something to our listeners. You know, the Western reporting has talked quite a bit about the violence between the tribes. The Kikuyu, if I'm saying that right, is Kenya's largest tribe, with 22 percent of the population. The Luos is Kenya's third largest, with 13 percent of the population. The Kikuyu have dominated Kenya's politics. The current incumbent president is Kikuyu.

Can you explain to me why this has caused resentments? Are the tribes that different in their goals?

Mr. OKWATCH: Yeah. Yeah. The resentment is basically because of their ethnic differences. And the killings are mainly targeted at Kikuyu community. For a lot of Kenyans, ODM was something more of a savior, and they believe that if ODM ascended to power, then probably the level of the fighting we are seeing right would have been dealt with. That is the reason for the skirmishes we are seeing right now.

STEWART: Now, Kenya is one of the most developed countries in Africa. It's got a high tourism rate. I spent a little bit of time…

Mr. OKWATCH: Yeah.

STEWART: …I think about three weeks in Kenya, in Nairobi and…

Mr. OKWATCH: Yes.

STEWART: …it's a beautiful, cosmopolitan city in many parts. So can you explain to people…

Mr. OKWATCH: Yes.

STEWART: …what's going on under the surface for these tensions to turn so violent so quickly?

Mr. OKWATCH: Just ask the question again? I can't hear that.

STEWART: What is going - if Kenya is one of the most developed countries, and Nairobi…

Mr. OKWATCH: Yes.

STEWART: …is a sophisticated city, what is going on…

Mr. OKWATCH: Yes.

STEWART: …under the surface, politically, for these tensions to turn so violent, so quickly?

Mr. OKWATCH: Well, I mean, that is one of the false beliefs people have been having, that although it appears sophisticated and Democratic, those ethnic tensions have always been bound to flare up at any point. And these elections results are probably - basically, that (unintelligible) to ignite what has always been ethnic - building ethnic tensions.

STEWART: Back to the original catalyst for all this trouble, questionable election results. The United States secretary of state has called for leaders to end violence. The UN secretary general has reminded the leaders of Kenya of their moral responsibility. Are there any signs that there will be any outside mediation at this point?

Mr. OKWATCH: Well, there's a lot of tension and mistrust between the two groups. And even one group as pushing for mediation, the other group is basically entrenching itself in power.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OKWATCH: So the possibility of mediation look very remote, considering that President Kibaki's group basically riding on with business as usual. Actually, they are preparations for picking a cabinet already. And Desmond Tutu was around here today. And he had yet concluded talks with Raila, and (unintelligible) for mediation, but I don't think the other group are interest in mediation.

STEWART: So what do you believe will happen next?

Mr. OKWATCH: Well, it's likely that if none of the groups calm down - and if none of the group agreed to calm down, then, probably, this crisis would just escalate.

STEWART: Douglas Okwatch is the editor of the East African Standard.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us and NPR.

Mr. OKWATCH: Yeah, thank you. You are very welcome. Thank you very much. Bye.

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