Kenya's Parliament to Convene First Meeting

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Kenya's parliament is set to meet for the first time since its disputed election in December, but lawmakers are unlikely to get much done. Opposition party members say they will try to take the seats of government party members. They say their candidate lost the presidential election because of fraud.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

After hearing so much about the political violence in Kenya, its parliament is meeting today for the first time since the disputed election last month that set off the fighting. Lawmakers aren't getting much done, however, government and opposition party members argued and shouted at each other over the vote for a new speaker as the session got underway. Opposition party members say their candidate lost the presidential election because of fraud. Now, the opposition party is vying for control of parliament. But this political fight for power mirrors a much more brutal fight for power in other parts of the country.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports from Kenya's Rift Valley.

GWEN THOMPKINS: For all we know, Eric Yongesa(ph) could be dead now. Yongesa is a 52-year-old farmer, a laborer really, who lives on a lush little coffee plantation in the north Rift Valley. He's lived in this area his whole life. His father was born here. He has eight children here. But Yongesa and his neighbors got a message through the grapevine that they have already lived their last day in their village on the plantation.

Mr. ERIC YONGESA (Farmer, Rift Valley, Kenya): We defend our village ourselves.

THOMPKINS: Yongesa and the men of his village now sleep in the bushes at night, and wait to be attacked. They are, for the most part, unarmed.

Mr. YONGESA: We use these sticks. We have no even spears and arrow, but in most cases, we (unintelligible) good.

THOMPKINS: The worst of Kenya's post-election violence has happened here in the majestic Rift Valley where creation is at its best. Gentle hills slope into rippling streams. Wild, yellow daisies are in bloom. Plump cattle have seemingly endless fields to graze. And even the donkeys look satisfied. But a murderous spirit has taken hold of the valley. Much of Kenya has settled down by now, but here, death threats are still being whispered over cell phones and the morgues are full.

Rosemary Nasimiyu(ph) had five children at home with her the other night when she awoke to the sound of a gunshot.

Ms. ROSEMARY NASIMIYU (Resident, Rift Valley, Kenya): (Through translator) I told my children now are dead.

THOMPKINS: Arsonists had set fire to her thatched roofed hut and then stood in the doorway so she couldn't escape. When they moved to light another house afire, Nasimiyu, who is 53 years old, ran through the flames with the children and hid in the daisies. In all, more than 30 houses burned that night.

Ms. NASIMIYU: (Through translator) They came up to check whether we are dead. And we are dead in the house. They knocked at the door and said we have killed them.

THOMPKINS: Much of what's been happening here has been driven by the disputed election drama in Nairobi between Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga. After all, Yongesa, Nasimiyu and many others on the coffee plantation voted for President Kibaki, and Odinga supporters in the area are said to want revenge. But it is also true that something else is stirring the pine trees in the coffee plants and setting houses ablaze; an ugly form of tribalism is in the Bedrock of this place.

Mr. JEFFREY INDIAMA(ph) (Farmer, Kenya): So it is them who controls everything here. The oil economy is under them. We are suffering because of them.

THOMPKINS: That is Jeffrey Indiama, a 23-year-old farmer from the Kalenjin tribe. When Indiama says them, he's referring to the Kikuyu, the same tribe as President Kibaki. Kikuyus bought the coffee plantation down the hill and now, Indiama says the Kalenjin here no longer have access to land that they had once farmed. So in other words, this is a land war, and it's been going hot and cold between the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu for more than 40 years.

Mr. MAINA KIAI (Chairman, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights): The thing that strikes me throughout these last few weeks is the rush to claim victimhood on every site and that's a very dangerous, very, very dangerous trend.

THOMPKINS: Maina Kiai heads the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. He says Kenyans are too quick to do that us-versus-them thing, and that always leads to trouble. Kiai, who is a Kikuyu, says President Kibaki should step aside while the election is sorted out. But those are fighting words to many people in the Rift Valley. When Kiai spoke to thousands of displaced Kikuyus here over the weekend, he got death threats. To them, Kiai is not a human rights leader, but a Kikuyu traitor who speaks against their president.

Mr. KIAI: This is a political crisis with ethnic overtones. With ethnic overtones because our politics is ethnic-based. But it's about power, it's about politics.

THOMPKINS: The Kalenjin, who live up the hill, do not admit to burning the houses on the coffee plantation, but they don't seem to care that it happened. Nor do they seem particularly bothered that many of the people whose houses were burned are not Kikuyu. They are from the Luhya and the Kisii and the Bukusu tribes. But to farmer Jeffrey Indiama, if those folks voted for Kibaki, they might as well be Kikuyu.

Mr. INDIAMA: So through that violence, the Kikuyus are message and be part to the Kibaki (unintelligible) that your people have been attacked somewhere. So quit from the office for the safety of the people. So that's the message.

THOMPKINS: That message is all over the face of Reverend Stephen Mburu. He's bruised and swollen and missing eight teeth. Mburu is the Kikuyu pastor of the church that the Kalenjin burned down two weeks ago, where an estimated 30 women and children were burned alive.

Reverend STEPHEN MBURU (Kenya): (Through translator) This was not the past conflicts between us and the Kalenjin, but it was the worst, of course. There is a foundation that has been laid in the feelings of the Kalenjin that should divide the province is that all the land that is in (unintelligible) is supposed to be occupied by them and them alone.

THOMPKINS: Reverend Mburu says he and a colleague pulled four children from the church window, but flames overtook the fifth child and he had to let go.

Rev. MBURU: (Through translator) When I turned, I saw a group of people with bows and arrows aimed at me. And I remember that the day - just the previous Sunday I have preached on Psalm 91.

THOMPKINS: Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night, nor the arrow that flieth by day.

Mburu and his friend walked over to their attackers and stood in front of them. And the crowd beat them unconscious. When he goes back to the pulpit, Mburu says he will remind his mostly Kikuyu flock to be ready for the possibility that tomorrow may never come.

Rev. MBURU: (Through translator) I will begin by preaching salvation and letting the congregation and the people know that on this world we are (unintelligible). So I'll just preach salvation so that people can prepare.

THOMPKINS: On the way out of town, about 50 young men where moving along the side of the road. Some carried machetes, others clubs and still others, bows and arrows. One man waved to the car passing by.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, northern Rift Valley, Kenya.

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