Kenyan Expats 'Heartbroken' by Violence, Strife Kenyan-born Wanjiru Kamau has deep roots in her country's political system. She gives her view of why parts of Kenya are rocked by violence and what can be done about it.
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Kenyan Expats 'Heartbroken' by Violence, Strife

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Kenyan Expats 'Heartbroken' by Violence, Strife

Kenyan Expats 'Heartbroken' by Violence, Strife

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Now, we move on to more news from the continent. This time, from Kenya.

President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga have agreed on a two-week plan to discuss how to resolve Kenya's political crisis. More than 1,000 people have been killed in the violence since December's disputed election. A quarter of a million people have fled their homes.

But not too long ago, Kenya was one of the more stable nations on the continent. Wanjiru Kamau was a Kenyan-born community activist. She came to the U.S. in 1988 and established the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation.

Ms. Kamau, thanks for coming on again.

Ms. WANJIRU KAMAU (Founder, African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation): Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So, you work closely with Kenyans now living in the U.S. What are they telling you about their concerns for their families, the elections? What kind of things are you hearing from some of the people that you know, either personally or professionally?

Ms. KAMAU: They are very saddened. No one expected what we are going through to a point of where we feel very hopeless. And I really hope that our leaders are going to come together and take the social and ethical responsibility to ensure safety, number one, and also, a continuation of peace. Just like you said, Kenya has been identified as one of the countries that has been peaceful for a very long time.

There is the potential of that continuation if our leaders are committed and identified the deeply underlying differences that are surfacing.

CHIDEYA: Now, do you believe that this is an ethnic or tribal conflict? Or is it a political conflict?

Ms. KAMAU: It's both, but mainly, actually, political - political or power politics, I call it. The tribal differences are there and they have been then. Perhaps, this is the opportune time for us to be able to address them.

The problem of the tribe, really, now is more of a survival. I want my child educated. I want to have a better road. I want to have a better house. I want better health care.

That's really what is most important. And that is how I see, therefore, that we have a two-tribe country, where the very rich are very rich and the very poor are very poor, and we're really not doing enough. We have not been doing enough to help the poor, to address their needs. And it's really very unfortunate, because we must not go there.

CHIDEYA: I want to dig in a little bit deeper with you, though. If you say that there are some people representing the rich and some people representing the poor, specifically, does president Kibaki represent one group and does Raila Odinga represent one group? Which groups do they represent?

Ms. KAMAU: I think they both are rich, and I won't say any one of them is representing the poor or the rich. All I'm trying to say is that both of them needs to be more connected with the lives of everyday people.

CHIDEYA: So, you have worked or know both Raila Odinga and President Kibaki.

Ms. KAMAU: I do.

CHIDEYA: What is the context? How did you get to know them? And then, describe what you think each of them is like as a person.

Ms. KAMAU: I worked with Raila Odinga at the University of Nairobi. President Kibaki, we've had our children go to school together. I think they are both kind people. I don't think - I won't describe any one of them as a bad person at all. They are both kind, but we have this underlying problem we just started talking about that nobody really has ever paid it any attention to. That is of helping people to relate as tribes, as, you know, really seeing - instead of bruiting their differences and, you know, identifying the unity that groups like Kikuyus and the Luos have. They are very different people culturally. How can they walk together? How can they celebrate each other's, you know, differences so that we can forge ahead.

So in other words, even though some peace is going to be created - I know they will - I hope that they are going to start in a school system, teaching people about the different cultural background to ensure that our people move from their own tribal shells towards the national and then the continent.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you about the two men that we've been talking about who have so much decision-making power.

Ms. KAMAU: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: Could you ever see them working together in a coalition government?

Ms. KAMAU: I think they can. They really can. I think what is the problem is some of their henchmen who are usually inciting them. If they are left together, they can. And they did that in 2002 very, very well. And they can, and I'm really hoping and praying like all Kenyans that they can swallow some of the pride, because there have to be, you know, a lose and take. You know, I know they can.

CHIDEYA: When you think about how Kenya is being portrayed right now and the facts that people who don't know much about Kenya are just seeing a country bathed in violence, does it hurt you and does it hurt your heart?

Ms. KAMAU: It does. It breaks my heart, because I know that's not what it is. And I really go back to the history, the historical part of it. You know, we're, as I said, we were colonized. And we were colonized, that's when we became Kenya, we became Sierra Leone, we became whatever country that was being told. But really, nobody has ever gone in, like, to say what is this tribe, what is this - what do we do to bring them together?

And people, really, most people only come to identify the nation when they are getting their passport. So what I really feel very deeply is that they are deep issues of resources, they are deep issues of human resources as well as natural resources, which outsiders have interest over us. And therefore, we also find that resources now are not as important as our people. I feel very sad a social activist, you know, that we really have got to start grassroots movement of making these people understand, one, who they are and their rights and how they can better themselves. Because it is really an economic war, it's a survival war for the poor, whereas the ones who were able it's really just power, power politics.

CHIDEYA: Finally, what can people like you - people who are expats living in different countries throughout the world - do to help Kenya?

Ms. KAMAU: Well, we are, first of all, doing the bandage, you know, collecting clothing, collecting food. But that's not really what I would like to see. I would like to see water, like, in every village. Water is the source of life. And you start a movement that is empowering people from the ground, from the grassroots, because that's really what is needed.

Once people have enough to eat, enough to - a place, a safe place to live, they are not going to fight. They're not even going to be that much, you know, interested in politics. And for me, that's what I would like to see done by us - raising money and giving small loans to different places from the rural areas.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ms. Kamau, thank you for sharing your time with us.

Ms. KAMAU: You're welcome. Thank you very much for having me.

CHIDEYA: Wanjiru Kamau is the founder and executive director of the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation. She joined us from NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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