16 January 2018
How 'mindless election violence' left this writer's husband fighting for his life
Personal testimony shows courage and faith amid tensions in Kenya
By Nella Alseba
As Kenyans strive to get back to their normal lives following an in intense electioneering year that saw many people lose not only their property but also loved ones, an uneasy calm prevails across the country. Everyone waits to see if the opposition will make good their statement of swearing in Raila Odinga as the People’s president at the end of this month. And what will be the reaction, if they do, of Uhuru Kenyatta, who was sworn in for a second five-year term as President at the end of November last year .
The political theatrics preceding the August 2017 general elections, and the nullification of the presidential election following a petition filed by the leading opposition party at the Supreme Court, dominated news headlines across the world. The subsequent elections called in October were held under heightened tensions as the opposition party called for a boycott stating that their demands had not been met.
My family and I, along with many others went through the election period with dread and fear especially in the days leading up to the announcement of the President Elect at the end of October last year.
After people voted a few days before that, the area where I live – Carwash, near Kawangware, just on the outskirts of Kenya’s Capital City in Nairobi – the atmosphere remained relatively peaceful. Neighbour to neighbour, we didn't hear or see any signs of violence.
That all changed within 24 hours.
On Friday 27 October, at home with my family I heard shouting and screaming. Furtively peeking over the balcony, I saw youths, mainly young men, crammed in minivans, riding on "boda bodas", or motorcycles, while others walking alongside, shouting, screaming and chanting. In their hands they carried all manner of crude weapons including machetes and huge clubs.
I strained my ear to hear what they were chanting but could not make out what they were saying. From their body language and facial expressions I could see that the mob was seething with violent rage.
Sadly, mindless election violence is something that has befallen those who are dear to me. My husband, Dan, was stabbed back in December 2007, when Kenya saw the worst election violence after supporters of Hon. Raila Odinga violently contested the re-election of President Mwai Kibaki.
That December, Dan was returning to his home in Mathare, when he was accosted and knifed by people who he personally knew, simply for being from another tribe. The assailant’s knife pierced his diaphragm, punctured his left lung and broke one of his ribs. After suffering serious internal bleeding following a poor patch up job at the local clinic, he was taken to the main referral hospital in the country, Kenyatta Hospital, where he had to undergo major surgery, he is lucky to be alive with me today.
As a mother to a two-year-old boy, I was petrified at the scene I was witnessing right in front of me from the balcony of my home. I quickly dashed back into the house, hurriedly locked all the doors and windows, whispered a prayer as I rocked my son gently in my arms, while the muffled ghoulish chanting of the young men continued in the background, never fading, never moving on.
The caretaker from our block of flats delivered the bad news, telling us the youths from Kawangware, also armed with crude weapons were advancing towards our area and the group that had just passed in front of our block, were harassing motorists. It was not long before we started hearing gunshots and from the house we could see smoke filling the air and soon realised that houses were being torched. Screams and shouts, mixed in the air with the acrid smoke of burning buildings.
We switched on the television to see if we could get any information about what was happening, there was nothing yet. When I checked my social media platforms, there were tweets and posts from people reporting exactly what we feared. Youths from the differing communities were fighting and the police were trying to disperse them. There were running battles across Kawangware, all taking place less than a kilometre from our home. It was not long before the electricity went off and darkness enclosed the whole area. The fighting continued well into the night.
We slept, I'm not sure how, and for how long, or if we just laid there with our eyes wide open. After a seemingly peaceful Saturday and Sunday, we thought that the events of Friday evening were in the past and would be a one off event, but we were wrong.
On Monday, 30 October, at around 0010hrs, our sleep was rudely interrupted by startling sounds and loud murmurs that seemed to come from right below our second floor flat. Unlike the shouts and screams of Friday afternoon, this time the sounds were much closer. We peeked outside and the streetlight illuminated hundreds of young men armed with crude weapons, just like what we had seen on Friday. The chilling sound that had woken us up came from the young men scraping machetes against concrete and tarmac. They occasionally hit and banged the main gate to our apartment block as they chanted, leaving us frozen in fear. They did this for several hours before they moved on, but as soon as they did, my husband, said, we need to pack a few things and leave at first light.
The organisation I work for graciously offered us a safe place to stay, until things calmed down.
The Kenyan Catholic Church is a powerful voice, and leading up to and post these elections has continually called for calm, and peace: “God has given us only one country, our nation Kenya, and it is upon every Kenyan to stand firm and say no to everything that will take away from the peace,” the bishops said in October’s statement signed by Bishop Philip Anyolo, chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
More need to heed their words; I am a young Kenyan, 32 years of age, who has grown up with the promise of democracy and unity. I'm proud of my country, proud to be a Kenyan. I've benefited from Kenya's democracy and modernisation. The internet, technology and peace has made it an oasis in the middle of neighbouring countries wracked by war, civil strife and long-standing dictatorships. I have studied, made friends, played with and worked alongside individuals from most of the 44 tribes of our country.
When my family and I were going through a difficult time after my husband’s attack, it was many of my friends, from those different tribes, who would regularly check up on us. Much as we come from different tribal backgrounds, our ethnicity does not define our relationships. It is these simple acts of kindness, and care, that keeps my hope alive, that we are truly a united nation, and will remain so.
I do not want the horror of violence to define my destiny, or that of my nation. I would not want my country to be dubbed "yet another African Nation plagued by violence and tribalism".
Many, unfortunately not all, Kenyans have transcended from tribal allegiances and have come to the acknowledgement that beyond our tribal cocoons, we are all Kenyans. When Kenyans succeed in the international arena, it is not the tribe that celebrates the achievement of their kin, but all Kenyans celebrate.
It is only some politicians, who for their own selfish interests, stoke the fires of tribalism, especially during the elections season, to fulfil their insatiable hunger for power.
For now, my family and I are safe. Despite this, we wait with baited breath to see what happens next as the opposition continues to implement a resistance movement that, in their words, “…shall be responsible for implementing a vigorous positive political action programme that includes economic boycotts, peaceful processions, picketing and other legitimate protests.”
I pray that peace will prevail above all.
Nella Alseba is a Programme Administrator for a UK Charity CAFOD, based in Nairobi
Pics: 1: Blood gushes from a man's head on 30th October 2017 in Kawangware, Nairobi. There was sporadic violence across different places in Kenya following the announcementof President Uhuru Kenyatta as president following elections held on 26th October 2017. Opposition party, National Super Alliance, plans to swearin Raila Odinga as the "People's President on 31st January 2018. (Brian Inganga)
2: Supporters of Opposition leader stand near a bonfire lit on the road in Kawangware as they protested the annoncement of the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta after elections held on 26th October 2017. Opposition party, National Super Alliance, plans to swearin Raila Odinga as the "People's President on 31st January 2018. (Brian Inganga)
3: A young man charges into a residential court with a rock during protest held in Kawangware, Nairobi following the announcement of President Uhuru Kenyatta as president following elections held on 26th October 2017. Opposition party, National Super Alliance, plans to swearin Raila Odinga as the "People's President on 31st January 2018. (Brian Inganga)
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