By Julia Heck
For years, I have been avidly interested in issues across the African continent including Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda. I’ve had a desire to perhaps go to Africa in the future and work with a relief organization. However, when I signed up for a Jan Term trip to Kenya, I had different intentions.
I was looking forward to a purely cultural experience and working to build upon a villages’ library. Only a few days prior to our intended departure, I was shocked to find out that our trip was cancelled due to unsafe conditions in Kenya. Our group, as well as faculty, parents and other students asked, “What in the world brought one of Africa’s most stable nations to conditions similar to Darfur, Sudan?”
On Tuesday February 26, Dr. Ochieng K’Olewe, who was supposed to lead the Jan Term class in his native Kenyan village, had a talk to answer these questions.
He began by saying, “The past explains the present.”
In order to understand the current conflict in Kenya, one must be familiarized with Kenya’s history. Prior to British rule, the 42 ethnic groups were dispersed throughout the country. Without borders, many traveled the land as nomads.
In 1895 when the British formed the Kenyan colony, they created problems that echo in Kenya’s current issues. They grouped ethnicities based upon similar dialects and formed boundaries creating resentment between ethnic groups. The main problems were the displacement of people who had never been concerned with boundaries and the British signing treaties.
Many groups formed a bitterness that was not erased after Kenya gained independence. Since 1963, there have only been three presidents elected in Kenya. Since independence the people have been on a quest for a more suitable leader.
In 2007, with Kibaki as president, many people were excited and optimistic for a change. They had high expectations for Raila Odinga to implement positive change in Kenya.
The results of the December 27 election came with great surprise and skepticism. The votes were believed to have been rigged. That ultimately caused violence to break out. Supporters of Kibaki and Odinga began to attack one another in brutal battles.
Jeffrey Gettleman from the New York Times said, “Kenya used to be considered one of the most stable nations in Africa known as an oasis of peace in a turbulent region.”
Since the election, over 1,000 Kenyans have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Sexual violence has been targeted towards women and children and entire villages have been torched.
K’Olewe said, “We used to be that model country; this has shattered that.”
Kenya has been a nation where refugees of neighboring countries have found security. Now 300,000 Kenyans have taken refuge in Uganda.
However, K’Olewe is optimistic for his homeland.
He said, “There is hope. I don’t think Kenyans will settle for what we used to.”
He proposed three goals to improve Kenya’s political future: implementing a constitution in order for powers to be shared, redistributing land and using the role of education to change future generations.
Kenyans saw hope on Friday, February 29 when Kibaki and Odinga agreed to share power with Odinga as prime minister.
However, Kenya still has a long way to go. On Monday March 3, thirteen people including six children were burned or hacked to death.
It is important to be aware of current issues around the world. You can always be active in some way. K’Olewe suggests writing letters to representatives and said that surprisingly it can make a difference.