News 2008


A Block-by-Block Bid for Peace

As Kenya Erupted, Friends From Warring Tribes Faced Down Machetes to Restore Order

By Stephanie McCrummen

Washington Post Foreign Service

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

NAIROBI -- On one of the most violent days of Kenya's post-election crisis, Joseph Osodo's neighborhood -- a sprawling maze of lean-to kiosks, rusted metal roofs and pounded mud paths called Kibera -- had become an ethnic battleground with clearly drawn lines.

In Kibera's pro-government quarter, edgy young men roamed with machetes and bows and arrows; no one from opposition leader Raila Odinga's Luo ethnic group could go there, and 10 who tried were hacked to death.

A short walk away in Osodo's part of Kibera, an opposition stronghold, young Luo men half-drunk on local brew readied themselves with rocks and machetes and nail-studded sticks; anyone from President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu ethnic group setting foot there was as good as dead.

With the situation degenerating, Osodo, a Luo water vendor who has lived in Kibera for 35 years, sat inside a mud-walled cafe where he had often shared tea with Kikuyu neighbors who in all likelihood now wished to kill him. He thought about them, he said, wondering which would prevail -- the friendship, or the mob mentality taking hold. He thought in particular about his best friend and fellow businessman John Kyalo, who lived over in the pro-government section.

So in a choice he considered more necessary than courageous, Osodo decided to walk to see him, even if it meant facing down bloodthirsty mobs.

"I felt so ill and very bitter," he said. "That is what forced me to come out and try to stop it, to try to make peace. Someone said 'You will be killed,' and I said 'Then let me die.' "

Although Kibaki and Odinga officially reached a truce two weeks ago, people such as Osodo had lost patience with them weeks earlier. Even as former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan was brokering a political settlement over tea and cookies at a posh safari lodge, people in Kibera -- Africa's largest slum and a flash point of the post-election violence -- were forging their own kind of fragile peace, block by block and person by person, often at the risk of death.

If it is easy to find horror stories in Kibera, it is also possible to find Luos who hid Kikuyus in their houses, Kikuyus who kept Luos from being massacred, and so many small gestures of trust and urgent conversations between friends such as Osodo and Kyalo that countered a violent momentum taking hold.

It is possible to find the work of an artist who spent weeks painting slogans such as "Keep peace fellow Kenyans" across corrugated metal, burned-out ruins, kicked-down doors and even the white casts of a young man who broke both arms running from the police.

"I was really scared about the violence. People would ask me, 'Why are you writing about peace?' " said the artist, Solomon Muyundo, 31, who signs his work Solo 7. He kept painting anyway. He recalled one night coming across a mob that had beaten a Kikuyu boy he recognized. The boy had been stripped naked and was being doused with kerosene.

"They asked me for a match," Muyundo said. "I was saying 'No, don't kill this man,' " and in a panicked decision that he cannot fully explain, he kept painting, this time writing a message to the mob -- wacha, "leave" -- on the boy's skin. The young men ran off. In the violence of recent weeks, it has been relatively easy to count the dead, but more difficult to assess the collective impact of what did not happen because of quiet decisions such as Muyundo's.

It was afternoon when Osodo, a large man who is revered and probably also slightly feared around Kibera, decided to walk into a likely deathtrap to see his friend Kyalo, who is Kamba, a tribe assumed to have backed Kibaki.

At that point, Kibera had been on fire for weeks, with gangs of Luos burning down Kikuyu kiosks and businesses and Kikuyus taking their revenge.

Then came the murder of opposition legislator Mugabe Were, and Kibera sank to its lowest point since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election, with the rival sides literally facing off along their common borders.

"It was very dangerous," said Osodo, who nonetheless left his cafe and walked across a short concrete bridge over an open sewer into his friend's quarter, known as Laini Saba. Mobs taunted him. He responded: "If you kill me, there is nothing you can gain,' " he said.

Kyalo was in his house when he heard the shouts outside -- "Luo! Luo! Luo!" -- and opened the door.

"Can you imagine?" Kyalo said, still incredulous at seeing his friend on such a day. "There were people yelling at me, 'You're a traitor!' and I said, 'No, this is my friend for a long time.' And they said, 'This is not a time for friends.' "

Kyalo ushered Osodo inside. There the visitor suggested they call a meeting of local leaders from the two sides and that he and Kyalo should walk together through both areas in a show of unity.

"I had to trust him," Kyalo said. "He told me he could not protect me from the mobs, but that he would try to talk to them. I just took courage by the fact that he came to this side."

Amid flailing machetes and heckling, the two men walked through Laini Saba and into Osodo's area, Mashimoni, where they tried to find a place for the meeting. They inquired at a church, which flatly denied them. They went to the owner of a maternity clinic, who also refused. So they appealed directly to the clinic's caretaker, Frederick Nandie, who risked losing his job and possibly his life if he agreed.

"I saw the sacrifice of these two men coming here," Nandie said. "And I had to put my fear aside."

At 2 p.m. the next day, the two and 24 other community leaders convened around an unpainted wood table with blue plastic chairs, gangs from their respective neighborhoods rowdy with machetes and clubs just outside, ready to resume the bloodletting if things went badly.

"It was very tense," said Peter Nduva, who took minutes during the meeting. "People were out there with their weapons. It was no joke."

Like a shadow Kofi Annan, Kyalo acted as the mediator. He began the meeting by asking Osodo, on behalf of the Luo community, and the senior Kikuyu leader present to apologize to each other.

"They shook hands, and they each said they were sorry," Kyalo said. "We admitted that everyone is guilty. We did shameful things, which we really did not have to do."

As a sense of relief settled through the room, the leaders began sorting through the reasons they were fighting. Among the conclusions was that they were being used as proxies to serve the interests of Kibaki and Odinga, neither of whom had set foot in Kibera since the violence began.

Odinga's only gesture at that point had been to buy coffins for the dead.

The men denounced rumors that had been flying via text messages exposing alleged "informers."

As a kind of impromptu truth and reconciliation process extended into the afternoon, people on both sides assessed their feelings, Kyalo said. It wasn't always pretty, and the group decided that for now there was too much anger for Luos to return to Kikuyu areas and vice versa.

"We asked, 'How do you feel when you see a Kikuyu in your area?' " Kyalo said. "And the leaders would say, 'I feel very fine, but others don't.' "

"The fact on the ground is that as much as everyone wants to say it's normal, it's not normal. You can't wield a panga and then the next day be normal," he said, using a Swahili word for machete.

The leaders vowed to "preach peace" in their areas. Osodo began by stepping outside the clinic to address the young men there.

"I told them to put their pangas away," he said.

They didn't do it right away, he said. There were shouts of "Traitor!" and "We will not agree!" But somehow, slowly, temperatures cooled.

The next day, Osodo and Kyalo once again walked the mud paths of Laini Saba and Mashimoni, past burned-out markets, along railroad tracks where people had been hacked to death and up to a bus staging area still guarded by young men with bows and arrows and machetes.

"I told them, 'If you have an arrow, your customers are going to disappear,' " Osodo said.

In that way, a sense of sobriety began to reassert itself in one part of Kibera.

When Kibaki and Odinga announced their political agreement last week, there were no major celebrations in Kibera. Instead, there was the usual rhythm of life of a Thursday evening, of a thousand vendors at a thousand tiny kiosks selling heaps of tomatoes and roasted corn, of Swahili rap coming from painted barbershops and columns of people making their way home along the railroad tracks where Osodo and Kyalo had walked before them.

"Before Kibaki and Raila made peace, we made peace on the ground," Osodo said. "They called Kofi Annan, but me, I didn't call Annan. I called my brothers."