Life in Kenya far from a bed of
February 12 2008
By Jack Kimball
Naivasha, Kenya - Past the greenhouses and fields of roses, a
chain fence surrounds rows of white tents.
In the lakeside town of Naivasha, flower farms - which make Kenya
the biggest supplier to Europe - are, as usual, in overdrive in
the run-up to Valentine's Day on Thursday.
But behind the fence live 1 000 refugees, and there is nothing
normal this year for Naivasha's army of flower-workers, still in
shock from an explosion of violence in their town.
Naivasha erupted into ethnic clashes at the end of January
Like some other parts of Kenya's Rift Valley, Naivasha erupted
into ethnic clashes at the end of January, as a post-election
dispute spread violence round the nation.
The dispute set Kikuyus of President Mwai Kibaki's community
against pro-opposition Luos and others from western Kenya who had
come to live and work in Naivasha. Many fled, but 1 000 mainly
Luos now live in this guarded camp set up by the Red Cross.
A green truck enters the compound as one worker, Stephen Owiso,
recounts how gangs burned his possessions and forced him, like
many friends, into the camp.
He sent his wife and three children away to their original home in
western Kenya. A van provided by the European company he works for
now ferries him to the farm each day.
"Many people from western province have left for safety, so the
number of people working has gone down," says Owiso, explaining
that the usual longer hours before Valentine's Day were now
extended even further.
"The little I get I send to my family," adds Owiso, one of about
30 000 workers in Kenya's flower sector which earned $700-million
The vicious fights in Naivasha saw Kikuyu gangs drive away Luos,
Luhyas and Kalenjins, and forced the army to fire rubber bullets
from helicopters to disperse mobs.
The violence was part of a revenge cycle that began after
opposition leader and Luo, Raila Odinga, rejected Kibaki's win.
A union of flower workers estimates as many as 3 000 people,
mainly Luos, have left the farms due to the violence.
Growers have been recruiting day workers to catch up with picking
for the Valentine's Day rush. Millions of flowers are cut each day,
sent in sealed and cooled containers to Nairobi airport, then
flown to Western florists and supermarkets.
This week, lines of labourers could be seen waiting outside some
of at least 50 flower farms in Naivasha.
"The workload for the remaining workers is too much," says Peter
Otieno, branch secretary of Kenya's Plantation and Agricultural
"Some farms are more affected than others. Those that have workers
living on company premises are better off."
The precision needed in the industry, which can move a rose bud
from the field to a shelf in Europe within 48 hours, means there
is little margin for error.
The Kenyan crisis, which has killed more than 1 000 people,
displaced 300 000 and spooked foreign investors, is the biggest
challenge Kenya's horticultural industry has faced.
But after initial panic, firms say the Naivasha flower business is
back on track.
For workers, however, it's a different story.
"I have no friends left," said one, Violet, lamenting the
departure of many former colleagues in the fields. "They had to
save their lives. Most were saying they would not come back."
- Reuters -