News 2008


Tears for Kenya: Violence in Kenya hits close to home

By Wally Kennedy


It has been difficult of late for Josie Mai, an art instructor at Missouri Southern State University, to not think about what was happening to members of her family in East Africa.

Her younger sister married Julius Were (pronounced where-ay), a native of Kenya, five years ago in Kansas City. Her sister, Sarah, is five months’ pregnant with her first child.

After the Dec. 27 presidential election in Kenya, the once peaceful country erupted in violence, pitting machete-wielding tribal members against one another. More than 1,000 Kenyans have died in the violence. Hundreds of thousands have been left homeless.

“We knew as a family that there was going to be trouble,” Mai said. “They are not a full-fledged democracy yet. The violence erupted because the election was rigged. We were hoping it would not affect our family.”

Her hope was dashed two weeks ago today, when Were’s older brother, Mugabe Melitus Were, was gunned down outside his home in a middle-class suburb of Nairobi. Mugabe Were was elected to the Kenyan Parliament during the disputed elections that kept Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, in power.

Were, a member of the Luo tribe, reportedly was the first politician to loose his life in the violence. The irony for the family is that Were was elected to Parliament because he was well-liked as an activist who founded an orphanage for children affected by HIV in the Nairobi slum of Dandora. He was not a violent person, said Mai.

Loved by Kenyans

“Kenyans loved him. He married a Kikuyu. He embodied the peacemaking between the tribes,” Mai said. “He was pulled out of his car by two thugs, and was shot several times in the eye and the heart, and died immediately.

“The crime scene was not protected. The police are corrupt. We heard very quickly through cell phones that this had happened. Whoever killed him hired the Mafia of Kenya, the Mungiki, to do it. They are basically part of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe.”

Were’s death made international headlines.

“The violence there is brutal,” Mai said. “They use machetes. People don’t have handguns. This is still completely surreal for me. I have taken travelers to that house from here. I cannot imagine the kind of conflict that is going on.

“I only know it as a peaceful place. It was an island of peace in Africa. Unlike Sudan, Darfur, Somalia and Rwanda, Kenya had managed to hold out, but not now.”

For her family and the 10,000-member Kenyan community in Kansas City, the reaction was complete shock. The family in Kansas City has received hundreds of telephone calls, and Kenyans have shown up at the family’s home to show their respect for the murdered leader.

Mai’s brother-in-law, Julius Were, now the oldest son in the family, assumed the duties of the oldest son in Kenyan culture and flew to Nairobi to make arrangements for his brother’s funeral service.

“We begged him not to go,” Mai said. “We told him, ‘You have family here, too.’ He was determined he was going because of cultural reasons. He was now responsible and had to take care of things there. He had to get Melitus’ body buried on their family land next to his mother.”

Julius Were, who is studying to be a social worker in Kansas City, also was to meet with the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, because the party has a stake in the funeral of Mugabe Were.

Soulfari Kenya

Mai said the violence does not bode well for the immediate future of Kenya and for a nonprofit organization, Soulfari Kenya, she founded to help orphaned and needy children in Nairobi. It was through Soulfari Kenya that her sister met Julius Were.

“What does this mean for this region of the world? That’s what we are all asking now,” she said. “How long will (an official) peace translate into peace in the streets? These are long-held tribal issues. That is what is bubbling up right now.”

Soulfari Kenya was planning another trip to Kenya this summer. A nursing student and a registered nurse were among those slated to go. Whether the trip will take place now is uncertain.

Mai found it difficult to keep teaching last week, but she overcame her grief by turning the moment into a teaching opportunity.

“I had a decision to make. I can talk about this or just go on with my day and get out of here,” she said. “I am not an emotions-on-your-sleeve type of person. But I decided this is a teachable moment. They need to know about this.

“I told them the situation and said: ‘You are going to be teachers in the classroom. How can you bring the world to your classroom? How can you get these Southwest Missouri kids who maybe have never even crossed state lines to care about another nation?’

“We talked about that, and they could see my connections with it. This school has an international mission. We need to live it out, not just talk about going to Europe for a couple of weeks to see the Louvre. This is it.

“I could watch in their faces how they were trying to wrap their heads around it. I told them: ‘You are at a university now. You have no excuses for ignorance. You have chosen to be educated, and this is part of your education.’”

Soulfari Kenya

Soulfari Kenya is a hands-on charity designed to educate and empower Africans and Americans. Service trips are the focus of the group. Members go to the East African country to help needy children in orphanages who have been affected by poverty and the HIV epidemic.

Jim Jackson, a biology instructor at Missouri Southern State University, and Brenda Jackson, an instructor in the theater department, were among the participants on a recent trip.