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
“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
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.
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
“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 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
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.