News 2008


Kenya's helpless students traumatised by crisis

Tue 12 Feb 2008

By Michael Georgy

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Winnie Atieno is a typical Kenyan high school dropout these days. She loved maths and sciences and dreamt of becoming a doctor -- until the men with machetes came around.

The 14-year-old and her family fled to a makeshift camp like thousands of others fearing for their lives after ethnic bloodshed spilled out of a disputed Dec. 27 election.

Studies are the last thing on her mind.

"They tried to kill my father. They cut him," she said softly, as he pulled up his shirt sleeve to show a scar.

Kofi Annan, the former U.N. boss mediating between Kenya's political parties, aims to reach an agreement soon.

Even if he does, there is no relief in sight for families like Winnie's at the Jamhuri Showground.

Its soccer stadium and horse stables are now home to traumatised Kenyans unable to return to their slum dwellings which have been burned down, looted or occupied by members of rival tribes.

Most are Luos. Their children attended classes and played with Kikuyu friends before the disputed election.

Since then, more than 1,000 people have been killed and 300,000 uprooted in violence that has shattered Kenya's image as a stable democracy and a regional centre for business, tourism and transport.

Idle camp dwellers sat on hay stuffed into sacks beside mattresses and other meagre belongings collected in the mayhem.

They first sensed danger when they found leaflets on their homes warning them to leave or "suffer the consequences".

Some parents said they were convinced the bloodshed had been planned because teachers from rival tribes took their children's books away just before the carnage started.


They won't find school supplies at the sprawling fairground, which in better times hosts an annual trade show offering agricultural goods, cattle and horses.

Many are desperate to move to their ancestral homelands seeking safety within their own tribe.

"I don't have a job and I can't afford to take my family to my village. There is nothing I can do," former labourer Mark Ayoma said.

Moving himself, his children and those of relatives who died of AIDS would cost him 6,000 shillings, a relative fortune even when he had a job making 10,500 Kenyan shillings ($145) a month.

For now, all he can do is try to console his children. But hugs won't ease the uncertainty.

It's hard to tell the bloodshed has taken a heavy psychological toll on polite boys in neat uniforms listening to lectures at a Nairobi high school.

"Some of the students needed counselling," said acting deputy principal Mary Karanja. "One heard shooting near his home. For several days he was convinced he had been shot in the head. But he wasn't."

University students are also nervous. Francis and Victor sat around the nearly empty University of Nairobi wondering if they would get their engineering degrees anytime soon.

Ethnic strife may hurt Kenyans long after they graduate.

"My friends in my old school laughed at me because I did not have shoes on. I want to go to a new school, I don't want my old friends, and they hate me because I'm a Luo," said Celine Auma, a sixth-grade pupil.