18 March 2008
The older lady in this photo kept telling me (in Swahili) that she knew me. I kept responding "si jui wewe." (I don't know you.) She even said I'd been to her home. I found out later that she's one of Zadok's grandmothers. In fact, I did meet her quite some time ago!
I'm sitting against Ruth's kitchen. By the time this photo was taken, most of the 200 or so attendees to the funeral had left. The rest of us - mostly family members, besides myself - had a relaxing time chatting together as the sun was setting.
Nathan took this photo. I think I have such a huge smile on my face because I'm enjoying his attempts with my camera! ha!
I read all the horrendous headlines.
Immediately upon waking every morning, my thoughts involuntarily wondered what devastating news would greet me for the new day. Catch phrases repeated throughout one article after another: marauding youth, fracas, chaos, killing fields, IDP camps, mayhem, looting, and pillaging. All these terms became my daily fare.
I devoured the local newspapers, as if it was my daily bread. I viewed the slide shows on CNN, Voice of America, and BBC’s websites. I habitually listened to the news on the radio every morning and every evening, most especially BBC’s Focus on Africa and VoA’s Daybreak Africa and Africa News Tonight.
The topic on everyone’s lips was the ongoing “post-election violence”. Like others, after the initial days of virtual house arrest, I gradually got back to a somewhat normal daily routine. However, for a solid two months, the awfulness of what was happening was never far from my mind. A sense of despair hovered over me; the calamity had become my constant companion.
My heart ached for the victims of this national tragedy.
I was frustrated. I longed to get out of my neighborhood and its vicinity. I wanted to view what was going on with my own eyes. I wanted to get a sense of the reality of it, apart from what the media told me. I wanted to put a face on the catastrophe. I longed for it to be more real. I just wasn’t content to only hear and read about something that – for weeks – was the lead news item throughout the world.
But, I was torn. The highways were simply not safe for travel. Many parts of Nairobi were considered “no-go zones”. I was stuck in the bubble of Karen, tethered to this quiet, mostly upper-class suburb. Where I was, the birds still sang. I was far removed from the turmoil.
Last week my opportunity came; I traveled upcountry for the first time since Kenya had been ripped apart.
My, my, my! Now my eyes have seen.
What I witnessed through the windows of my Easy Coach bus, as I bumped along on the highway, was an assault to my eyes – the visual passageway to my heart.
Indeed, it was a very sad and sobering visual encounter.
I saw dozens and dozens of burned and demolished houses. Whether they were constructed of mud or brick, so many were completely knocked down and obliterated. Stone houses were reduced to mere shells. Grass-thatch roofs were now non-existent, burned in a matter of minutes like kindling.
I was very much taken aback by the images of such large scale destruction!
For miles and miles and miles, we drove by more of the same devastating scenery. In some areas, the devastation went on as far as the eye could see. Entire markets were eliminated. Whole neighborhoods were reduced to ruins. Complete villages had become nothing more than ashes.
Burned-out vehicles littered the road. There was lingering evidence of the many illegal roadblocks that hooligans had erected – large stones, cut trees, pieces of guardrail, etc. Our bus bounced over some remaining vestiges of the trenches that had been dug across the highways. Armed police officers were still manning various parts areas.
Sometimes, a lone building was left standing, while everything around it had been flattened and annihilated. Or a row of shops would have one or two gutted and the others would still be open for business as usual. It was obvious that the wild, angry frenzy had been very deliberate. The pent-up anger felt towards certain communities had been unleashed in a calculated manner. However, now from where will that lone shop draw customers? They’ve all fled or been murdered. The people that caused this extermination thought they were punishing only one community. Didn’t they know that even their own people would suffer the ramifications of their actions?
Indeed, didn’t they know that we would all suffer?
It’s almost planting season now. In anticipation of the long rains, many of the remaining farmers are burning off the leftovers of last year’s harvest. The sight of these current billowing columns of smoke, scattered across the countryside, caused me to wonder how much smoke might have filled the skies in those dark days of horror. I imagine the hopes of the helpless survivors vanished with the flames, their dreams and plans shattered by the terror they experienced.
It was hard to digest and absorb the enormity of it all. Parts of Kenya’s landscape now resemble a war zone. In fact, it had been a war zone – with such senseless carnage and bloodshed. The total killed in various parts of the country is estimated to be 1,000 men, women, and children.
The visual onslaught started just before we reached Nakuru and continued virtually all the way beyond Eldoret – a distance that takes over three hours to drive. One quiet, sleepy rural village after another had been forever scarred: Molo junction, Londiani, Tarakwa, Burnt Forest, Timboroa, Huruma, Soy, Nangili.
Seeing it on TV or reading about it in the newspapers simply did not have the same impact as viewing it through my own eyes. Seeing it myself allowed me to get a better sense of the scope and magnitude of the evil that had reared its ugly head.
The reality of the pain and suffering suddenly became very palpable.
I had wanted to see with my own eyes. Now, tears filled my eyes.
Another lady on the bus wiped her eyes with her leso. In fact, all of my fellow passengers were disturbed. Two ladies across the aisle from me went on and on in an animated discussion. The heads of a couple of men sitting in front of them continually went back and forth, looking out of both sides of the bus. Several people pointed to different sights, repeatedly clicking their tongues in disbelief.
Each one of us shook our heads in utter astonishment.
My mind grappled with the intensity of hatred and anger. How could one human being wreak such havoc on another – people that in a national sense were their brothers and sisters? These were people they had lived with and done business with for years. I tried to come to grips with the way people had behaved like animals, participating in such savage butchery.
One of the many things in Kenya that has always fascinated me is the beehive of activity of a marketplace. But now, instead of a beehive of activity, there’s a somber stillness.
Where are the hens, with eyes determinedly focused on the ground for some tidbit to consume, and a half-dozen chicks parading behind them? Where are the ever-present goats absent-mindedly milling around? Where are the usual ubiquitous clothes drying on the fences?
Where are all the occupants of those razed homes now?
Where are all the children, whose squeals of delight used to fill the air? Where are all the shopkeepers that once cheerfully sold bread, margarine, match boxes, maize flour, fresh tomatoes, and bananas? Where are the idling old men, discussing all the latest issues in the shade of a big tree? Where are the women, bent over from the hip as they sweep away the accumulated dirt outside their front doors? Where is the bicycle fundi and the roaming knife sharpener? Where are the strolling vendors hawking their wares?
The noisy busyness has been replaced with an eerie silence.
However, the crumbling walls of brick and mortar have recorded the screams and cries of frightened children. The cement foundations have forever captured the sound of gasping, last breaths of dying mothers and fathers. Perhaps the offensive smell of charred bodies still lingers in the mud floors. The stones will cry out for justice.
I simply cannot imagine the terror and fear the victims experienced during the mayhem. In my mind’s eye, though, I envision the look of alarm in the eyes of a mother. She has a nursing baby strapped to her back and spills a basin of dirty clothes as she hurriedly seeks safety. I picture a frightened teen girl grab her petrified younger sibling and a panic-stricken father clutch his sobbing toddlers as they flee. I imagine a wrinkled old lady, bent over from an already difficult life, struggle to rise up from the ground where she sat most of the day, in an attempt to escape the slaughter. I visualize a terrified old man hobbling along with his hand-carved cane supporting his frail, bony legs.
Did they succeed? Or did they become a part of the grim statistics?
Observing the rubble and ruin, I’m well aware that the psychological trauma will linger for years to come in the hearts and minds of those that did survive. Will they find it within their hearts to forgive their assailants?
Will the perpetrators ever fall to their knees and repent of their horrific deeds?
I wasn’t there when it all happened. I didn’t see the flames or the clouds of smoke that filled the skies during the rampages. I didn’t hear the hollering masses of raiders baying for blood. I didn’t hear the machetes being slammed down on one skull after another. My ears didn’t catch the whirring sound of an arrow as it flew towards its target of flesh. I didn’t witness any of the violent executions. I didn’t see the vultures circling overhead, nor did I smell the rotting corpses, left lying in ditches for days on end. I didn’t see the hurriedly-dug shallow graves.
During the weeks of pillaging, looting, and murdering I was removed from all the suffering and anguish in the safety of my house in Nairobi. I was geographically distant. For that, I am grateful.
But now, now my eyes have seen the aftermath.
Until I saw it myself, I couldn’t adequately grasp the enormity of what had taken place. No matter how informed I was via the media, I hadn’t really been able to get a handle on the excruciating magnitude of the horror.
I also witnessed another disturbing consequence, that of numerous sprawling and impromptu camps for IDPs. Such traumatized and homeless Kenyan citizens have become refugees inside their own country. It’s estimated there are 350,000 internally displaced people in Kenya. Another 12,000 crossed the border to Uganda. These aren’t just numbers.
They represent people, just like you and me.
The camps that I saw weren’t like the ones I’d seen on the internet. The ones I saw weren’t neatly arranged, with row upon row of clean white tents spread out in large open fields. Rather, the ones I saw contained crude shelters, squeezed into whatever tiny spot of land could be found. Most of the shelters were no higher than three or four feet tall and were only about 6x8 feet in size.
It did not appear to me to be a very humane way to live day after long-stretching day.
In several of the camps, new shelters are still being built, which is a bleak indication that people in many areas are still in distress and fearing for their safety.
Next to some of the tiny shelters sat a heap of household items, poorly covered with sheets of plastic. What will become of people’s things with the long rains due any day?
However, many are left with nothing, having fled with only the clothes on their back. Everything they owned went up in flames. In many cases, that includes important documents like national ID cards, land deeds, diplomas, and marriage and birth certificates. When one flees for his or her life, inevitably livestock were also left behind.
I saw relief agency vehicles and huge administrative tents emblazoned with such names as Doctors without Borders, US Aid, UNHCR, Save the Children, and Kenya Red Cross. At times, it was hard to believe I was still in Kenya.
One encouraging sight in the midst of all the devastation – and a tribute, I believe, to the enduring optimism of Kenyans – was that here and there people are beginning to rebuild. I saw new bricks being made and neatly stacked, ready for someone to purchase. I saw new timber being put up for framing new roofs on mud huts. I saw piles of sand, ready to be mixed into cement to build new walls. I saw a whole crew of men rebuilding a building with sheets of wood on a previously existing foundation.
I don’t really know how to conclude this story, except to repeat once again…
Now my eyes have seen.
My eyes have seen the depravity of mankind. Truly, the heart is deceitful above all things. Who can know it?
This is my house in the background.
This bougainvillea is much more brilliant in color in person.
You should come visit me to see it for yourself!