Volunteer talks about political unrest in Kenya | SteamboatToday.com

Volunteer talks about political unrest in Kenya

Margaret Hair

— In the days following accusations of a rigged election, Narok, the city in Kenya where Mary Walker lived and volunteered, was relatively calm – during the day.

“I would say within three hours of when the election results were made public there was unrest, and certainly by dark things had gotten worse,” Walker said, back home in Routt County after spending two months volunteering in a safe house for teenage girls in Narok, a 50,000-person city in Kenya’s Masai region.

In the four or five days following the election results, everything in Narok shut down. Shops were closed. There wasn’t any gas. The hospital was a madhouse. During the day, the town was dead. At night, it erupted into burning storefronts and frustrated brutality.

“It was very unsettling; it was uncomfortable,” Walker said, describing her view of the turmoil from Tasaru Girls Rescue Center, about a mile outside of Narok.

“It was uncomfortable to go to bed at night hearing gunshots and smelling smoke and hearing about people being beheaded. But personally, I never felt threatened – there would have been no reason for someone to target me,” she said.

On Dec. 27, 2007, the people of Kenya, a then-functioning African democracy, cast their votes in a race between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga. On Dec. 30, results came in declaring Kibaki the winner. Within hours, ethnic tensions underlying each man’s campaign erupted into violence that has killed about 800 people and displaced 300,000 more.

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By Jan. 1, as the Associated Press reported that one of Africa’s most developed nations had tumbled into tear gas, police fire and ethnic warfare, Walker’s journal reflected her concern about how the violence would effect Tasaru, where she has worked since last summer.

The center shelters girls who have left their families to escape female genital mutilation. Although the practice is illegal in Kenya, Walker said circumcision is deeply entrenched in the culture of the Masai tribe, the ethnic majority in Narok.

In her journal, Walker wrote the girls were “going about their day seemingly as usual” despite deteriorating conditions.

“News around town not so good. Agnes (the director of Tasaru) told me the market was burned last night. Things are unsettled – no drivers in Narok, no petrol, no market,” she wrote.

As the shops stayed closed and the situation remained shaky, Walker expressed her concern about keeping up the shelter’s day-to-day operations.

“Concerned about food if this goes on : Agnes said they were shot at (getting supplies in town). Told girls this morning we must conserve everything. I hope girls respond to my demeanor, direct and serious but loving,” she wrote.

Although the violence settled after the first week, nationwide opposition protests provided a continued spark. Schools stayed closed, and Walker prolonged her stay in Narok. She tried to stay calm as Kikuyu people – a working class minority in Narok, and President Mwai Kibaki’s tribe – forcibly left town.

“The last few days that I was there, all you saw was just truckloads and truckloads of people leaving Narok – leaving because they had no choice,” Walker said. “Either they were going to lose their homes or they had no homes or they were in danger.”

Hitting home

Things were happening fast. The stress of a strange cultural environment and a strange language started to wear on her, Walker said.

“I’m becoming apprehensive, this is all so new and unfamiliar and unsettling,” she wrote as procuring food and water got harder and harder. “I do not want to worry the girls, but I’m finding it very difficult to not have a support system myself.

“I told the girls that I will be staying here until the situation is better. I have no illusions that things will not function just fine around here without me, but I like to think the girls get some sense of well-being with me here,” she wrote.

By the time Walker arrived stateside in late January, nationwide opposition protests had stopped and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was mediating talks between rival sides. Still, Kenya faces long-term damage, including a crippled tourism industry.

Walker, a Routt County resident since 1987, said she is scheduled to go back in March.

She said she feels fortunate to be at a point in her life where she can travel to Kenya three or four times a year to do the work she does, and believes stories like the ones of disenfranchisement and unrest in her second home have resonance with people here.

“It’s very easy to see a story, and think, ‘You know, this has nothing to do with me here in my little cocoon,'” she said.

“But when you realize there are people in communities like Steamboat who have connections, who have emotional connections, who have working relationships throughout the world – then maybe you do read a story and say, ‘Oh, maybe this really does matter.'”

– To reach Margaret Hair, call 871-4204

or e-mail mhair@steamboatpilot.com.