Fear may change ethnic map of Kenya

Times Staff Writer

A month after mobs burned down his hardware store and chased his family into a squalid displacement camp, Joseph Kamau, 35, decided it was time to go home.

But he didn’t return to the city he’d fled, Nakuru, where he was born, married and owns 5 acres of land. Instead Kamau and his family resettled in his grandparents’ tribal homeland, known as Central province, where most fellow Kikuyu tribe members originated.

Until now, Kamau had never set foot in this part of Kenya. He has no family left here, no land and no job.

“But if you’re Kikuyu today, you must go to Central,” said Kamau, living in a tent at a Red Cross displacement camp in Limuru. “I don’t really think of it as my homeland, but at least it will be safe.”


Postelection violence in Kenya has calmed in recent weeks as political leaders attempt to forge a coalition government aimed at ending ethnic-based clashes that have killed 1,000 people and driven at least 350,000 from their homes.

But even with signs that a power-sharing agreement may be on the horizon, many Kenyans are refusing to return to the places they fled.

“Everything I worked for over 20 years was demolished in a few minutes,” Kamau said. “Am I going to go back, rebuild everything and then have the same thing happen all over again? It was too painful. I won’t go back. Never.”

Tens of thousands of people like Kamau are making cross-country treks to resettle in their ancestral homelands. The nationwide population reshuffle is threatening to spur a permanent ethnic remapping of Kenya, worsening the East African nation’s political divisions and creating regional fiefdoms.


Some worry that Kenya’s sudden shift from ethnic integration to self-imposed segregation is reminiscent of what happened in Somalia after the government collapsed in 1991 and millions of people reorganized into clan-based factions that have engaged in a 17-year civil war.

Experts say the social and political troubles raised by Kenya’s disputed Dec. 27 presidential election will only grow more difficult to solve if the country continues down a path of balkanization.

“It’s a major step backward [that] could tear the society apart,” said Per Engebak, regional director at UNICEF in Nairobi, the capital. “It’s inconceivable that this kind of segregation will bring reconciliation. On the contrary, it will just bring more upheaval.”

Resettlement so far is most pronounced among tribes affiliated with Kenya’s presidential rivals, President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo. In the traditional Kikuyu homeland of Central province, thousands of Luos have been evicted, fired and driven out. Likewise, in the Luo heartland of Nyanza province, scarcely a Kikuyu is left.


In some cases resettlers have largely exchanged lives, moving into the former homes of people who fled and taking their old jobs. On Kenya’s highways, trucks overloaded with sofas, cabinets, clothing and people whiz past one another in opposite directions, carrying people to new lives.

Most say they are searching for a safe place to start over. After witnessing horrific ethnic-based attacks in their former towns and often being betrayed by neighbors, many insist they cannot return and live as if nothing happened.

“The neighbors are my enemy,” said Martin Mule Waruru, a former bus conductor in Kakamega. He said his family’s compound was set ablaze by the next-door neighbor from a rival tribe. “That man is a criminal and should be prosecuted. How can I take my children back to live next to him?”

The migration is already pulling at Kenya’s social and economic fabric. In Nyanza, the influx of newcomers is spurring land disputes among families. In Central, a shortage of available land is raising questions about where people will settle. Population shifts have meant that some schools are now overcrowded, while others have closed because of a dearth of students.


Many of the displaced are moving into impoverished rural areas that were already grappling with drought, food shortages and unemployment.

“This is putting a stress on the people in the countryside,” said Rachel Arungah, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Special Programs, which is overseeing government humanitarian efforts to help the displaced.

Government officials say they are alarmed by the resettlement, but have been unable to stop it. They have resisted calls to help transport displaced families back to ancestral homes and established a $15-million fund for those who agree to return to the areas they fled and rebuild.

Nevertheless, Arungah said the vast majority of the 150,000 people who have left camps in recent weeks appeared to be returning to ancestral lands.


Kenya’s business owners say that is causing worker shortages. As many as 200,000 farmworkers have left their jobs, raising concerns about next season’s crops. In Naivasha, the heart of Kenya’s booming flower industry, about 3,000 workers abandoned their jobs and one farm shut down because of lack of staff.

Some of those returning to ancestral lands are encountering a frosty reception. Eunita Gombe, 42, a single mother of 13 who fled a Nairobi slum after seeing neighbors hacked to death, hoped to live on her parents’ land in Siaya, a rural district of western Kenya.

But when she arrived, relatives refused to greet her and she learned that most of the property had been sold by male cousins two years ago after her parents died and their house fell into disrepair.

She said she is a victim of tribal traditions, which prohibits women from inheriting land. “But I have no other place to go,” said Gombe, now living with her 13 children in a small room provided by a local church.


Neighbors there said they empathized with her plight, but expressed concern about the strain caused by newcomers on local resources, such as water. They report an increase in crime and diseases, such as malaria. Enrollment at one primary school soared from 50 students a classroom to more than 100.

“It’s causing us a lot of problems,” said Danstone Luseno, a schoolteacher who bought a parcel of Gombe’s family property.

Chronic unemployment in Nyanza is what drove Doris Awino, 30, and her husband to move away to Nakuru 10 years ago. Now the fruits of that hard work, including red velvet sofas, a dining table, a television and mattresses, are lying in the dirt as they await transportation back to a barren plot of land that lacks electricity, plumbing or a house.

“Before I turned on the faucet for water, but now I’ll have to carry it from the river,” Awino said. “The city is better, but we really don’t have a choice. Home is home.”


Kamau, like many Kikuyus, doesn’t own a plot in Central because much of the region is controlled by wealthy landowners, including President Kibaki’s political allies and the family of Kenya’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta. Experts say part of the reason Kenya’s elite have resisted efforts to resolve long-simmering land issues is because they fear it will focus attention on their own vast holdings.

Kamau’s land back in Nakuru is worth $20,000, but he can’t even visit it, much less sell it. He’s hoping the government will buy the property or provide compensation. In the meantime, he’s looking for work to build a new life.

Said Kamau, “It’s painful to go begging when you used to have things.”