Native Kenyans watch from Duluth while horror unfolds in their homeland

Duluth resident Joshua Chege is closely watching developments in Kenya, where fallout from the Dec. 27 presidential vote has fueled ethnic violence that has killed more than 500 people.

Duluth resident Joshua Chege is closely watching developments in Kenya, where fallout from the Dec. 27 presidential vote has fueled ethnic violence that has killed more than 500 people.

Two of those victims were related to the Kenyan native, who has lived in the United States for 11 years and recently became a U.S. citizen.

"Eight different families had their houses torched down," Chege said Tuesday. "One of my aunt's daughters lost two kids. There was a church that was burned down and they were in that church. They were young children."

Chege and other Twin Ports residents have been affected by the far-off violence.

Chege's family and others targeted by violence are mostly members of the Kikuyu ethnic group -- Kenya's largest with 22 percent of the nation's population. Kenya's first president was Kikuyu, as is the current president, and the ethnic group has largely dominated Kenyan government since independence. More than 40 ethnic groups comprise Kenya's population.


Much of the violence has happened in an area of Kenya that is considered the homeland of the Kalenjin -- the nation's fourth largest ethnic group with 12 percent of Kenya's population.

But large numbers of Kikuyu settled the area after Kenya achieved independence from Great Britain in 1963, buying farms from the British.

"The tribes have lived there almost 40 years together," Chege said. "The problem here is the politicians, those who are fighting for the leadership. I think they should have put the country above every personal interest."

Njoki Kamau, chairwoman of UMD's Women's Studies Department, said every ethnic group has stereotypes about others, feelings that politicians exploit.

"It's not like every day people live thinking 'I'm a Luhya, I'm a Kikuyu, I'm this, I'm that,' " the Kenyan native, a Kikuyu, said.

"Every election period, every five years, you are reminded you are different, because people want your vote," she said. "Every five years people are reminded of their ethnic differences."

Kamau believes that the problems in Kenya go beyond national politics or ethnic differences. The interests of international elites are in play in Kenya.

"Those people who are torching houses are just pawns in a game they don't understand," she said.


Chege, watching from afar, said someone had an agenda to cause problems, because violence began even before the elections.

"Kenyans are peaceable people," he said. "What happened was politicians causing problems. Someone has instigated all these problems because of personal agendas."

The violence touched Kamau's family, like it did Chege's.

Kamau's sister has lived and done business in the western Kenyan town of Kisii for more than 30 years and never had trouble. She and her family were the best of friends with their neighbors. Then the family's house was burned down and their business vandalized.

"Now they are homeless," Kamau said Wednesday. "Up to [Tuesday] they were in a police station. Now they have gone back home. They are trying to rebuild. She is working with the very same people who did whatever they did."

On Wednesday, President Mwai Kibaki made his first trip to a trouble spot, addressing more than 1,000 refugees in western Kenya, many of whom had fled blazing homes, pursued by rock-throwing mobs wielding machetes and bows and arrows.

"Do not be afraid. The government will protect you. Nobody is going to be chased from where they live," Kibaki said at a school transformed into a camp for the displaced in the corn-farming community of Burnt Forest. "Those who have been inciting people and brought this mayhem will be brought to justice."

Kibaki also assured the visiting African Union chairman Wednesday that he was ready for dialogue, although he has resisted outside mediation and the opposition insists it will not negotiate without it.


Raila Odinga, the country's opposition leader, rejected a presidential invitation for talks Tuesday, calling the offer "public relations gimmickry."

According to a Kenyan government Web site, Kibaki won 47 percent of the ballots cast, against Odinga's 44 percent.

However, even the chairman of the country's electoral commission has said he is not sure Kibaki won. The top American envoy to Africa, Jendayi Frazer, said this week that the vote count at the heart of the dispute was tampered with and both sides could have been involved.

Kenya is an ally in the U.S. war on terrorism and has turned over dozens of people to the United States and Ethiopia as suspected terrorists. The country allows American forces to operate from Kenyan bases and conducts joint exercises with U.S. troops in the region.

The United States also is a major donor to Kenya, long seen as a stable democracy in a region that includes war-ravaged Somalia and Sudan. Aid amounts to roughly $1 billion a year, according to U.S. Embassy spokesman T.J. Dowling.

STEVE KUCHERA can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5503 or by e-mail at . The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Steve Kuchera is a retired Duluth News Tribune photographer.
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