Whispering in Swahili - good neighbours in the Rift Valley

Two families found themselves caught up in post election violence in Moi's Bridge, an area between Eldoret and Kitale in western Kenya’s strife-hit Rift Valley Province. They told IRIN their stories.

The area is predominantly Kalenjin (an ethnic grouping including the Nandi, Marakwet, Pokot and others). But a significant Kikuyu population also lives there. According to the Kenya Red Cross Society and other sources, the violence in Rift Valley Province mainly pits members of the Kalenjin community against the Kikuyu, the tribe of controversially re-elected President Mwai Kibaki.

On the night of 29 December – the day before the election results were announced and promptly rejected by the opposition, the first attacks on Kikuyu houses and homesteads around Moi's Bridge began, according to residents of both ethnicities contacted by phone from Nairobi.

Jane* (*all names changed), a 38-year-old Kikuyu teacher, had lived in Moi's Bridge for 14 years. She says a Kalenjin mob broke down the gate of the school compound and looted her house as she fled with her three boys. "They were screaming," she said of the mob. They took everything "even beds", she added. Jane was taken in by Kalenjin family friends nearby who agreed to shelter her and the children. "We just ran away with the clothes we were wearing.”

Mary, 25, is a member of the family that took the risk of taking her neighbours in. "We look at them as human beings," she said. “The children had nothing to do with it... you look in their eyes - you start crying. It's affecting us all, from this tribe or that tribe.”

Staying hidden inside Mary's family house, everyone had to whisper. They did so in Swahili, a lingua franca in many parts of East Africa, but a second language for most Kenyan ethnic groups, each of which have their own mother tongue. If passers-by heard it being spoken aloud, said Jane, they would know there were “foreigners” in the house.

From Sunday (December 30), tension and pressure from the Kalenjin community increased, Mary said. She said patrols of Kalenjin men and boys as young as 12 were moving "like a mob" in the area. If they heard any language other than Kalenjin there would be questions - or worse, she said. "They have pangas [machetes] and these crude weapons... so you fear for your life.”

Realising that her hosts had "became scared by the threats", on Tuesday (1 January) Jane took her family away during a lull in the tension to stay with relatives in Kitale, a larger town about 40km away, from where she described her ordeal to IRIN.

Jane said: “It is not us who caused it [the election controversy]... not the common mwananchi [people]. I stayed with those people for 14 years... I heard even my students were involved [in raiding her house].” While grateful for the sanctuary granted by Mary and her family – “good people, I trust them” – Jane says she can never go back. “It's not possible.”

Fear of attacks and reprisals remains intense. "We sleep in turns,” Mary said, mentioning unconfirmed reports of nine killings on 2 January. “If the other community can find a way to get weapons, we are all dead."

Some people were sleeping outdoors and several Kikuyu families were sheltering with their possessions at the local police station, according to both Mary and Jane. Jane complained that police were rarely seen outside the station and were paid by business people to protect property stored at their post. Access to transport, shops and mobile phone credit are very limited, she said.

It was quite a "cosmopolitan" area before, said Mary, where children grew up in a mixed ethnic community, using Swahili and English among themselves. Jane says she blames political leaders, "I am not a politician... but it's now between the communities.”

Now Jane just wants “people to calm down”. As for any revenge: "Let God do it!”

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