A Teenager’s memory of Post Election Violence 2007/2008 in Kenya

“Fight for your right to memory” — Catherine Amayi

A sample ballot box with Kenyan flag — Source : iStock images by Getty

Trigger Warning (TW) : The trauma of post-election violence may resurface in the course of this piece, please take caution as you read.

Kenyan citizens waited with bated breath for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to make final declarations of the 2022 general elections results. Registered voters were able to exercise their right to vote on 9th August, 2022 with the majority of polling stations closing by 5pm. The declaration of the presidential poll results was done on 15th August, 2022, 6 days later. Granted that the process of verification was reported by various sources as “slow”, Kenya has not had a good experience with delayed election results in the past election cycles. The build up of emotions was palpable from conversations people had on social media platforms, the memes shared on WhatsApp status, in — person conversations , people huddled around radios and youtube channels of various TV stations. All waiting for presidential results.

In the 2022 general elections, the presidential seat had 4 contestants namely : David Mwaure Waihiga(Agano Party),Prof. George Wajackoyah(Roots Party), Raila Odinga(Azimio Party) and William Ruto(United Democratic Alliance- UDA Party). In the 47 counties, gubernatorial , senator, members of national assembly and the member of county assembly (MCA) seats were hotly contested as well. Kenya has had the decentralized governance system that is 47 counties since 2013 as envisioned in the 2010 constitution. A decade later, that is 2 election cycles later ,the presidential races still elicit palpable emotions country wide, some taking the shape of regional preferences and others tribal.

The era of pre- 2010 Constitution of Kenya(CoK)

Kenya had been laying the groundwork for a new constitution since early 1990s to replace one that had been adopted post independence (the 1969 constitution). Amidst this journey, the political climate was heated and the first attempt at a draft in 2005 was thwarted at a referendum vote on 21st November, 2005. The main campaigners of the ‘NO’ vote in that year included one of the 2022 presidential candidates, Raila Odinga who at the time belonged to the liberal Democratic Party(LDP). I was 15 years old during that year, in high school. The school holidays were full of rallies with people saying “chungwa(orange)” “ndizi (banana)”. The two fruits would later become the symbols of the referendum vote, with orange representing NO and banana representing YES. Because of the nature of boarding schools in Kenya, active participation of these important events was limited to probably reading the newspaper from the library or a snippet of news on the entertainment day (if lucky). The only certain political stance I had was that the town my family had just moved into, Kisumu, was a firm supporter of the “Orange”/NO faction.

In the process of the referendum campaign , 9 people were reported to have died as the two factions clashed. The orange faction that won the 2005 referendum , later formed the political party called Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), a political party that exists to date. Members of this party were now termed as the official opposition which led to campaigns against the incumbent government led by the late President Mwai Kibaki. ODM, building on the success of the “NO” referendum campaign, led a spirited campaign with their presidential candidate , Raila Odinga in the 2007 general elections.

Yes and No images for 2005 referendum. Source : nation.africa website

Post Election 2007/2008 — Kisumu

The 2007 general elections were held on 27th December. The body charged with coordinating this exercise, the Electoral Commission of Kenya(ECK) led by Samuel Kivuitu declared the incumbent president ,Mwai Kibaki the winner of this election on 30th December, 2007. I had just completed my high school national exams , the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education(K.C.S.E) in November. All schools were closed for December holidays, therefore my siblings and I were all at home in Kisumu. We keenly followed the close race between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, as the media kept updating the latest tally. On the day the announcement was made to declare Mwai Kibaki the presidential winner, Kisumu town suddenly broke into protests. In hindsight, as a teenager who was a bit desensitized from tribal politics, I had not in any way envisioned the tension that was building up. I did not have overt experience of tribal differences but as everything unfolded, I began to pay attention.

From our house we could hear people shouting. We rushed to a nearby incomplete building, climbed to the first floor to get a better view of the happenings. A huge billowing, greyish smoke from different points in the horizon is all we could see from what we guessed was along Migosi road and around the Kondele area. We lived nearby. As smoke billowed, we could hear successive gunshots. In the TV stations, it was shown President Mwai Kibaki being sworn in, in what seemed like a hasty event at dusk. As this took place, the ODM leader, Raila Odinga issued statements that there was massive rigging and irregularities and he is rejecting the election results. It was a frenzy. My mum hurriedly rushed to the house and told us to stay indoors confirming that there were riots.

Segue: The experience of a president being hurriedly sworn in at dusk was what led to the regulation around the timing of the inauguration ceremonies. It has to be done between 10:00am and 2:00pm.

I remember thinking the unrest would be over by the next day and everything will be okay, after all it’s going to be NewYears eve. How naive I was! The next day seemed to be worse than the 30th with more reports of what had happened through the night of 30th; vandalism of property, police shooting protesters, protestors wielding machetes, power blackouts and much more. More riots were reported in various towns /areas around the country where ODM support was strong. Kisumu was no exception. Day in, day out, sounds of gunshots continued to dominate the air.

The post election violence, 2007/2008

I think about my death for the first time in my life — at 17 years.

We did not mark the new year in any celebratory way as was the norm. We marked it with fear. I had just been handed down my elder sister’s feature mobile phone which I used to text a friend from highschool. I recall texting her “if I happen to die in the middle of this, please make sure you undo my braids, they are dirty. Don’t bury me in them”. This was my attempt to camouflage a terrible situation with humour — a coping mechanism. At this point, the dates no longer mattered. We were way past the new year frenzy, the gunshots at night were relentless, there was minimal movement during the day. We stayed indoors every day and night. My mum’s sister would call my mum every now and then to check on us as she updates us on the ongoing events in Nairobi. My dad worked in a hospital out of town and he was immediately recalled to work as the situation was dire. More deaths were reported.

I contemplate tribe as an identity, for the first time — at 18 years

But something more worrying morphed in this situation. It seemed as though it was no longer about the electoral rigging. Conversations around tribes that voted a certain way began to emerge. It was the first time I began to truly think about my identity in terms of tribe. See, my mother is Kisii and my father is Luhya and up until 2007 December these two identities were not a key definition of who I was. It was alleged that in the 2007 general elections, the Kisii part of Nyanza province voted for Mwai Kibaki and were strong supporters of his party , the Party of National Unity(PNU). The unrest had now moved from police vs protestors, to protestors profiling homes, businesses of a particular tribe they viewed as “enemy”, vandalising and harming the owners. Our home became a target. Our neighbour, a university lecturer, was from the Luo tribe, who were among the presumed supporters of Raila Odinga. He alerted us of a plan to target us because of my mothers tribe. A group of young men would walk around the estate, identifying which houses they knew belonged to either a Kisii or Kikuyu. We lived in a largely unfinished house, with the basics installed such as windows, roof and a decent floor. Mr. O , pretended to be an angry young protestor and walked with this group throughout the estate. When they got to our house, he was the loudest saying “ the owner of this house actually went home to vote and is still there. In fact she actually comes from the border of Kisii and Luo, in Sondu” can’t you see her house is not even complete, there is nothing in there”. With that, he managed to ward them off our home. At that moment we were hiding in our toilet and bathroom, sitting quietly to avoid being heard. I was so scared that one day these “checks” would be a real attack. We all were. We survived through January, 2008 with bare minimum supplies, majorly what we had shopped for the Christmas festivities. On that front , we were privileged. The reports of people going hungry by the day was a constant reminder of that small blessing. To replenish supplies, the women would gather together , and walk to a far flung market where things seemed calmer. A market called Wathorego. They would come back with supplies and share among their families. My younger sister went to school 1 month later. The youngest siblings were in a day school, they would go on days things seemed calm, other days they would come back home earlier. Everything was volatile and unpredictable!

Tribal profiling

As things seemed to be calming down nationally , we began to walk around a bit more, the farthest being to the neighbours about a 5 minute walk. This one time, my mum needed us to tend to the bush around the house. She sent me to go get a panga (small machete) from the neighbour. I walked there and picked it and immediately walked back home. On my way home, a man whom I had never seen said “ nyarokuyo anapenda panga”. This loosely translated means this kikuyu lady likes holding a machete. On a normal day, this commentary could pass as banter. But this was not banter. This commentary was happening at the backdrop of people being evicted from their homes in parts of Riftvalley province for being kikuyu in a “wrong region”. Even more horrific was a church near Eldoret town, in the Kiambaa area was burnt to the ground with people from the Kikuyu tribe inside who had sought refuge during the ongoing violence. We had listened to news about all these events, so this commentary was not merely banter. I was horrified.

This profiling became more obvious to me and my family and more stories started to go around. Our neighbour, a luo, was of fairer skin, she was accosted by the young men and told to prove she is indeed luo by speaking dholuo. A family in the neary estate had a surname that sounded Kikuyu. Again they were accosted, their daughters threatened with rape and asked to speak in dholuo to prove their identity. These stories have never left my mind. In 2011 when a friend suggested I talk to a University student, conducting research regarding my experience of friendship amidst the violence I pondered more on the question of tribe. “What if in the next political alliance luhyas will be on the “receiving end”? Will I have to speak perfectly in ekegusii so that I can avoid being profiled?” It seemed to me at the time, that political alliances along tribal identities, can render thousands homeless and livelihoods destroyed on a whim as was the case in PEV 2007/08.

How different did I see myself

I am not afraid to admit it to myself : I experienced the horror of post-election violence 2007/08

I now know that not processing an experience with the help of a counselling psychologist or just being allowed room to speak about it, lives in one’s subconscious mind. It then shows up in different actions when presented with similar events. For example, I enjoyed learning dholuo words, but suddenly I just stopped. I didn’t know about it until later in my mid 20s. I was paralysed by fear in subsequent elections , in the 2010 constitutional referendum, 2013 , 2017 and 2022 general elections. I always expected something major to happen and I would sit tight, clenched jaws , scrolling social media, avoiding being anywhere in Kisumu just to escape the experience of 2007/08. I hesitated to say I come from Kisumu, because did I really belong there? My parents changed their polling station to their rural home and with subsequent elections, they would ensure they are not anywhere near Kisumu. Whenever you talked of investment, they were very cynical about envisioning our lives permanently in Kisumu. It could all go away in 5 years! Our lives have changed in small ways and big ways since that experience.

What is in the future ?

An image of Candles
Candles. Source : Unsplash

Hope is a discipline — Mariame Kaba

As I write this, 3 months after the 2022 general elections, I wonder how different our politics is? Did the 2010 constitution live up to its expectation? Has it provided avenues for the victims to experience justice? I am well in my 30s now and I don’t remember feeling any different in 2017. Were the conversations vastly different in 2022? Is tribal politics still taking centre stage with each passing presidential election? Amidst all these questions, I stay hopeful that my pursuit of peace from this memory is attainable. Fighting for my right to memory, is documenting these experiences in order to track our progress as a nation and to remind ourselves of what remains unsolved, the injustices experienced. Fighting for my right to memory is seeking healing from the trauma my family and I went through. Fighting for my right to memory, is to experience freedom in how I engage politically in my country without the burden of fear that I belong to the “wrong tribe”. Fighting for my right to memory is to honour those souls that lost their lives through senseless killings.

May those who perished ,rest in peace. May those who to date, carry the emotional scars of the trauma they experienced in post election violence find peace. May a semblance of justice for the victims of post election violence be experienced in my lifetime.

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Winnie Rabera

Educator|| Social and internet Justice enthusiast||Multidisciplinary scholar||- Currently churning out knowledge in occupational health|| Mozilla contributor.