Kenya’s displaced people: a photo-essay

Anna Husarska
5 February 2008

Kenyan newspaper headlines

Anna Husarska is senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee Also by Anna Husarska in openDemocracy:

"Water problems in Somalia: a photo-essay" (9 October 2007)In Ukraine, peaceful demonstrations after contested elections in late 2004 forced the "winner" to organise a re-run in which his opponent was victorious. In Kenya, in the aftermath of the contested presidential election on 27 December 2007, neither the demonstrations were peaceful nor the police restrained. As a result, a country known as an oasis of stability in east Africa descended into an inferno. The newspapers carry headlines about "death", "violence" and "chaos", but inside they still offer a special insert on the African football cup, advertisements for Latin American TV soap operas and advice about "what to do when your child doesn't want to eat."


Burned-out tukul, Gituamba, Rift Valley

Upon arriving at Gituamba in the Rift Valley of western Kenya, we first smelled the smouldering wood, then we saw the telltale sight: a burned-out tukul, a typical African (once) thatched mud hut. Around the household the ground was strewn with dirty pieces of garment: the owners obviously had no time to pick up anything. Here are clothes without people; elsewhere there are people without clothes because the displaced fled as they were.

Five-year-old triplets Karen, Dorgas and Deborah, makeshift camp in the showground of the town of Kitale, Rift Valley

These triplets - Karen, Dorgas and Deborah - are 5 years old. Their mother, Jennifer, fled with the girls, while the father went to hide with the three older brothers at the neighbours' home. Later the family was reunited in the relative safety of a makeshift camp in the showground of Kitale, the provincial capital. When they escaped from their village in the Rift Valley it was burning; four people were shot and two hacked to death. They fled at 5 am, and Jennifer asked the girls to quickly put on their best clothes. But these cute white dresses may not be the most practical attire in their new life as displaced persons.


Displaced Kenyan woman from Gituamba, Rift Valley

This woman fled with her husband and four children from Gituamba after her brother was hacked to death and the hotel they owned was burned to the ground by another ethnic group. "They want our land and our lives, because we are from the wrong tribe and because we voted for [incumbent president Mwai] Kibaki" she said, and added that all those who voted for Kibaki in Gituamba had their houses razed. I went to her village. The first smouldering building I visited had a few possessions of former owners littering the mud floor: a poster in favour of opposition leader Raila Odinga caught my eye...


Internally displaced Kenyans wait for their name to be called to collect the meagre possessions of their new life

In the third week of the protests following the contested presidential elections in Kenya came a day of extraordinary lull. On 15 January 2008, from morning till late evening the parliament was voting for the speaker; the position eventually went to the opposition, in the figure of Kenneth Marende, by a margin of 105 to 101. All over Kenya one could follow on TV and radio the three rounds of voting, with the names of the MPs being called to deposit their ballot. The next day the violence resumed, and I found myself in the village of Endebess where a list of 420 families from the village of Kimondo was read out, so that the newly displaced could collect a bucket, a mosquito net, a blanket and a box with a standard set of kitchen utensils - the meagre possessions for the start of an uncertain future. The list was prepared the evening before; by the time the distribution was over, eighty more families had to be added to the list.


Young Kenyan girls at a church shelter in Kiminini, Rift Valley

In the post-electoral mayhem, as their villages in the Rift Valley and in the slums of Nairobi were burning, many people lost track of their family members. The Kenyan Red Cross tries to help, but nobody really has a full picture of the drama. Over one week in the Rift Valley we heard about many people who had been killed but did not seem to be part of the official death toll. The local churches offer makeshift shelter - like this one for orphans and "temporarily unaccompanied children" - and when humanitarian organisations distribute food, they use the existing facilities: churches, schools and police stations.


Women pick through a delivery of used clothes near Eldoret, Rift Valley

In the village of Muini, the 472 internally displaced families came from the region of Saboti. One humanitarian organisation brought sheeting for tents to be put up, but there were no poles and no ropes. The violence on the roads made any travel hazardous, and shops in neighbouring Eldoret were closed anyway, because that day police were shooting in the air and even lobbed teargas into the local hospital. Knowing that clothing was an urgent need we brought soap but although Muini had a water-tank installed, the water was not yet trucked in. A delivery of used clothes provided a temporary solution, but women were so desperate to grab something that they were kept in line with a whip so as not to create a stampede.

Internally displaced Kenyan men carrying salvaged possessions, Rift Valley

On the roads of the Rift Valley one sees trucks that carry the goods of those who fled because their house was in danger of burning or because their life was threatened. But off the beaten roads are those worse off, those who fled with nothing. The families of these three men fled, then the husbands gathered courage and went back to collect whatever was left of their burned-down household; one even borrowed a bicycle to transport a bigger bulk. They are now going to be sheltered in the showground of the provincial capital of Kitale.


Temporary tent shelters, showground of the town of Eldoret, Rift Valley

In a few locations of the Rift Valley, some displaced persons are given temporary shelter under tents made of white sheeting. One such place is the showground of the town of Eldoret (in this photo) which has a total displaced population of 10,000 persons. Another, in neighbouring Chiringani, has some 2,400 families and is known as Naigam, after the name of the primary school to which the displaced flocked. However when school started the displaced had to be moved from the school premises and a tent-town was set up. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is now in charge of water and sanitation in this camp.


Young Kenyan boy

On assignment for the IRC I have taken thousands of photos of children in sub-Saharan Africa where we work: in the camps of northern Uganda, among the displaced in Somalia, in the countryside of Rwanda and in the war-zones of DR Congo. Usually it is difficult to get a shot without a crowd of laughing faces forcing themselves into the frame. This boy saw me and my camera, but he did not acknowledge the presence of a musungu, or white person. He was angry and I prefer not to imagine what was going through his head.


Also in openDemocracy on Kenya's crisis of 2007-08:

Peter Kimani, "A past of power more than tribe in Kenya's turmoil" (2 January 2008)
Michael Holman, "Kenya: chaos and responsibility" (3 January 2008)
Gérard Prunier, "Kenya: roots of crisis" (7 January 2008)
Roger Southall, "South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)
Wanyama Masinde, "Kenya's trauma, and how to end it" (9 January 2008)
John Lonsdale, "Ethnicity, tribe, and state in Kenya" (17 January 2008)
Angelique Haugerud, "Kenya: spaces of hope" (23 January 2008)

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData