Kiambaa slowly rising from the ashes amid suspicion and anxiety

Joseph Githuku, whose wife and son were killed in the Kiambaa Kenya Assemblies of God church fire, next to the grave of his son, Samuel Irungu, who together with the other victims of the inferno, was buried in the church compound. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Remarkably, amid the chilling narrations of how the post-election violence was carried out are heartwarming stories of true compassion.
  • The KAG church has been aggressive in this regard, encouraging people to talk about their feelings, but with enough tact to ensure that doing so does not cause the affected more pain..
  • It is difficult to get an accurate picture of what the people of Kiambaa feel about the termination of the ICC cases because they are reluctant to talk to journalists and “outsiders”.

With the termination of the cases against Deputy President William Ruto and journalist Joshua Sang at The Hague, the country seems to have all but forgotten about the 2007/2008 post-election violence.

Not so to the residents of Kiambaa Location in Eldoret. On January 1, 2008, 38 people who had taken refuge in the Kiambaa Assemblies of God Church during the post-election violence died when the church was set ablaze.

Last Thursday (May 14) marked eight years since their charred remains were buried.

The KAG church was little-known, until it was thrust into the limelight thanks to the heinous act.

The victims are buried in the three-quarter acre spot where the church stood.

The current pastor, Paul Karanja Maina, says people are reluctant to come to the church because of the graves, making it difficult for the church to facilitate reconciliation between the different communities.

“This is the only entrance and no one wants to step on their loved ones’ graves. The government has been promising us another piece of land, but it hasn’t so far, he says.

His predecessor, Pastor Stephen Mburu, who was seriously injured during the post-election violence, was moved to Huruma.

When Pastor Mburu tried to save his flock, he was given a beating that saw him hospitalised for more than a month and cost him some teeth.

The cleric, who moved to Kiambaa in 1994, also lost his home and other property since he lived in the church compound.

However, he says he has forgiven those who hurt him and killed his congregants.

“It is hard to forgive people who will never come to say ‘Sorry’ or ‘Here is the cow I took from you’,” he says.

He is skeptical about healing in Kiambaa but is reluctant to discuss the matter.

BEAUTIFUL SCENERY

Remarkably, the scenery in Kiambaa sharply contrasts with the horror stories associated with it. It is quiet, green, and the air fresh and clean. The people wave at you happily as you ride past on a boda boda.

A recent visit to the area shows signs of people struggling to move on. Piles of stones lying on the ground next to dug out foundations are clear signs that the villagers are striving to rebuild their lives.

The homesteads are separated by hedges, and stand about 300 metres apart. There are vast spaces which, were they to have horses, would be no different from some of the compounds in Nairobi’s upmarket Karen.

Yet scenic as it is, you soon notice something amiss: there are mud-walled houses bearing the tag of an international organisation that built them.

Interestingly, the conversations here seem to follow a set pattern. Almost everyone you talk to begins with platitudes like, “We are all Kenyans, brothers and sisters… Let us all continue preaching peace.”

Then their true feelings come out: “Every time I pass by those graves, I really miss my child, and it hurts a lot, but I have forgiven….”

They then end with on apprehensive note: “I hope this does not happen again…We can make this things work and heal, if only politicians would stop fuelling hatred.”

Remarkably, amid the chilling narrations of how the post-election violence was carried out are heartwarming stories of true compassion.

One cleric narrated how a young Kalenjin man risked his own life to save him: “Another church member and I were returning home after visiting a mutual friend. On the way back, we met Kalenjin youths we knew gathered by the road. My colleague and I parted ways. As I took the road to my home in Rehema Estate, I saw clouds of smoke billowing and the road blocked.”

After a pause he continues, “I saw a young man cycling towards me. I noticed that the rubber band on his carrier was loose and told him to fasten it.

He stopped and did so. He did it so slowly that I got agitated. When he was done, he offered to help to cross the roadblock. He told me to remain silent and when we reached the youths, who were armed with all manner of crude weapons, he spoke to them in Kalenjin in a pleading tone. As soon as I had passed the roadblock, he called a man on a motorbike and told him to get me out of there immediately.”

He pauses again then concludes: “You know, he stopped, called me ‘my brother’ and insisted that I get my family out of Rehema Estate.”

Then there is the story of a chief who knelt before an agitated crowd, pleading for the lives of the people in an estate behind him.”

TENTATIVE STEPS

At the moment, some Kalenjins are trying to reassure their Kikuyu neighbours of their safety by organising group meals, but their efforts that are sometimes met with fear and suspicion.

Perhaps it is this reaction that has prevented neighbours from helping Elizabeth Wangui, whose photo came to embody the pain in Kiambaa.

Speaking to DN2 in her mud-walled house, she complained of pain in her fingers — which were swollen — especially at the joints. However, she has not sought treatment because she has no money.

Her communication is disjointed, alternating between bouts of concentration and inaudible mumbling.

In her brief moments of concentration, she said, “Nowadays I go to any church because I am told about peace and love… This is not the way I used to be.”

She lives with her adopted son, Philip Kimunya, whose name keeps coming up in her speech, and whom she says is her only hope.

It is difficult to get an accurate picture of what the people of Kiambaa feel about the termination of the ICC cases because they are reluctant to talk to journalists and “outsiders”.

A Kalenjin police officer who cannot be named since he is not authorised to talk to the press said that while the termination of the cases might have interrupted a psychological process in Kiambaa, it did offer closure for some of the victims.

Kiambaa is predominantly a Kikuyu area, with most of its residents having migrated from Kiambu in the late ’70s. Known for their entrepreneurship, some had set up flourishing businesses, and some had intermarried with the Kalenjin.

However, an elderly Kalenjin said that Kiambaa was not spared the country’s Achilles heel: tribalism, which had been simmering beneath the surface, only waiting for a trigger.

“To tell the truth even those who have intermarried are not many,” he said.

It is no wonder then, that residents of Karuna — about two-and-a-half-kilometres from Kiambaa — Ngeria, and Kamuyu expressed fears about next year’s elections, saying that after the Kiambaa church fire, each community has tended to stick with its own.

The government has tried compensating the victims by giving them money and land, but some of them complain of government apathy, especially over DNA testing of the victims of the church inferno.

In February 2009, it was suggested that DNA tests be conducted on the victims to determine their identity.

In fact when, when Joseph Githuku — who lost his wife and son — and two officials of the victims’ organisation went to the government chemist in Nairobi to follow up on the results, they were told that no sample had been taken to the facility.

“Samples were taken more than five times, yet a year later, the results had not come”, he said.

In the midst of the gloom, Githuku did something that proved the first step towards healing.

“I went back to the church. As the wind blew, I saw a piece of my wife’s skirt that had been covered by dust … As I left the church, I started repeating to myself mentally that life had to go on, and that I had to find a way telling my children that their mother was not coming back, so I would take care of them,” he said.

HEALING EFFORTS

The sigh of relief — some obviously tinged with pain — following the termination of the Hague cases, is expressed more openly in Langas, a populated estate with a diverse socio-economic and ethnic profile.

John Kamau Mark, now the bishop of the KAG church in Uasin Gishu District, was in charge of the denomination’s churches in the location, stretching as far as Kiambaa.

“We were happy that the case against Ruto was terminated because we were wondering what would become of this place had things turned out differently,” he says.

One man who introduced himself simply as Lagat, said the post-election violence began in Langas.

After the clashes began, Bishop Kamau and his two colleagues, Paul Karanja Maina and Jackson Ng’ang’a, found themselves in a difficult situation, where they were standing in the middle of three communities.

“We have to be very careful about our choice of words when talking to the people because we have realised that the healing will take a while,” said Pastor Ng’ang’a,

The KAG church has been aggressive in this regard, encouraging people to talk about their feelings, but with enough tact to ensure that doing so does not cause the affected more pain..

Pastor Ng’ang’a said that stifling communication, as was done during the clashes, leaves room for propaganda.

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