We get up early and have a huge breakfast and leave the Golf Club. We hit the streets in the car and start looking for the International Office for Migration, the IOM, where we’re meeting Robert Odhiambo, field co-ordinator in Eldoret.
People, people everywhere in the streets, and traffic, chaotic traffic, cars and matatus and buses and lorries everywhere, everything in movement, everyone in movement – and it’s going to be like this all day long until dusk. I can’t help but to be fascinated by this chaos and energy – although, I think now, in London it’s the same, isn’t it, people and cars and buses and cabs everywhere all the time. Why, then, am I so fascinated by these Kenyan streets? Because there is something different, quite distinctive here. In London, when in the streets, people, and I, were on our way from A to B following the established lanes and stopping at the red light – and that was pretty much it. Whilst here it seems there’s no such simplicity as every person and every vehicle rush in every direction and compete against each other to get ahead on track, with no traffic signals nor traffic lights in sight. The only rule here seems to be there’s no rule and everything is allowed for you to find your way in the streets. And there is some strange and captivating harmony emerging from all this chaos.
We find the IOM estate and are allowed in. We park, in the garden there is like a storehouse full of building materials and some guys are loading a couple of vans with them. We are taken into Robert’s office. Robert is a young, tall, handsome Kenyan. He wears glasses and speaks calmly and smiles and laughs often. He is a charming guy. His office is quite simple, a big desk, a computer, several phones, many papers. We introduce ourselves and sit down and my friend tells Robert about his project and about our visit yesterday to the IDP camp.
And then Robert says – (See an update at the end of the text)
- That one is what we call a ‘supermarket camp’. Not many people do actually live there, they may have found casual or part-time jobs in town, they rent a place there and only go back to the camp when journalists [and he points at us] are going or when the government or NGOs are delivering food or giving them money. If you want to see a real IDP camp, go to Shalom City past Mawingo. It’s the biggest one in Kenya, 14,000 people, there is a humanitaria catastrophe there.
– There is a problem with the ‘dependency syndrome’, you give them food or money or any kind of aid and people become lazy and don’t want to work. Why would they? You are feeding them.
– The government was giving 25,000 shillings to every IDP household to get a new house. Ok, so what did these people do? A family receives the money, then they divorce and the woman applies for the money again as now she is a single mother, then she marries another guy and again they apply for the money as now they make a new household. And to this you have to add that many households here are made of the married couple and many children and maybe the grandparents and cousins and uncles. They organise and present themselves as to receive the money as many times as possible.
– There is a problem with the lack of data, we don’t know how many people there are, we can’t track them, how to track the movements? There are people who are not IDP and come here from Nairobi and claim they are IDP and ask for the money. Or we go to an IDP camp and people say they’ve just arrived in there and they ask for the money. How can we know who’s entitled and who’s not?
– I’m afraid of journalists, of your cynicism. I don’t like cameras.
– We are trying to do peace building, to give them a livelihood. They will have to live next to each other again, there’s no other way. But peace building takes time, it’s a very slow process that happens in a day-by-day business, people are psychologically traumatised, we try to support them. There’s a lot of bitterness, of anger. These people had everything, house, job, they lost it and now have to come back looking like beggars.
– And there is the IOM with our approach and there is the government with theirs and there is the World Food Program with theirs and we all try to do the same things in different ways.
– Don’t feed them, remind them how to feed themselves, give them incentives to work, help them to get back on track, but don’t just feed them or give them money.
– People in the ‘supermarket camps’, they come in the day the food is distributed and then go back to town to sell it. But people in the actual IDP camps, with nowhere else to go, what do they do? They have nothing, they do nothing, they just wait. And what do you do? Do you feed them? They become lazy, dependent. Do you give them money? The same. You have to push back them to life, you have to reintegrate them – but how? And where? They say they can’t go back, where do you take them?
– When the children grow up under the World Food Program, they are lost, they will always be dependent. Here we still have some time, these are young camps, they’ve been there for a year or so, we still can solve this, but we are running out of time and there are no resources, I honestly don’t know what is going to happen.
Robert introduces us to sister Makrina, who will take us to the church near Eldoret where dozens of people were burnt alive during the violence. She is big and has a friendly face and speaks softly and quietly. We thank Robert for his time and leave.
I feel cheated. ‘Supermarket camp’? They only pretend to live there? I don’t know what to think, what to believe. And hadn’t those IDP bought that land? The thing is, the camp was almost empty, there were almost no adults, the tents were closed, I couldn’t see the inside, I don’t know whether they were real ‘homes’. But what about the children? What about Josiah? What about the volunteers working there? Maybe it’s only the children and the elderly who stay and live there, while the men and the women try to get any job and to stay in town. And then show up at the camp when there they can get any money or food or anything. It could be. And the thing is, who could blame them if that’s the case? Wouldn’t you and I do the same if we were in that same situation?
We get in the car and sister guides us towards the church.
Robert being afraid of journalists, of our cynicism, his not liking cameras. Well, again, who can blame him? Journalism is a business, after all, and the epitome is broadcast journalism, where, if possible, everything is staged, controlled, framed and told in the way the journalist wants. The story is a product that you must be able to sell, it’s a commodity that will compete against others in the market, and so yours must look nicer or more interesting or more morbid than the others, must be easier to sell and buy than the others. This happens also in print but in a lesser scale and not in such a graphic way. But then the story gets out, then people can find out about the IDP camps, about the violence, about its victims, about the criminals. And in the case of TV, they can even see them. And in the case of TV, when you get to the camp, people take you more seriously. If you only have a notepad and a pen and claim to be a journalist, c’mon, that’s not serious, anyone can have a notepad and a pen, anyone can claim to be a journalist. But if you have a TV camera, ah, that’s different, that’s the real thing, then you are the real journalist, and everybody in the camp will surround you and look at you and your camera in awe, admiration, hostility – but they will all respect you.
Of course there are good and bad journalists and journalism, as there are good and bad people doing everything else under the sun. But we are the good journalists, we are the good guys, my friends and I, aren’t we. Of course we are cynical, how couldn’t we be, living in this world, having seen what we’ve seen. But we so are the good guys – or at least that’s what we like to believe.
We’re leaving Eldoret’s main streets and driving along rough roads among maze fields while sister keeps saying now to the right and then to the left.
Is this Robert’s approach, his pragmatism, the right one? Trying to count the people, trying to build the data, to track them. Taking for granted and double-guessing that the IDP will try to take advantage of their situation as victims. Not feeding them but trying to encourage them to work again, trying to convince them that they have to live next to their attackers. Is this trying to manage these people like in a strategy game, like in a video game, the right approach?
We are not far from the church, says sister.
And what about justice? Who should pay? Who should be declared guilty, the ones who incited the violence, the ones who actually did it, both? How should they pay, life in prison? How should the victims be given restitution? Where should the criminals be judged, in Kenya, in an international court? But how can the IOM pretend to make the victims live again next to those who attacked them? And yet there is no other way, or is there?
We get to the church, which it’s in Kiambaa, get out the car, my friend and sister drive backwards and then I shoot them arriving and getting out the car and walking in the churchyard.
There are 36 graves in the churchyard – but no one knows exactly how many people were in the church, the common estimate being about 50. Most crosses have the word ‘unknown’ written on them, as most bodies had been so badly burnt they were just unrecognisable. But some have the names, the birth date and the death date: 1/1/2008. Many are children, one as young as 1 year old.
Sister introduces us to a survivor of the violence. His then-pregnant wife and child were in the church and he rescued them just before being attacked himself and left there for dead. And now they keep living right next to where that happened, next to the graves of those who, unlike them, didn’t survive. My friend interviews him for his film and I wander around, take some pictures of his wife and little son, play for a while with a baby girl who’s sitting on the ground putting some beans in a bucket. I bow down next to her and she looks at me and gives me some beans with her tiny hands and points at the bucket and I put the beans inside the bucket and then I take some beans and she opens her hand and I give her the beans and she puts them in the bucket.
I go to the churchyard, sister is there. Sister is saying –
– Everything was political, planned. All the Kikuyu left, they had to, they were banned. Now they are back, they hold meetings secretly, people see them, people talk, people don’t know, people say the Kikuyu are being armed.
– There is going to be more violence when the next elections come up.
– After the violence the police came, took some people, put them in jail, they had to, they had to show they were doing something. But many of those people were innocent, were friends with the victims, the police took whoever they found. There is this one guy who was in jail and now has been released and comes here often to see his friends.
My friend finishes the interview, sister introduces us to another man, Joseph Kanyora, whose wife and youngest son were burnt in the church. He is a fumigator and is precisely fumigating the fields and the surrounding of the churchyard at this moment. He’s spraying a substance that kills the malaria mosquitoes. He is the one who, every time journalists come, tells them his story. My friend talks to him among the graves. What about having to live near and work right at where you were attacked and your wife and son were burnt alive? And what about telling your story again and again to journalists? What does that story become? But the man seems cheerful, he doesn’t stop smiling, he’s got 10 more children besides the one who was killed.
When we arrived there was almost nobody in sight but little by little people are gathering around us. They watch us from a respectful distance. We must be the highlight of the week or the month, or maybe just the highlight of the day and they will promptly forget us once we’re gone.
The sun is piercing me and there is so much light. It’s funny because it doesn’t feel that hot, though, but I can feel my skin burning on my face, my neck, my forearms. I am hot, tired, hungry, but I feel I don’t have the right to complain, no right to say I’m hot or I’m hungry. I think I’ll never again complain about being hungry or tired or hot and then I think – how long will I be able to maintain this kind of self-promise for?
Two young guys approach me. Hi, how are you? I’m fine, how are you? – I reply. They smile shyly and look down. Are you a journalist? Yes, I am. They smile and seem nervous. Our parents were killed and are buried there, they point towards the churchyard. I look at them, they look very different, they don’t look like brothers, now I don’t know whether to believe them or not, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to react. Wow, I finally say, but how are you now? Are you ok? I stupidly say. My friend has finished the interview and comes next to me, the guys introduce themselves to him. We don’t have anything, they say, we don’t know if tonight we’ll have dinner. We have to go, my friend says, we say bye, we say take care and off we go.
Everybody tells stories, are they all true? Have they put some make-up on them? How much do they want to impress us? We cannot write about or film all the stories anyway. Which one is more worth to tell? Which ones should be left out? And they wouldn’t make up these kind of stories, or would they?
And how to write about these stories avoiding all the worn-out clichés about Africa and its misery and its violence.
We’re going now to see a different side of the story, a place where the IOM is sponsoring the resettlement of some victims, helping them to build new houses – this is what all those building materials in their headquarters are for.
In some stretches the road is so awful, unpaved, so rough that I don’t understand how my friend’s car can make it. But the landscape, as usual, is beautiful as now we go through more cultivated fields.
Sister keeps saying the politicians were the instigators of the violence, and I do believe her, but why would the politicians do something like that, why would they draw their impoverished and miserable countrymen to that kind of violence, aren’t the politicians already rich and powerful enough, aren’t the people poor and miserable enough? It’s hard to imagine all that violence in this peaceful countryside, isn’t it, says my friend. It is indeed.
We pass along little road villages and groups of houses, there’s nothing to sit on, people are sitting on the ground or just lying on the ground and they always look at me, stare at me, follow me with their sight when we pass by.
We get to the place where this new house is being built. It’s a nice, quiet spot in between green fields. We find an amiable scene there, with relatives and friends watching how these guys build the adobe, little house. It’s a peaceful and calm picture. My friend films the builder putting up the adobe wall and then takes advantage of the moment to interview sister with the building house in the background.
I sit down in the middle of the scene, next to a girl who’s carrying a baby and in front of the grandma. I look at the guy whom the house is being built for, he is young and good-looking and keeps smiling and nodding at me every time I look at him. He is also mute and I wonder whether his tongue was cut off during the violence. He is lucky, though, he doesn’t seem to have any other scars and a new if humble house is being built for him in this nice spot. He is a victim who at least is receiving some compensation. But are all victims innocent? Does everybody just become innocent when turning into a victim? Do they deserve a complete credibility? What about the victims who try to take advantage of their situation? Well, they may have some right to do so, don’t they. But what point do they have that right until? How entitled are they to explode their situation? What about offenders or thieves or criminals who then become victims? Are they now innocent? What about a rapist or someone who used to beat his wife or his children? What about bullies or tormentors who have become victims?
Victims seem to develop like an aura of innocence around them, we feel awkward next to them, we don’t know what to do, what to say, we feel like if we owe them something, as we are lucky whilst they’ve been unlucky and we think that’s not completely fair. But how to do justice? What can we do for or give to the victims? And how to tell their story from a journalistic point if view?
My friend finishes the interview and off we go again, now back to the IOM to leave sister there. I ask him about the guy whom the house is being built for and my friend laughs and says that actually the guy was born deaf-mute and that I’m becoming paranoid.
Again the terrible roads, again sister’s complaints about the politicians, again the beautiful landscape, again the little villages and the people looking at me as we pass by. Again cow and sheep herds here and there. The cows and sheep we see along the road are eating all the time, eating and sleeping and that’s it – easy life. Do these people envy their cattle, their trouble-free life? Although at the end it’s the cows and sheep that are then eaten by these people.
After leaving sister at the IOM and thanking her for her time, we drive then all the way down to Naivasha in a few hours ride. The road is usually ok except for when we are diverted because there are works being carried on in the road. The diversions are terrible stretches of dirt and enormous potholes and it takes us so long to make them and we can’t wait to be back on the road.
Surrounding the lake there are huge flower fields and greenhouses and my friend drives around for me to see them. Every morning planes loaded with flowers fly from here to Europe. Thanks to it, people there can give some colour to their kitchens and living rooms with a fresh bouquet of flowers from the market.
We go to one of the many camping sites right off the lake, where in the distance we can see hippos bathing in the water. The camp is beautiful, so green, the vibes so relaxed, the bar so hip with its big, wooden tables, with its sofas and armchairs full of colourful pillows, with its candles and its cool atmosphere. We plant our tent, get a shower and go to the bar for some beers and then dinner. The drinks and the food are great if expensive, but we do enjoy them, we were so tired and thirsty and hungry. After dinner we stay at the bar for a while, my friend plays backgammon, I fall half-asleep lying on the couch. Then we go to our tent, make a fire and sit next to it and start chatting. After a while we get in the tent and in our sleeping bags and very shortly after we are sleeping.
(Want to see more pictures from this trip? Check them out on my Flickr set)
Update (10 July 2011). Robert Odhiambo, IOM field co-ordinator in Eldoret and who is mentioned in this post, has got back to me by email. He said:
I would like to mention that the blog came out as a misrepresentation of what we said. I would like to mention that all what I gave you was based on what was being discussed all over the town, and not what I personally believed. I know this is very belated but all I told you that day was more what everyone ( media, IDPs, politicians) were saying, and not what I believe in. For example, “the supermarket camps” was what the camp was being described by all and not what I termed it as.
I am right now in South Sudan and don’t have here my notebook from the trip narrated in this post and so I can’t double-check my own notes from back then right now. I will update it again the moment I go back to Kenya.