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A Kenyan in the U.S. Helps His Family Escape

A Kenyan boy carries a machete he found inside a burned-out market.
Yasuyoshi Chiba
AFP/Getty Images
A Kenyan boy carries a machete he found inside a burned-out market.

As the killing mounted in Kenya, Ken Okoth spent the last few days making desperate calls to his family in the Kibera slum of Nairobi.

Okoth grew up poor in Kibera, but he got out — first to an American university on scholarship, and then to a job teaching history in McLean, Va.

When mobs angry over the result of Kenya's disputed presidential election began burning shanties and killing members of rival tribes, Okoth knew it was time for his family to leave.

The idea was to get them to neighboring Tanzania, where they would board a bus and flee to safety.

"It's been very sad, but I'm happy to report we succeeded in getting seven members of my family out," Okoth says. They're staying in a hotel while they wait to see whether the situation in Kenya improves or spirals out of control.

Through the years, Okoth has kept close ties to the slum. He returns every summer on his vacation, and he runs an orphanage in Kibera called the Red Rose Nursery and Children's Centre. Now he fears for the children of the Red Rose Nursery.

"The school is safe, but the kids are not," he says. The students come from homes in the slum, where some of the worst violence has taken place. "Many of their families can't be tracked down," he says. He thinks some of them are living in camps for the displaced run by the Red Cross.

One of the worst acts of violence in recent days was the burning of a church where mothers and children had taken shelter. At least 50 people died when a mob torched the building and attacked the people inside with machetes. Okoth says that even if workers at his Red Rose Nursery had the means to care for a large group, it wouldn't be safe to gather there.

"We can't use the school as a sanctuary, because they'd be a target," he says. "Getting them to the school would just be asking for trouble."

The teacher says life in the slums of Kenya has historically been defined more by class than by ethnicity or tribal affiliation. Kibera is "a huge slum and the people are totally neglected by the government. Anyone who moves to the city and has no where to start, they start in the slum," he says. "They coexist regardless of their tribes. These are people who live on $2 a day, and they help each other out every day."

But after the weekend's disputed election, members of the Yuo tribe began attacking people from the Kikuyu tribe — whose own ranks started to retaliate. That conflict followed the tribal distinctions of the presidential race, with the Kikuyu incumbent Mwai Kibaki defeating Yuo opponent Raila Odinga.

Okoth describes the tribal fighting as unprecedented in Kenya. "This is very unfortunate," he says. "It's very shocking."

Okoth, a Luo, believes Odinga must now issue an unequivocal call for his supporters to stop lashing out. On Thursday, Odinga called off a "million man" march after police scattered demonstrators with tear gas and water cannons. Odinga has indeed urged his backers to remain peaceful — even as he continues to question the outcome of the election.

The politicians bear responsibility for the killing, Okoth says. "It's just the way the politicians have played the elections," he argues. "The poorest people who are being riled up to go out and ask for their rights — feeling they have no other way — have attacked innocent Kikuyu."

People living in the Kenyan slums have been trying to band together, Okoth says, though their efforts are scarcely noticed by the outside world. He says they've formed committees to work for peace.

"The people have shown great capacity for working and living together," he says. "They're not different from Americans. They're very generous to each other."

On our blog:

-- Ken Okoth writes about the Red Rose Nursery and Children's Centre.

-- Gallery: Kids Share a Haunting View of Kenya's Slums

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