Susan Thompson was in Western Kenya when Mwai Kibaki was sworn in as Kenya’s next president three days after its disputed December 27 election.
Within 10 minutes of the ceremony, she began to hear the gunshots.
“Most of Western Province where I was exploded in violence,” said Thompson who returned home to Whitehorse on Tuesday.
“It erupted extremely fast.
“Within 10 minutes the gunshots started — I heard gunshots straight away — and Kisumu, Kakamega … all that area started to burn.”
Thompson was in Kenya doing humanitarian work — mainly helping local fish farmers with money and technical advice.
At home, Thompson works for the Yukon government as a fisheries biologist.
She began working in Kenya in 2003 with a Canadian non-government organization, setting up scholarships for high school students.
Near the end of her trip, she was approached by some fish farmers who asked her to take a look at their ponds.
Thompson was unable to work with the farmers on that trip, but returned in December 2004.
“I saw the potential of the project and of using my skills to help with some of the problems they had,” she said.
“I’ve been going back and forth ever since.”
Thompson tries to spend two or three months in Kenya every year.
When she first started, the farmers were working individually and didn’t have the necessary skills and background.
They were having problems getting the fish to grow and with harvesting.
Thompson gave them all the technical advice they needed and some funds to get them started.
“When I first started in 2004, there was only a small group that I was working with,” she said.
“Now I’m working with four different community-based organizations and each organization has probably 40 to 50 farmers.”
Just one of these farmers harvested a pond last August.
The harvested fish were enough to feed the whole community and earned the farmer 8,000 shillings — about C$120.
“That’s a pretty good amount of money,” said Thompson.
“Especially in a country where many people are living on less than $1 a day.”
This particular farmer used the money to restock his pond and buy himself a cow.
Others invest in other things, like education for their children, food and home improvement.
Thompson loans money to the groups and buys pipes, fish and nets.
She also buys feed and donates it to the groups, which then distribute it to the individual farmers.
“I’m trying to get them to work together as a groups because sometimes you’re more successful as a group,” she said.
During the trip, she also bought sewing machines for a tailoring school and started a feeding program at a local school, which will feed 200 kids over the next three months.
On December 27, Kenya held its presidential election.
“It was very peaceful,” said Thompson.
“People were very excited about voting; people were very optimistic about a change.”
A lot of that optimism stemmed from Orange Democratic Movement candidate Raila Odinga, the main opposition against President Kibaki.
As the numbers began to come in, Odinga was winning in five of Kenya’s eight provinces and leading by three million votes.
He looked sure to win.
Within 12 hours all of this changed and Odinga lost by 200,000 votes.
“Rigging was very apparent, very obvious,” said Thompson.
“Election observers that were there that were friends of mine were very vocal that rigging had occurred.”
That’s when the normally peaceful nation of Kenya erupted in violence.
Much of the anger was directed against members of the Kikuyu tribe.
Kibaki is Kikuyu, which is the most populous ethnic group in Kenya.
As a result, other groups feel that the Kikuyus have an unfair amount of power.
In certain areas of Kenya, such as Western Province where Thompson was, a lot of the violence was aimed at the Kikuyu people.
“All their homes were burned and their businesses were burned,” said Thompson
“Every Kikuyu was either burned out or killed.”
All of the police and security in the province are Kikuyu.
Police violence quickly became a problem as they began to retaliate.
One of Thompson’s friends was badly beaten by police.
He and some others took refuge in Thompson’s apartment for a number of days when it was unsafe for them to return home.
It took a couple of weeks for the violence to die down and afterwards Thompson’s work became very difficult.
“Transportation was pretty well at a standstill for a couple of weeks and there were curfews,” she said.
“All of the farmers are in rural areas so it was difficult to get out to see them.”
When Thompson left, the country was still very much in shambles.
More than 600,000 people have been displaced as a result of the ethnic violence.
Peace talks are being led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
On Thursday, it was announced the government and opposition had agreed to write a new constitution.
Thompson is eager to get back to Kenya to continue her work next winter.
She plans to help set up a 10-day training program with a local community college, to teach fish farming.
In the meantime, she will continue to fundraise.
On this most recent trip, Thompson took $6,000, donated by the people of the Yukon.
“The support has been amazing,” she said.
“Every little bit helps; $10 can make a huge difference.”