friends or foes

On a lazy side street near the torched main drag here the people look as burnt as the buildings. As I approach two of them wasting time near a wall,…

On a lazy side street near the torched main drag here the people look as burnt as the buildings.

As I approach two of them wasting time near a wall, a thoughtless kid lights a trash fire in a gutter and we move to get away from the smoke.

“People are so scared because they know, maybe, it could happen again,” says Joel Waswa, a fat-lipped parking attendant with tickets he says he isn’t interested in writing anymore.

Waswa is talking of the thousand-strong mob that rolled through Kisumu like a carpet bomb after the election results were announced.

The group targeted buildings and businesses, destroying the ones owned by people from tribes that the dominant Luhya and Luos here wanted out.

Hundreds fled the city and at least dozens were killed.

Now, a week after the chaos, the smell of ash lingers as businesses everywhere lie in blackened heaps. It isn’t the buildings that reek the most, though. The ethnic undertones are what really stink.

“Our brothers and sisters are missing jobs. They are crying,” says the second man, a 40-year-old welder named Shem Ngoko with eyes so glazed they look like he hasn’t closed them in days. “I know they have promoted robbery and looting.”

He says this with an emphasis that catches me off guard. I had assumed they were friends, but realize they weren’t talking when I arrived.

Though I don’t want to, I ask what tribes the two are from.

“I’m Luo,” says Waswa.

“Kisii,” says Ngoko.

A month ago, the conversation could have continued on without interruption despite this information, but now things are different. Now, I’m a touch nervous.

Since President Mwai Kibaki and his cronies cynically — though, still, allegedly — rigged the election in their favour, which tribe you’re from has mattered more than anything in much of Kenya.

People angered by the result have targeted those from Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe. Or, sometimes, it’s just people looking for an excuse to take back land or property they consider theirs, thanks to the historical cycle of seizing birthrights and losing them here.

Other tribes, like the Kisii and the Akamba, have also seen neighbours and friends turn on them and send them running.

In the agricultural Rift Valley in western Kenya, where Kisumu is the main city, located on Lake Victoria, tens of thousands are squatting in displacement camps after harrowing flights on buses that smashed through vigilante roadblocks or long treks through unfriendly fields chased by kids with machetes.

Though the government’s count is around 600, countless thousands have probably died. During a visit to a morgue in a small town called Molo, the mortician said 47 people had arrived since it all started.

Do some quick math for the entire country and you get far more than 600 dead.

Now, every day, journalists assemble near the main park in Nairobi for a standoff between protesters and police, who fire tear gas at everyone, including us scribes, just to be jerks.

These numbers, stories and realities stare you in the face.

And every inter-tribal meeting of people, especially in rural areas or battlegrounds like Kisumu, has an edge to it.

As it is now, with Ngoko and Waswa.

There is a lull and I brace for difficulty.

“I’m feeling very bad,” says Ngoko, slicing the silence. “All my things were wiped out and now I’m looking for another town to settle in. I don’t think I can continue here. I’m hungry, because my property is gone, and I don’t even have money to take my things to my home village.”

Waswa can sense I’m thinking it strange that he might have been part of the mob, but is now talking to a person it was targeting.

“We are not angry with them,” he says, quickly. “We are just angry with the president. They just revenged on them to try to see if he would step down.

“If they are angry, they (the mobs) just come and worsen the situation,” he adds. “You realize after that you have done a bad thing.”

It isn’t clear whether this is a slip of the tongue or a bit of guilt coming out.

I ask, and he says he was at home during the riots.

Ngoko doesn’t seem phased. He continues talking about what he’s lost, and I realize both of them are speaking through me, letting the other know what it’s like for them now, but only through a safe barrier.

Ngoku tells me his daughters and wife fled with a police escort to live with his mother in Kisii, the small town south of Kisumu that is the base of his tribe by the same name.

He came to Kisumu 20 years ago and worked his way into wealth, owning a welding shop that was burned, along with his tools, he says.

A car drives by. Ngoko sticks his hand out for money but the driver ignores him.

“Can you help me?” he says to me. “I want to go to Canada. My mother has diabetes and I’m fearing she might die. I will not survive in this country.”

Sensing the moment is right — and realizing my pockets are empty — I say I have to go.

I shake their hands. After they’ve let go of mine they grab each other’s and shake as well.

“Are you guys friends,” I ask, hopefully.

“We are not friends,” says Waswa, “we are just looking how to be friends.”

Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.

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