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Inside Kenya's Chaos: A European's Perspective

The world has been shocked by the rapid downward spiral Kenya has taken since the presidential elections in December. In the midst of the tribal violence, Europeans face a new reality in their adopted homeland.

Kenyans, mainly from the Luo tribe, one armed with a machete, enforce a makeshift roadblock in Kisumu, Kenya

While ethnic violence continues, Europeans fear any escalation which could involve them

Allan Duncan is an independent economic consultant from the UK who works for a number of international organizations in Kenya and neighboring Sudan. He and his family have been living in Kenya for the past eleven years and have witnessed both the country's long journey towards stability and its recent dramatic descent into violence and anarchy. He talked to DW-WORLD.DE about life inside the current Kenyan chaos.

DW-WORLD.DE: Before the current crisis, most Europeans saw Kenya as a relatively stable, progressive African nation with a booming tourism industry, and a higher standard of living than other countries on the continent. Was this a fair assessment?

Allan Duncan: Kenya went through a period of transition from the old regime of Daniel Arap Moi, the ex-president who handed over power in previous elections peacefully, to the Kabaki government, which has seen significant economic growth and prosperity within the country over the past five years. While there was still poverty and tensions, things on the whole were going well in the country -- new businesses were opening, employment had increased and the middle classes of the country where buying their Mercedes’ and BMWs. All of that changed after the elections of Dec. 27 last year.

In your opinion, was it purely the presidential election results which sparked the violence?

The riots and deaths that quickly became the daily routine in the west of the country around Kusumu, the main stronghold of the opposition presidential candidate, were portrayed as an ethnic fight between the Luo (the opposition) and the Kikuyu (the government). This, however, overly simplified what was actually going on at the time.

Electoral commission of Kenya Chairman Samuel Kivuitu (R) speaks with irate voters

The unrest began with voters enraged at the political process

Kenya has had a history of tribal favoritism in terms of distribution of resources and positions of power since independence. With the previous elections of 2002, the country had voted en masse for a change to this distribution and ethos of the prevailing powers in the country. Change did happen, although within quite a short period of time, the establishment quickly reverted to the cronyism and corruption of the previous regimes that they had promised to eradicate.

This was combined with a growing stranglehold on the means of production and political decision-making within Kenya. A resurgence of marginalization and poverty once again took root within the non-politically connected tribes fostering resentment and disaffection.

What was the immediate atmosphere before and after the election?

An election poster for President Mwai Kibaki

President Mwai Kibaki is accused of stealing the vote

With the lessons that people had learned from the 2002 elections, a growing ground swell of anti-government feeling began in the build-up to the 2007 elections. When the results of the election started coming in two days after the voting, the perception, whether right or wrong, was that the election had been stolen by the sitting government and the legitimate democratic voice of the country had not only been muffled but totally ignored.

Without a proper investigation into what happened during the elections and the vote tallying, which did have some serious and well-documented irregularities, it is impossible to know if the election was lost or stolen.

So, was the violence that followed the announcement of the election results rooted more in the distrust between ethnic groups rather than opposition supporters against government followers?

The violence that ensued in Kisumu and various other western Kenyan towns was more a reflection of the anger of people seeing that they were going to be ignored and pushed aside again for another five years more than any ethnic animosity towards Kikuyus themselves.

What is the situation now?

A Kenyan man sits in the cab of a destroyed truck used as a makeshift roadblock

The election violence is now fighting between tribes

Over the period of the past month, the situation has changed and we have been witnessing a growing Balkanization taking place, supported either implicitly or explicitly by the various political leaders of both sides. A growing resentment and violence towards the tribes rather than the political process has taken root with accelerating brutality and frequency of attacks taking place.

Are we in Europe seeing the full picture of what is going on in Kenya?

No matter what images you are seeing on the outside about the levels of violence and killings that are going on in Kenya at the moment, the reality is actually worse, far worse than it is portrayed. You don’t see the beheadings…you don’t hear the stories of people being buried alive. It’s much, much worse.

What is life like for you and the other expatriates who are living in Nairobi?

Luo supporters of Orange Democratic Movement of opposition leader Raila Odinda burn posters of Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya

Life in Nairobi continues as daily riots rage in its slums

Despite the brutality of the killings and chaos that is engulfing the country at the moment there is a very strange, almost dreamlike, calm within Nairobi with most people still going on about their normal lives. Although the violence and killings outside of Nairobi and within the slum areas of the city have been almost continuous since the end of 2007, only sporadic -- although extremely violent -- confrontations have spilled out onto the main areas of Nairobi over that time.

This has lead to the surreal events where friends have been having coffee in The Junction, one of Nairobi’s main shopping malls, and watching running battles outside of the gate between rioters and police with tear gas, clubs and machetes being used. Saying that, driving the children to school and trying to distract their attention away from the bodies lying at the side of the road from the previous days violence was not previously an everyday event.

Do you and your family, as white Europeans, feel under any threat at the moment?

A group of foreign tourists wait for departure at Mombasa International Airport, Kenya

Foreign tourists and expatriates are leaving Kenya

There hasn’t, as far as I know, been any violence or intimidation directed towards Europeans at the moment, but the situation remains precarious. Talking to a number of friends, they tell me that they have already bought tickets back home, have their bags packed and are ready to leave.

But there must be an increased level of danger?

The main danger for us is being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although we may not be specifically targeted at the moment, if you drive into a riot there may not be a whole lot of differentiation that either the rioters or the police may give. One of the major issues for us in Nairobi is the fact there are relatively few roads in and out of the city. If anything happens on these roads then you can become effectively trapped in one area unable to move until the situation changes.

My sons are still attending school, although rather sporadically at times, and were trapped at one end of the city during a riot while my wife and I where at the other end of the city, unable to get to them. Although they were fine and the situation resolved itself, the continuing uncertainty and immediacy of the violence here terrifies me. I fear for the safety of my children on the school trips every morning as they have to cross over what have effectively been the main flash points for the riots over the past month, every morning and evening.

How do you see your future in Kenya, and the future of Kenya itself?

Nuns carry a small child down the road during skirmishes between police and opposition supporters in Kisumu, Kenya

The possibility of a return to normal life dwindles fast

We have lived here for over eleven years and have bought land hoping to build a house that would be our home for the rest of our lives. Over the past month, all of that has changed with us wondering if this is even going to be our home next week.

A large number of our friends here, mostly from various parts of Europe or North America, have built lives and families here in Kenya, positively choosing to stay here because of the beauty of the country and the people. The Kenya that we had grown to love, respect and admire is gone. Hopefully the country and its people will pull back from the brink and we can once again see a future and life here in Kenya. But those hopes dim with every new killing and retreat into tribalism.

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