Sarah Clark/WORLD

Not giving up

Kenya | Violence has many of Kenya's faith-based ministries on hold but not hopeless

Issue: "The other campaign," Feb. 9, 2008

NAIROBI, Kenya- What would you do if your house were simply stolen? For many in Kenya, displaced by tribal clashes that began after contested presidential elections in December, the answer is simply to find another one.

That is what Anglican pastor Simon Peter Waiti had to do. Waiti's house in Kibera, a slum area of Nairobi where he ministered to needy children, was stolen when a member of the Luo tribe broke into the house during the onset of violence following the elections. Most Kibera homes are simple padlocked structures of timber and metal, and in the break-in Waiti lost most of his belongings: clothes, household items, and his brand-new college diploma. He has found a home in a calmer part of Nairobi to wait out the clashes. Four years ago, Waiti, known in Kibera as "Pastor Simon," never dreamed of living, working, or ministering in Kibera. Now he can only dream of returning.

Over a month after presidential elections allegedly handed power back to incumbent president Mwai Kibaki, Kenya's post-election violence has yet to subside. Having met police resistance in the larger towns and cities, gangs of boys burning and looting have turned their sights on the small towns and rural areas (see below).

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Rallies called by the opposition party followed by prayer services for those killed, over 850, have led to even more violence as gangs throughout the country set up roadblocks, engaged police in street fights, and continued to burn buildings.

After meeting with a negotiation team headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, opposition leader Raila Odinga, who has challenged the election results, called off yet another rally. On Jan. 24 Annan brought together for the first time Kabaki (a Kikuyu) and Odinga (a Luo) in an effort to end the violence and rebuild the government.

That could pave the way for Waiti's return to the slums. After years of living in Kibera and directing children's ministries at four of the slum's small Anglican churches, Waiti's ministry has a simple philosophy: "If you have to change Kibera, then invest in children and they will do it themselves." Before the elections he ran Sunday school classes and had scheduled weekday classes for children as well as parenting classes on discipline versus abuse, communication, and living in Kibera's crowded quarters, where water and electricity are nearly nonexistent, and communal at best. The election violence has changed all that, forcing him to indefinitely postpone classes and, like many church leaders and faith-based groups working in Kibera, rethink his mission.

Waiti, 28, has been warned by his friends not to enter Kibera for at least a month. They are afraid he will be beaten or killed. Such warnings have not dampened the spirit of a soft-spoken, diminutive man more likely before the unrest to be found jumping rope with Kibera's youngest children than playing soccer with its oldest. "I'll still keep on ministering to those children despite the fact that I will be a marked person. People know us, there are people in churches who betray us at times, and they hand you over to the hooligans. I'm not ready to quit because there are over 100 children looking unto what God has put in me and they are really in need. I'm not giving up. I'm heading for battle."

Kibera in many ways remains ground zero in the post-election violence. The largest of Kenya's informal settlements, known as slums, it has representatives from most of Kenya's major ethnic groups. Too many of its young men are idle, unemployed, easily stirred, and eager to show off their strength and to fight for any cause. The disputed election gave them an excuse to loot, burn, plunder, and fight not only other tribes but also the police.

It is the women and children from both communities who suffer the most. Many have fled their homes, taking refuge in a fairground outside Kibera, while those who remain struggle to find food and other necessities. The youths burned and looted many shops, homes, and churches, leaving the people to rely on aid from the Red Cross and NGOs.

For Colorado-based Compassion International, a child sponsorship ministry, all three of its projects in Kibera are crippled. Compassion assists over 890 children who come from all tribal backgrounds, according to country director Sidney Muisyo, and its facilities were burned and looted in the violence. Muisyo said the projects had accepted children from any tribe ("poverty does not discriminate") but now that tribal identity has become a volatile issue in Kibera, Compassion must reassess ways to address tribal sensitivities as it reopens its programs.


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