A Block-by-Block Bid for Peace
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
NAIROBI -- On one of the most violent days of Kenya's post-election crisis, Joseph Osodo's neighborhood -- a sprawling maze of lean-to kiosks, rusted metal roofs and pounded mud paths called Kibera -- had become an ethnic battleground with clearly drawn lines.
In Kibera's pro-government quarter, edgy young men roamed with machetes and bows and arrows; no one from opposition leader Raila Odinga's Luo ethnic group could go there, and 10 who tried were hacked to death.
A short walk away in Osodo's part of Kibera, an opposition stronghold, young Luo men half-drunk on local brew readied themselves with rocks and machetes and nail-studded sticks; anyone from President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu ethnic group setting foot there was as good as dead.
With the situation degenerating, Osodo, a Luo water vendor who has lived in Kibera for 35 years, sat inside a mud-walled cafe where he had often shared tea with Kikuyu neighbors who in all likelihood now wished to kill him. He thought about them, he said, wondering which would prevail -- the friendship, or the mob mentality taking hold. He thought in particular about his best friend and fellow businessman John Kyalo, who lived over in the pro-government section.
So in a choice he considered more necessary than courageous, Osodo decided to walk to see him, even if it meant facing down bloodthirsty mobs.
"I felt so ill and very bitter," he said. "That is what forced me to come out and try to stop it, to try to make peace. Someone said 'You will be killed,' and I said 'Then let me die.' "
Although Kibaki and Odinga officially reached a truce two weeks ago, people such as Osodo had lost patience with them weeks earlier. Even as former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan was brokering a political settlement over tea and cookies at a posh safari lodge, people in Kibera -- Africa's largest slum and a flash point of the post-election violence -- were forging their own kind of fragile peace, block by block and person by person, often at the risk of death.
If it is easy to find horror stories in Kibera, it is also possible to find Luos who hid Kikuyus in their houses, Kikuyus who kept Luos from being massacred, and so many small gestures of trust and urgent conversations between friends such as Osodo and Kyalo that countered a violent momentum taking hold.
It is possible to find the work of an artist who spent weeks painting slogans such as "Keep peace fellow Kenyans" across corrugated metal, burned-out ruins, kicked-down doors and even the white casts of a young man who broke both arms running from the police.
"I was really scared about the violence. People would ask me, 'Why are you writing about peace?' " said the artist, Solomon Muyundo, 31, who signs his work Solo 7. He kept painting anyway. He recalled one night coming across a mob that had beaten a Kikuyu boy he recognized. The boy had been stripped naked and was being doused with kerosene.
"They asked me for a match," Muyundo said. "I was saying 'No, don't kill this man,' " and in a panicked decision that he cannot fully explain, he kept painting, this time writing a message to the mob -- wacha, "leave" -- on the boy's skin. The young men ran off. In the violence of recent weeks, it has been relatively easy to count the dead, but more difficult to assess the collective impact of what did not happen because of quiet decisions such as Muyundo's.
It was afternoon when Osodo, a large man who is revered and probably also slightly feared around Kibera, decided to walk into a likely deathtrap to see his friend Kyalo, who is Kamba, a tribe assumed to have backed Kibaki.