Kenyans rebuild lives after election violence

Although the post-election crisis in Kenya has ended, the impact of the brutal violence continues to be deeply felt.

"Communities that raised arms against each other are slowly reconciling," says Grace Ndugu, Catholic Relief Services' justice and peacebuilding manager in Kenya. "By working together, aid agencies, partners and the Kenyan government are helping affected people to rebuild their lives and a culture of peace."

Pursuing Peace

In early 2008, half a million people were driven from their homes and 1,000 were killed when disputed election results sparked fighting across the country. Kofi Annan mediated a coalition government in late February, but eight months later at least 140,000 people had yet to return to their homes.

CRS immediately began responding when the crisis erupted, initially working with affected dioceses to provide emergency food, water and essential household items to displaced families. Now CRS Kenya and diocesan partners are continuing to support affected communities by providing a complementary set of services to help families reconcile with neighbors, return home if desired and restart farming activities.

Through two projects funded by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the European Union, CRS is providing about $200 worth of vouchers each to more than 10,000 severely affected families. These vouchers are enabling Kenyans to purchase essential materials, such as farm tools and seeds, to get back on their feet. CRS is also undertaking a number of OFDA-funded water and sanitation projects to rehabilitate water sources and build community toilets.

In addition, CRS is supporting forums to bring disputing residents together to discuss issues. Diocesan peace and justice teams first hold discussions with members of each ethnic group involved in a conflict. The various ethnic groups are then brought together to discuss their differences in a safe arena and explore avenues for forgiveness and reconciliation.

CRS is also working with diocesan partners to provide counseling, workshops on sexual and gender-based violence, and sanitation training, all also funded by OFDA. These activities are helping residents to heal after the post-election violence and to improve community health.

Since the inception of these programs, dioceses are reporting a greater willingness among women to report rape and seek justice. A police officer in the Kitale diocese also stated that cases of domestic quarrels and spousal abuse have drastically decreased after counseling activities began. Many residents have thanked CRS and our partners for the counseling and educational workshops.

Helping Families Grow 'Critical Food'

Especially important due to the ongoing food crisis, CRS is helping Kenyan farmers return to their fields, supporting two large projects to assist more than 10,000 families. In October, in partnership with CAFOD (the Caritas agency of England and Wales), the diocese of Nakuru and the diocese of Kericho, CRS began helping 4,500 of these families to restart agricultural activities in the Rift Valley.

Each family-selected by their own communities based on displacement and other needs-receives about $200 worth of vouchers, funded by the European Union. The families then use the vouchers to purchase seeds, tools, fertilizer and small livestock from approved vendors, who in turn receive cash for the vouchers from CRS' diocesan partners.

"This project is not only helping thousands of families affected by the post-election violence in Kenya to grow critical food, but is also helping communities to reconcile," explains Massimo Altimari, emergency coordinator for CRS Kenya. "When we first started working with affected communities, tensions were quite high among disputing residents. Now they have come together to help identify beneficiaries and support project activities, helping them to resume normal relationships."

A Long Road to Reconciliation

Reconciliation is far from achieved, however. At the end of September, more than 12,650 people were still living in official camps for displaced families and more than 128,000 people were living in "transit sites" near their homesteads. These unofficial camps are close enough to let displaced farmers return to their fields each day to tend to crops while offering increased security at night for families still living in fear.

While some families are afraid of being driven away again by angry neighbors, other displaced people have different reasons for not returning home. Some are waiting until they receive the full amount of resettlement funds promised by the Kenyan government. Others who were previously renting are still seeking new apartments to rent at affordable prices from landlords who aren't taking advantage of the displacement.

Still others have moved to ancestral homelands where they feel safer, but family land isn't always available for resettlement, creating new tensions. In addition, some displaced families are pooling government resettlement funds to buy new land to settle safely on together-a solution that unfortunately may lead to greater community divisions in the future.

Acknowledging these ongoing issues, in early November 2008, the Catholic bishops of Kenya released a statement calling on all Kenyans to continue to work toward peace and reconciliation.

"The underlying reasons that drove the post-election violence are complicated and run deep throughout Kenyan society," Ndugu adds. "Resolving these issues will take considerable effort and time, but it is a hopeful sign to see communities talking and the coalition government taking initial steps to address unresolved issues."

Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer in East Africa based in Nairobi. She recently visited Rift Valley sites still deeply affected by the post-election violence.