Thursday, June 23, 2011

Storms and Stories

Sitting down to dinner last night we were met with many new faces in the dining room.  It's become routine to have groups of students from across the US & Canada drop in for a few days or weeks here and there.  Ironically, my classmate and I are the longest standing (non-6month+) residents in the house.  As we finished our dinners and began our nightly conversations (and the occasional "healthy debate") of politics, medicine, business and attempts to figure out how to solve the World's problems we were abruptly interrupted by the clanking of silverware against a glass in the center of the room.  One of the group leaders announced that she had arranged for a guest speaker that evening in the library.  We finished our dinners and huddled into the library to listen to our guest, Javan Odinga.  As our speaker entered the room we were met with flashes of lightning, claps of thunder and torrential rain ... perhaps a foreshadowing metaphor for the story which were about to hear.

Javan has had a long standing relationship with the IU House and has spent time as a guard, driver, courier and assistant in the hospital.  A stocky, well built man (we were recently informed that Javan is a bodybuilder and was runner-up as Mr. Kenya), Javan could not be a kinder and gentler human being.  Tonight's topic was the 2008 election in Kenya.  The election of 2008 was the launching pad for tribal conflict that led to the most violent month in Kenyan history, and Eldoret was the epicenter of these clashes.  Our guest explained to us that 2008 was the first year in which young people in Kenya came to the polls to express their interest in being a part of driving political change in the country.  The two primary candidates running for office were from opposing tribes … the current president, Mwai Kibaki (Kikuyu tribe) and the challenger Ralia Odinga (Kalenjin tribe).  Record numbers of Kenyans showed up at the polls to support Odinga in an effort to oust Kibaki from office. 

I won’t attempt to provide an in-depth play-by-play of the election itself (but would highly recommend reading articles …although many are skewed), but through a series of corrupt activities, Kibaki maintained his position.  Outraged at the election results, rioting erupted across the entire country … but no place became as intense as Eldoret.  Eldoret happens to be the city with the highest contingencies of both Kalenjin and Kikuyu in Kenya and there has been tension between the tribes dating back for a hundred years over land disputes and wealth … the election itself was not the cause of the clash but likely the straw that broke the camel’s back. 
Over the next few days and weeks thousands of Kenyans died.  What were once neighborhoods that housed people of both tribes became fighting grounds and many a Kenyan died at the hands of his neighbor and in many instances people that he/she once called a friend.  The feuding was fueled by mob mentality and financial support from radical leaders to employ locals to join their rampage.  Police and troops were barely able to contain the fighting.  It was not until elders from both tribes came to negotiations and truce that the violence ended …over a month later.
While there are very few people in this world that I can truly label a hero … I have no hesitation in stating that Javan is one of the most heroic individuals that I have ever had the chance to meet.  Javan single handedly was responsible for saving a dozen American lives and hundreds of Kenyan lives as he rescued individuals from certain death, transported groups through mob lines, escorted people to the airport and the list goes on.  What is most amazing is that Javan is a Kalenjin by birth and the vast majority of lives he saved were Kikuyu.  Putting himself at risk countless times and surviving seemingly impossible odds, I am happy to have had the chance to meet a true hero in person. 
While the “official” death count was only around a thousand … most witnesses believe that the actual number was closer to 10,000.  Now, Kikuyu and Kalenjin again live in similar neighborhoods and from an outside perspective there is little to no tension today.   It’s incomprehensible to me that a place such as Eldoret could have been the site of so much violence only 3 years ago.  While I know that this blog can in no way do justice to the story which I have heard this evening, and it saddens me to think that such violence is possible in such a seemingly peaceful place … I am happy to know that there are people like Javan willing to share their experience and advocate peace in Kenya.

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