“When I had to flee from home”
January 2008, Nangili, Kakamega county
I hail from Nangili, a once beautiful cosmopolitan village in western Kenya, 37km north of Eldoret. My parents bought land here in the early eighties and it is the only rural home I’ve known my entire life. Every December, for as long as I can remember, my siblings and I troop in from wherever the quest to earn a living keeps us all year long to enjoy time together in what has become a family tradition. December 2007 was no exception and we were all at this beautiful countryside for Christmas. This was an election year and therefore afforded us an extra public holiday in December to spend time with family. We enjoyed the festivities and were set to travel back to Nairobi on Saturday 29th so as to resume work on Monday.
This was no ordinary Christmas however and we soon realized that when we set off that Saturday. After barely an hour’s drive we came across a civilian manned roadblock and were forced to turn back. The youth manning the roadblock simply told us that no one would travel unless and until the election results were released. The roadblocks were apparently in protest of suspected malpractices in the tallying process. We expected the release of the results the same Saturday so there was no cause to panic. When no winner had been declared by midday on Sunday the situation started deteriorating rapidly. At that point we realized we were but hostages in our own country!
Later that Sunday the winner was declared but instead of relief and a return to normalcy, all hell broke loose. News of skirmishes, civil unrest and ethnic tension around the country came in fast and a blanket of fear engulfed this otherwise serene countryside in a jiffy.
As the day progressed on Monday I could see huge dark clouds of smoke rising from different directions. Houses were being torched and it was clear this was not a random exercise. The target was clearly communities considered not to be originally from the region and this we confirmed when a friend from one of these communities called to confirm that both their house and commercial premises were on fire. Luckily, they managed to get out of the house before it was burnt down, fled to Kitale and were later able to fly to Nairobi.
By the evening of New Year’s Eve, the entire region had been purged (that’s what they called it) of members of communities considered foreign and their property looted by the perpetrators. That is when the ballgame changed. The ethnic violence turned into a war of class and those deemed sympathizers of the expelled communities (in real sense it was anyone in the middle class and above) became targets. We received threats of imminent attacks and planned to make our exit to Nairobi the following morning.
Early Wednesday morning, we set off for Nairobi, eighteen of us in a convoy of four cars. Mum and one of my brothers opted not to travel for different reasons. We made it to Eldoret after clearing close to thirty unmanned (it was too early for them I guess) barricades. After taking a short break to fuel, we proceeded to use the Eldama Ravine road in order to avoid the highway. Approximately ten kilometers from town we ran into manned roadblocks this time round. We were able to pass the first two after letting the youth search our cars, see our identification documents and speak to us in a local dialect. We however couldn’t pass the third and were forced to turn back. As we approached town, mum called with good-bad news from Nangili. Youth had come home to ‘burn our cars’ and keep us from leaving as punishment for being sympathizers! The good was the cars were with us in Eldoret so they couldn’t cause any damage but the bad was we now couldn’t return home. The only home we knew!
With nowhere to go and four children with us, not to mention two expectant mothers, food became a priority as we weighed our options for accommodation. We stumbled upon a grocer on the way and were all too willing to buy the milk and bananas she was selling, as that was all that was on offer and it came at a premium. We then headed for a guesthouse where we were at least guaranteed accommodation but not food. Later that day we got an invite from a local pastor friend to cook and spend the night at his place. He lived in the church quarters of his church, a stone’s throw away from the guesthouse. At that point, the food situation in Eldoret and the country at large did not guarantee us a prolonged stay at our host’s residence.
For once in my short life I felt like there was no way out of this one. I must admit I asked many guys to pray for us but did very little praying myself. Strangely, since the situation was not as dire in some parts of the country, I felt like some people didn’t quite fathom my family’s predicament but I am glad they prayed nonetheless. This is because the circumstances that saw our extrication are uncommon. My brother called his employer, a leading telcom company, and explained to his boss why he wouldn’t make it to work any time soon. His boss then talked to a few people at work and a decision was made to rescue us as soon as possible.
Thursday came and we had no idea what kind of rescue plot was in the pipeline. Meanwhile, after weighing different options, my brother’s employer decided to evacuate us by air! That afternoon we were informed of this decision and asked if we could make it to the airport. Of course we could, even if it meant jogging there. Imagine the disbelief upon being told a plane had been chartered to evacuate us and was scheduled to land at Eldoret Airport in half an hour from then! Yes, they had chartered a plane!
The plane was at the airport at around 4:30pm and so were we. Don’t ask me what speeds we did that day but I believe the NTSA would have had something to say about it, had they been in existence. We left the cars parked at the airport as we literally ran for our lives. An hour later we were at Wilson Airport in Nairobi and didn’t have to ponder over our limited options for airport transfers (Uber came just the other day you know) as these guys had in addition chartered a bus to take us to our different residences across the city!
Mine is not as desperate a story as the well documented ones after the 2007/2008 PEV. And yes, unlike many I was able to return home after the dust settled in mid-2008. My prayer however, is that no one will ever have to flee from home for whatever reasons, and not in the least because of political unrest.