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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Kenya, intertribal marriages fall victim to election violence

He never calls. He never writes. His phone has been switched off for weeks. After 17 years, Naomi Kering's husband is gone, one more inter-ethnic marriage strained by the tribal violence that has followed Kenya's disastrous presidential election.

In the riots and ethnic violence following the December 27 vote, love has not been immune. Marriages that united different ethnic groups are now splitting up as communities shun the Kikuyu tribe of President Mwai Kibaki, whose disputed re-election unleashed a wave of bloodshed that has killed at least 685 people. "The kids always ask me, 'Where is he?' And I always say he is going to come back," Kering, a 34-year-old Kalenjin, said as she stood in the burned-out rubble of her home, which a mob torched last month because her husband is a Kikuyu. "But I hope he stays away, because I love him and I want him to be safe."

The ethnic unrest following Kibaki's re-election has torn at the fabric of Kenyan society, forcing families to confront tribal identities many had long ago cast aside. And while relationship troubles may sound frivolous when stacked up against the bloodshed, marriages like Kering's had represented hope for what Kenya could be as a nation. The breakups are a sign of the deep and abiding toll of the election's violent aftermath. "This election has changed the very essence of these marriages," said the Rev. Charles Kirui, a Catholic priest in the nearby town of Burnt Forest, where hundreds of Kikuyus took shelter in his church. "Marriages are breaking up because of a tribal conflict, which means we really have a problem in Kenya."

There are no figures on how many marriages and relationships are ending because of tribal strife, although deepening ethnic divisions are ravaging the society, particularly in the heart of opposition territory in western Kenya. Tribal tensions are not new here, although the election has sparked the most bitter -- and, some fear, lasting -- hatreds yet in a country once seen as a stable democracy on a violent continent. After independence in 1963, then-President Jomo Kenyatta flooded this region, native to the Kalenjin and Luo tribes, with his Kikuyu people. The Kikuyu settlers quickly prospered, growing into the most powerful of Kenya's 42 ethnic groups, running businesses and politics. But favoritism shown to Kikuyus fueled old resentments.

Some of the worst clashes since the election have pitted Kikuyus against the Kalenjin.
Kering said she never imagined the bloodshed would jeopardize her marriage to Isaac Guthua. The couple fell in love more than 15 years ago, when he would stop by the beauty salon where she worked nearly every day just for a glance of her. On the night the election results were announced, however, Guthua said he could not stay. Kikuyus were being hunted down and slaughtered. As Kering cooked dinner and Guthua watched the news, they heard screams in the distance; a mob was coming for Guthua and other Kikuyus, including his two brothers who lived next door with their Kalenjin wives. "We came out of the house and saw people with torches," Kering said. "They burned our house."

Guthua, knowing she would be spared because she is not Kikuyu, told his wife to take care of the children, aged 17, 15 and 8. Then he took off at a run with his brothers, Steven and Mwangi. The three have not been home since, and their wives say the marriages are over, their husbands too terrified to return. "We never had a problem before this election," said Kering's sister-in-law and neighbor, 27-year-old Eunice Kinyanjui, who is pregnant with her second child with Steven Guthua. "We lived happily in our family until this disaster." The women are too scared join their husbands, wherever they are, because of the hatred Kikuyus face. They have decided to stay behind and face an unsympathetic community.

"The people here, they say, 'Who told you to intermarry?'" Kinyanjui said, adding that they have not been targeted for violence, only shunned. "We are now useless to the community, they don't talk to us, anything." Kemei Gilbert, 18, a Kalenjin who was manning a roadblock in the area, said the women deserved no sympathy. "These women are not our problem," Gilbert said. "In Africa, when a woman marries, she belongs to that community." Kering and Kinyanjui both say they are confident their husbands are alive. Kering's husband called her two days after he fled, telling her he would likely go to Nairobi. Kinyanjui hasn't heard from her husband of three years, but he told her as he left that they might meet again. "I'll just believe that one day, one time, he will come," she said, her face wet with tears.

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