In Kenya's hotbed of postelection violence, a bishop sows seeds of peace

Eldoret, Kenya - They came at 10 a.m. on Jan. 3 to Jane Wanjiku's land, just a day after the presidential election results were announced. More than 200 young men in red shorts, shouting tribal war cries, and carrying machetes and sticks, spears and torches, they forced Ms. Wanjiku out of her home before they burned it down.

But today, Wanjiku is back on her land, planting maize and beans – and, remarkably, surrounded by some of the same Kalenjin neighbors who chased her off because of her Kikuyu ethnicity. She and other Kikuyus, who supported Kikuyu candidates in December's elections, have now been welcomed back.

"This is my land," she says, walking into her hilltop farm, "and that is my house," – a charred mud-walled home. "I feel comfortable coming back," she says, blaming the national political leaders for the attacks. "They manipulate the people. If it was just between me and the locals, it would have been easier."

The peace deal mediated in February by former UN chief Kofi Annan certainly bought Kenya time to put the country back together. But the true test of lasting peace and reconciliation will be found here in the smaller rural communities of the Rift Valley, where much of the country's food is grown, and where most of the estimated 1,000 post-election murders took place.

Often, the hard work of rebuilding relationships starts with a simple seed distribution ceremony hosted by a Roman Catholic bishop.

"There is hope, but it is still a very alarming situation right now," says Jacqueline Klopp, a Kenya expert at Columbia University in New York. "The only alternative is to do what the bishop is doing in reconciling communities. But there needs to be a sustained effort. People need to build peace committees and learn lessons from what went wrong this time so that politicians don't do it again."

More than 400,000 still in camps

Out of the estimated 600,000 Kenyans who fled ethnic violence that followed the country's contested Dec. 27 elections, only around 180,000 have started to leave makeshift refugee camps and, and a smaller fraction, such as Wanjiku, have actually been welcomed home.

Tensions within the government – with the President Mwai Kibaki's party on one side and Prime Minister Raila Odinga's party on the other – could still push Kenya back to the brink of violence, and if those politicians who incited ethnic hatred are not punished, Klopp says, Kenya's days of machetes could return. "If there is not punishment for someone somewhere, then all the work the bishop and others are doing will be torn asunder."

Here in Eldoret – the center of Kenya's bread basket, and the fiery heart of the postelection violence – there wouldn't seem to be much common ground for communities to build on. Almost a quarter of the murders following the Dec. 27 election took place here, 35 of them in a single horrifying incident – the burning of a Pentecostal church crowded with women and children. Even today, nearly 20,000 people seek shelter in a camp at Eldoret's agricultural show ground, the largest concentration of displaced people in Kenya. Some, like Wanjiku and her sons, venture out every day to cultivate fields they fled, and return home to the camp at night. Many are terrified even to leave the showground at all.

Yet Cornelius Arap Korir, the Roman Catholic bishop of Eldoret, is starting to unite the two warring ethnic communities – Kalenjin and Kikuyu – through their common desire to grow the food that will help them rebuild their homes, their communities, and their lives.

On a recent morning, as part of an ongoing series of "seed ceremonies," Bishop Korir hands out bags of maize seed and fertilizer to members of the Kikuyu community of Illula, encouraging them to return, and to the neighboring Kalenjin community of Kapsoya, encouraging them to allow the Kikuyus to return.

"It takes a long time," admits Bishop Korir, but the best way to get people together is development, he adds. "You make the project to be a peace project, like the season of planting. As they are planting, they are waiting, they are talking. The beginning was tough, but we keep on coming back, coming back."

Sampson Baibai, an elder from Kapsoya representing the Kalenjin community, says that the troubles started after the elections, when many Kalenjins expected opposition leader Raila Odinga to win and accused the Kikuyu community of cheating when it was announced that he had lost to President Mwai Kibaki.

"One community was annoyed at the other who stole the election, and so they directed their anger to the community who had stolen the election," says Mr. Baibai, as members of his community and of the Kikuyu community line up for seed. But after about a month, he and other elders began to talk across ethnic lines to stop the violence. "It took the initiative of the elders to talk to the young people and tell them that people have to live together as a community."

Elijah Ng'ang'a, a Kikuyu elder at the ceremony, says that his people had wanted to return to their farms for many weeks, "but every time they tried to come back, they were chased away. That's when we sat down and talked to them." He also credits the bishop's system of dispersing the seeds to farmers. "The seeds were being offered to both communities not just one – so that pulled people together – and that's when they calmed down and decided to be together," he says.

'It's possible to live together again'

This day's seed ceremony also serves as a reunion of sorts for two young men who haven't seen each other since the violence started.

"After the elections, the violence that erupted split us up," says John Kiptoo, a Kalenjin, smiling at Peter Ngunjiri, a childhood Kikuyu friend. "It's possible for us to live together [again]. We are blood brothers, we come from one country. I pray the principals [in Nairobi] will sit together and keep the peace going."

The December violence caught Mr. Ngunjiri by surprise. "It's something that came randomly," he recalls. "I thought I was in my place, in my house. In fact, where I'm staying was the battlefield for these two communities."

Now, Ngunjiri says the two communities are watching each other, buying from each other, playing with each other, their lives slowly going back to normal. "This is the process for the healing to take place. I can forgive them, they can forgive us – but to trust – it is something that is a process. But in time, I think people will be back here and will be back to the normal ways."

Peter and John exchange a brotherly hug and head back to the seed ceremony.