Election violence in Kenya turned Abigayle’s life upside down in 2007. Nearly a decade later, with another election on the horizon, she asks: How much has really changed?
I look on as people allow politicians to divide them along tribal lines and my spirit gets crushed within me.
“Sorry madam! That is the wrong name for this place. To live here, your name must be the right name.” I vividly remember the man holding a machete saying this to me as my friend Recca bled to death in my lap. I have never known a more intense feeling of anguish than watching my best friend die in my arms because of a name.
This happened in 2007, the year I got to vote for the first time. Since then, elections to me have spelled doom and disaster. I wish it were possible for me to celebrate when my country reaches an election period, but it is not. When it comes time to vote, the political climate changes drastically.
Kenya is preparing for a presidential election next week and once again, I am reminded of my tribe; sadly, I am also reminded of my loss.
Even as I share Recca’s story, the pain of my friend’s death is as raw as if it happened yesterday. I have battled with this pain for years, not sharing it with anyone because I felt I was to blame for her death. I have had to undergo counseling just to begin letting go of the self-blame. I hope that by sharing this story, my heart will finally heal.
I was 14 years old when I first met Recca at a church event. Unlike most friendships, ours started out with dislike. She had what I always wanted to have: She had an influential family, she could sing, and her family could afford to travel anywhere in the world. She disliked me because I was competition for her in church.
Our natural rivalry lasted for two years, until we went to the same high school and bonded over some toilet graffiti! As the school prefect, I was doing rounds one morning before classes when I caught her red-handed doing some graffiti on the toilet walls. I would have reported her if I had not decided to read the graffiti. It was one of the funniest things that I had seen that morning. When I read it, I just burst out laughing. She laughed with me and that marked the beginning of our friendship. I always think of our friendship as one that was “born in the toilet.”
Fast forward to six years later. It was December 2007, and we had just finished voting. All was peaceful and tranquil. Recca and I were in different universities, but we remained great friends. I had opened up my family to her and her family became my family.
As we were waiting for the tallying of the votes, we decided we may as well enjoy the scenery of our peaceful country over the Christmas holidays. Our destination of choice was Nakuru, a famous tourist attraction.
We set off the very next morning after voting. The journey was a safe one but for some reason, we could sense an uneasy tension in the air. I remember saying a little prayer with Recca. We prayed for our safe journey, and we prayed for God’s protection to be upon us.
Two days into our holiday, I received a call from my father. He sounded frantic. He told us to get into the next bus out of Nakuru and go back to Nairobi. This was the only place where we would be safe. Recca and I were not following what was going on in the news, so we were not aware that our country had suddenly turned messy. My father told us the wrong person had been declared president and the entire nation had woken up in total chaos.
One might pause to wonder, what criteria determines who is right and who is wrong in an election? The political climate was tense between supporters of the incumbent president and the opposition. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the opposition would win the vote this time around, based on the opposition candidate’s popularity at the time. On the other side, the president's tribe would have none of that. Conflict was intensifying between the opposition candidate’s tribe and the president's tribe.
Other tribes chose alliances too. There were a few tribes on the president’s side and around 40 tribes on the opposition’s side. During the campaign period, the country had become so divided on tribal lines that even multicultural marriages were breaking. At that time, I didn't see it as a very big deal. I assumed that Kenyans had always been peaceful people, hence peace would prevail once we got over the elections. How wrong that assumption was! Little did I know that my very first election I voted in would also turn out to be one of the most bitter experiences I ever faced. I didn't know that my people were ready to kill their neighbors because their choice didn't win.
As Recca and I hurriedly packed and checked out of the lodge where we were staying, we were both praying that this was all a nightmare that would end soon. We were lucky enough to get a bus that was about to leave for Nairobi and we quickly boarded. We had not even driven 300 meters when the car met with a barricade. All of a sudden, we were ambushed. We saw a lorry pull in front of us and then men wielding machetes ordered everyone out of the bus.
We were so scared as we watched the first man off of the bus show his identification card. Then one of the men rained down machete blows on him. The name on this man’s ID was enough information to tell the attackers that he was from the “wrong” tribe.
When it was our turn to get out of the bus, I showed my ID and I was pushed to one side. Recca came after me and was pushed to the opposite side. The men with machetes began cutting people right before my eyes, including my friend! I must have lost my senses then, because all I remember was the animal scream that escaped my mouth before I passed out.
When I came to, there was blood everywhere; I had no strength in me. I didn’t know if I was alive or dead. I didn’t know if this was real or a really bad nightmare. It took all my energy for me to crawl toward Recca. She was able to talk, but very faintly. She called out for me to help her.
I vaguely remember trying to lift her up. She was badly cut. All I could manage to do was sit down and place her head on my lap. In my mind I was screaming to myself to get up from this dream! But I wasn’t waking up. I had lost my phone; I think someone had stolen it when I passed out.
I held Recca for two whole hours, appealing to passersby to help me take my friend to the hospital—but none would even look at her. People walked past us in fear or they turned on me for being a friend to a person of her name. I watched her helplessly as life left her body and as she breathed her last.
The next thing I remember is finding myself in Nairobi. I don’t know how I got there. I don’t even know how my parents got to me. All that was real to me was that I had seen Recca get killed for having the wrong name! What would I tell her family? She had a name that was right for them. She had dreams that were now dead too. It is a pain so deep that I don’t think I can express it.
Who has the right to decide where a certain name can belong or not belong? Never in all the years since our childhood rivalry did it ever occur to me that Recca didn’t have the right name. Recca was not even Kenyan, but because the people who butchered her to death didn’t recognize her name, they decided she had to die.
It has been ten years since Recca was killed. To this very day, her killers have never been brought to justice! Kenyans never got clarity on who really won the 2007 elections. Many people lost their loved ones, their homes, women were raped―all because they were from the wrong tribe, in the wrong place, and at the wrong time! But for what?
As I look at the politicians’ campaigns during this election period, I still hear them spread nothing but hate. I hear them saying, this tribe shall not rule, it is time for another tribe to take over. I look on as people allow politicians to divide them along tribal lines and my spirit gets crushed within me.
These tribal politics cost me my friend. For how long will we allow politicians to divide us? For how long will it be my tribe versus your tribe? For how long will we vote for people because they have the “right” name!? I write today to appeal to my nation, Kenya, and to other nations as well. Tribal politics are costly.
Leadership is not by tribe, nor by color, nor tongue. Leadership is by substance. Anyone can lead if they have the substance to unite a people to work toward one goal. Leadership ought to be based on policy. It should be about what the leader will do for the nation, not what they will get from the nation. This is my appeal: We must rise up in Africa and say no to being divided because of our names, our tribes!
This year, as this election has approached, I have been posting campaigns on social media, urging the nation to shun tribal politics. I am speaking out so that maybe someone somewhere will not have to be killed or bullied because of his or her name. Just maybe it is possible for us to vote this year without considering tribe.
Is this too much to wish for?
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