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KENYA: When History Repeats Itself

MAUREEN BII
Posted August 23, 2016 from Kenya

Displaced first by culture, then by election violence, Maureen Bii reflects on being a refugee in her own country.

“Everyone feared for their lives. Hatred was the order of the day.

I was born in Kenya in 1983.

We lived in a mud-walled house that we shared with our domesticated animals. It never bothered me: At least we had a roof over our heads. When I was young, it seemed we were all equals in my community.

Everyone made a great effort to make a living and looked forward to a good meal after a long days work in the farms. People lived in harmony, doing business together and visiting each other during hard times.

But that harmony wasn’t to last. This is how it all started.

When I was about 4 years old, my parents separated. My father was under pressure to marry another wife because my mother had given birth to two girls in a row. My grandmother was furious because she wanted a grandson, as girls were not considered children enough.

My parents' separation marked our first exit from home. We were displaced by our own relatives.

As a single parent, my mother had to shoulder all the responsibilities. I watched her struggle tirelessly in other people’s farms with the hope of providing for us. My once beautiful and happy mum turned pale and weak with depression. Our family was torn apart and we lacked basic necessities. Our lives were filled with uncertainty, and we were ridiculed in school for being fatherless and poor.

This beast called polygamy stole my childhood happiness and forced us to move from one town to another in search of a new home. We became squatters. But eventually, some of our new neighbors welcomed us, supported us, and became our good friends. Life became a bit more bearable.

Then, as fate would have it, the relative peace we had found suddenly fell apart. Fueled by the tensions of the general presidential election, our new close-knit community began to hate each other on tribal grounds.

Neighbors began killing each other, as if they had never lived alongside each other before. It was not uncommon for teachers to kill their pupils. Once, I saw my male English teacher wielding a panga, or African machete. I remember my mother whisked us towards nearby bushes in an effort to keep us safe.

We ate no food for days; families walked long distances to find safety; houses were torched, and animals were killed in the fields. Everyone feared for their lives. Hatred was the order of the day.

Fighters armed with crude weapons gathered together, ready for a big war. Girls and women were gang raped. Young boys were not spared, as they were forced to become a part of the fighting.

The politicians who fueled the war did not come to our aid, and many innocent people died.

I remember being so scared of losing my mum and siblings. As tensions escalated, my mother did not know where to hide us. Each community was fighting against each other and death was everywhere. Homes were torched. Education came to a halt.

It was the worst time of my life. We became refugees in our own country.

What followed next was a mass exodus to safety.

With my feeble legs, I walked almost 200 kilometers through the forest. It was the only way we could escape our war-torn town. My family became separated, as many families did. Before leaving each other, we uttered words of blessing just in case we never met again.

Two years later, we still could not trace each other. I was taken in by a family who forced me to work for them in order to eat. I was 9 years old.

Then, in 1994, a man who had come to ask for water seemed to recognize me. I looked so much like my mother, and he knew her. The moment we were reunited was so memorable! Much had happened, but no one had died.

Miraculously, our lives went back to normal. As a nation, we were happy that our country was at last peaceful again. It seemed we had learned our lesson.

Fifteen years after the violence started, I was in university in Nakuru. It was 2007 and Kenya was again voting for the next president. The country was experiencing steady economic growth. We had high hopes of seeing a peaceful election and did not wish for a repeat of 1992.

But tribal conflicts again arose. This time, I was alone and unsafe, and also old enough to comprehend what was going on. The same script was repeating itself.

The country was paralyzed. The majority of fighters were unemployed youth. Death was everywhere, and enmity amongst different communities and tribes was at its highest. I wished for peace; I wished there was no election. I wished we had only one tribe and one agenda. Like many people, I sought safety in refugee camps, and somehow made it through.

My life has been full of turbulence, but because I have held on to hope, I have survived. I am working every day to empower women whose voices were suppressed like my mother’s. And I am spearheading efforts to create unity amongst tribes and neighbors through conflict resolution.

As we head for another general election in 2017, I fear our leaders might use unemployed youth again to start conflicts. In the last three months, politicians have been inciting violence in Nairobi. Youth are causing chaos, stealing people’s wares in the shops and burning cars.

I am not certain about anything, but one thingI know for sure is that unless we unite as a country and forget our differences, Kenya will never achieve Vision 2030, which is a development effort to become the socially, politically, and economically stable country we have all hoped for.

When I look back at my life, I want to forget these moments of pain and suffering and division. I dream of a future free of greedy political leaders hungry for power, a future where youth dislike war and are not influenced negatively by politics. I wish for an equitable world where everyone cares for one another.

I am working toward this future every day.

Comments 7

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Nakinti
Aug 23, 2016
Aug 23, 2016

Dear Maureen Bii,

First the name Bii caught me because it is my Volunteer's name. So, for that reason, I will call you Bii.

Bii, I never imagined that Kenya has gone through that kind of political difficulty. 200km -- you walked? As little as you were? I am thanking God who saw you through that difficult phase of your life. I am so happy that you finally reunited with your family. I am tearing right now. But let my tears wash away every difficulty in your life.

Dear Bii, thank you so much for sharing your story, I have learned one more thing about Kenya, a thing I wouldn't want to repeat itself.

Remain blessed sister

Sending you love from Cameroon

Nakinti

Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi
Aug 24, 2016
Aug 24, 2016

Dear Bii,Thank you for sharing such a tpuching story. It is so unfortunate that polygamy tore your family apart. Its cultures like these that we need to fight. The girl child is as valuable as the boy child.

As for the tribal differences many of the greedy african leaders use this tp their advantage. It is us the citizens to first accept that we r one and our tribes should not divide us.

Thanks for sharing and we pray for peace in the upcoming Kenya elections.

Emily Jensen
Aug 25, 2016
Aug 25, 2016

Thank you for sharing this powerful story, Maureen Bii! I'm in awe of your strength and courage as you work for peace and unity, especially after having been through so much. Sending love and light from the US – you are are superwoman! I know you'll continue to do incredible work and bring so much healing to Kenya.

Tamarack Verrall
Sep 05, 2016
Sep 05, 2016

Dear Maureen Bii,

I have read and reread your beautifully and powerfully written story, taking in all that you have been through, learning a lot that I didn't know about recent history of your country, and mostly, celebrating in amazement that you, beauty and strength shining through in your photo, have been able to live through all this and emerge the wise and dedicated leader that you are. Your solutions, that we look at what is underneath turmoil, empower women whose voices have not been heard and work to bring people together in peace and unity, are inspiring messages. 

In sisterhood,

Tam

Ahhdg
Sep 18, 2016
Sep 18, 2016

Hello Maureen Bii,

So sorry to hear your experience. But I'm thankful for your story. It is a power story which makes me realize how valuable the life I have right now. Thankk you once again, and hope you can fight for yourself and earn the life you want. 

Best,

April

JulieG
Feb 03, 2017
Feb 03, 2017

Dear Maureen Bii,

I'm so moved by your story and your unbelievable ability to maintain hope through your experiences.  I too hope for an equitable world where everyone cares for each other.  Thank you for all the effort you are putting towards this vision!

In gratitude,

Julie

Jessica Robinson
Jul 13, 2017
Jul 13, 2017
  1. Dear Maureen Bii, thank you for sharing your story. It is beautifully written and deeply moving showing how women are retraumatized through various experiences of violence. Your story is also a teaching in the pervasive struggle for women to find a sense of safety and trust in marriage in Kenya and the impact of not having that on children. 
  2. I connect for your desire that there could be one tribe and one agenda that could lead to peace in Kenya. The beauty of diversity does not necessarily lead to the connection and peace we desire in our communities. We will have to collectively be ambassadors and peacemakers for that in our countries. 
  3. Thank you and I honor you. 
  4. Much love,
  5. Jess