Six men sat chiseling arrows inside a dusty, wooden-gated compound in rural Kenya. As they sharpened the blades and constructed bows, they said they were preparing for war.
“We have been making arrows since we were attacked a month ago,” said Sylvester, 24, amid the sound of hammers clanging against steel nails. “It’s for our own self-defense.” Sylvester is a Kikuyu, the ethnic group of President Mwai Kibaki that battled other tribes such as the Luos and the Kalenjins in Kenya’s lush Rift Valley after last December’s widely-contested presidential polls.
A little over a year ago to this day, I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya to cover the aftermath of a presidential election that had exploded into chaos. The closely-fought race that saw Kibaki defeat opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo, was declared by opposition supporters as rigged. Violent ethnic clashes marked by machetes, stones, and, strangely enough, bows and arrows, left over 1,500 dead. Victims with arrows, sometimes poisoned, lodged in their heads and chests showed up in hospitals all over Kenya.
In the bow-and-arrow compound in Njoro, roosters and dogs roamed around timber and hay at the makeshift workshop.
“In a day we can make between 80 and 100,” Sylvester said. Community volunteers pooled money together to buy the necessary tools. First, the head was cut off a four-inch nail, which was then chiseled with a heavy hammer into a sharp edge. The nail was then coiled to fit on to a bamboo stick. A groove was cut into the bottom of the stick in order to add paraffin paper wings for the arrow to have better flight. Sometimes, the arrow was dipped into frog or snake poison before being released. The bow was made by forcefully bending hard wood and adding string and springs. The result was a four-foot weapon that could shoot an arrow more than 550 yards.
Shooters said the advantage of arrows was that their victims often did not see them coming.
In addition to medieval-style warfare, entire sections of slums like the one above were razed down. Neighbor turned on neighbor, according to ethnicity. Homes and churches, sometimes with people inside, were burnt, whole families evicted, women raped and men forcefully circumcised.
I felt a heavy feeling of apprehension when I entered daily Kibera or Mathare, some of Africa’s largest slums that housed over a million people — I didn’t want to be mistaken for the wrong tribe by the wrong people. I had several Kenyan friends – photographers, cameraman and reporters – that were shot or attacked while trying to cover this story because of their ethnicity. Why?
Partly because after the political compromise, it was discovered that opposition politicians paid youths to ignite the ethnic battles. They got the political power they wanted — there is now a power-sharing government in place — but ordinary Kenyans are the ones who paid for it. Lost homes, livelihoods, and loved ones — it’s no wonder that when I met with a group of Kenyan runners who had emigrated to Mexico that they said they appreciated it here, despite all of its problems, for the opportunities it provided them.
Over 130 male and female runners have made Mexico their temporary home, due to its proximity to lucrative races in the Americas and its high altitude. But Kenyans have won most of the long-distance races here, provoking resentment from Mexican athletes and discrimination from race organizers. Nevertheless, most of the runners say they will continue to recruit others from Kenya, as nearly all have families relying on them at home. For now, what else can they do?