Thursday, January 31, 2008

Loving Your Neighbor

“Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
– Romans 13:10

Many of my friends in Kawangware sleep outside at night. They lie on the ground with machetes, afraid that a neighbor may come and set their house on fire while they sleep. They don’t want to be caught off-guard. They’re determined to defend their homes, their families, and their lives from the enemy that lives next door. In many parts of Kenya, next-door neighbors are killing one another. What was unimaginable one month ago, has become an every day reality. We hear it on the news and we see it in the streets. Men and women who for years have been close friends, who work together, whose children go to the same schools, who attend church together, who shop in the same markets and live side by side, have all of a sudden become enemies. How can this be?

Most Kenyans I speak with are in a state of shock. No one thought this could happen here. . .Maybe in Rwanda or Somalia or Sudan, but NOT in Kenya. . .

Since Independence, Kenya’s 42 tribes have lived together largely in peace. In fact, the country has been a model for social harmony and stability. It avoided the bloody civil wars and military dictatorships of many of its neighbors, and was deemed one of the most stable countries in Africa, with a progressive democracy and growing economy. There’s always been corruption, and Kenya has often been chided for it, but few real threats to peace. Kenyans are just not warlike.

But there is a growing sense of mistrust, fear, and suspicion among many here. Historical injustices have resurfaced in the hearts and minds of Luos: government corruption, inequitable land distribution in the post-colonial era, and the assassination of Luo politicians such as Tom Mboya. Many of the urban poor feel abused and forgotten by the government and there is a lot of bitterness and anger on both sides over the disputed presidential election. Decades-old land disputes are being fought out, peaceful protesters are repulsed by police, opportunistic criminals have found an excuse to cause mayhem, and gangs of youth roam the streets with a hatred that justifies the cruelest of acts. Within a few weeks, everything has changed.

Kenyans are known for their hospitality and hopefulness, their unrelenting optimism and profound joy, even in the midst of extreme hardship. Even now, most people are hopeful and optimistic that a resolution will be reached in the near future. Kofi Annan has suggested that the immediate issues of on-going violence and the disputed election can be addressed within four weeks. He’s also confident that if the leaders commit to the mediation process, underlying issues such as land distribution can be reasonably resolved within one year. So far the mediation seems to be going well. We are praying for the best. The U.S. embassy has issued alerts and warnings and had a town meeting the other night. They strongly advise against travel to certain areas, but said that evacuation of U.S. citizens is “nowhere on the radar.” They are just encouraging Americans in Kenya to exercise due caution and avoid troubled spots. . . So for now, we are continuing work here as we are able, erring on the side of caution, but above all just trying to be good neighbors.

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