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Kenyan election aftermath rends marriages

After 17 years, Naomi Kering’s husband is gone — one more intertribal marriage fallen victim to the violence that has followed Kenya’s disastrous presidential election.
Image: Marriages divded by ethnic unrest
Sisters-in-law by marriage, Naomi Kering, left, and Eunice Kinyanjui are from the Kalenjin tribe. Their husbands were forced to leave them because of ethnic unrest.Ben Curtis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

He doesn’t call. He doesn’t write. His cell phone has been switched off for weeks. After 17 years, Naomi Kering’s husband is gone — one more intertribal marriage fallen victim to the violence that has followed Kenya’s disastrous presidential election.

“The kids always ask me, ’Where is he?’ And I always say he is going to come back,” Kering, a 34-year-old of the Kalenjin tribe, told The Associated Press as she stood in the rubble of her home, torched by a mob last month because her husband is a Kikuyu. “But I hope he stays away, because I love him and I want him to be safe.”

Since the Dec. 27 vote, marriages that united different ethnic groups have felt the strain as communities shun the Kikuyu tribe of President Mwai Kibaki, whose disputed re-election unleashed a wave of bloodshed that has killed at least 685 people.

Until now, marriages like Kering’s were common enough to go largely unnoticed, representing hope for what Kenya could be as a nation. But now the fabric of Kenyan society is fraying, forcing families to confront tribal identities many had cast aside long ago.

“This election has changed the very essence of these marriages,” said the Rev. Charles Kirui, a Catholic priest whose church in the nearby town of Burnt Forest shelters hundreds of Kikuyus. “Marriages are breaking up because of a tribal conflict, which means we really have a problem in Kenya.”

There are no figures on how many families are affected, but the impact is particularly felt in the heart of opposition territory in western Kenya, where tribal tensions have been most inflamed by the election.

Backlash surprises many
This country of 38 million was once seen as a stable democracy on a violent continent. But it depended on a delicate balance of intertribal power.

After independence in 1963, then-President Jomo Kenyatta flooded this region, native to the Kalenjin and Luo tribes, with his Kikuyu people. The Kikuyu settlers quickly prospered, growing into the most powerful of Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups, running businesses and politics.

But favoritism shown to Kikuyus fueled old resentments, and some of the worst clashes since the election have pitted Kikuyus against the Kalenjin, who often are distinguishable by looks and language.

Still, Kering says she never imagined the bloodshed would jeopardize her marriage to Isaac Guthua. The couple fell in love more than 15 years ago, when he would stop by the beauty salon where she worked nearly every day just for a glance at her.

On the night the election results were announced, however, Guthua said he could not stay. Kikuyus were being hunted down and slaughtered. As Kering cooked dinner and Guthua watched the news, they heard screams in the distance — a mob was coming for Guthua and other Kikuyus, including his two brothers who lived next door with their Kalenjin wives.

“We came out of the house and saw people with torches,” Kering said. “They burned our house.”

Guthua, knowing his wife would be spared because she is not Kikuyu, told her to take care of the children, ages 17, 15 and 8. Then he took off at a run with his brothers, Steven and Mwangi, and they haven’t been home since.

“We never had a problem before this election,” said Kering’s sister-in-law and neighbor, 27-year-old Eunice Kinyanjui. She is pregnant with her second child with Steven Guthua, her husband of three years. “We lived happily in our family until this disaster.”

They have decided to stay and face an unsympathetic community.

Women shunned
“The people here, they say, ’Who told you to intermarry?”’ Kinyanjui said, adding that they have not been targeted for violence, only shunned. “We are now useless to the community; they don’t talk to us, anything.”

Kemei Gilbert, 18, a Kalenjin who was manning a roadblock in the area, said the women deserved no sympathy.

“These women are not our problem,” Gilbert said. “In Africa, when a woman marries, she belongs to that community.”

Kering and Kinyanjui both say they are confident their husbands are alive. Kering’s husband called her two days after he fled, telling her he would likely go to Nairobi, 200 miles away. Kinyanjui hasn’t heard from her husband, but he told her as he left that they might meet again.

The women seem resigned to the possibility that it will never happen, though Kinyanjui still has hope.

“I’ll just believe that one day, one time, he will come,” she said, her face wet with tears.