Ethnic Cleansing in the Tea Fields

Kisii tea pickers trudge through plantations on their way to safety in Kericho town

It’s difficult to know how to explain Kenya’s post-election violence and how much of it is driven by ethnic rivalries. My colleague Nick Wadhams has had a stab on his blog, suggesting that with few political differences between politicians, ethnicity becomes the primary way of distinguishing candidates. So in order to win, simply intimidate/nobble/kill anyone from rival tribes – they are probably your political rivals too. The consensus seems to be that we are seeing political violence with an ethnic dimension.

But how do you explain what is going on in Kericho, Kenya’s tea town, in the western Rift Valley?

The Red Cross reckons that about 20,000 tea pickers – mostly from the Kisii tribe – and 10,000 businessmen and their families – mostly Kikuyus – are on the move, in fear of their lives. The local Kalenjins had backed the opposition ODM while the Kikuyus had backed their man, President Mwai Kibaki, and Kisii areas had also come out in favour of the incumbent (although many think that figure was rigged)

So maybe the targeting of other tribes was simply part of a political protest that used ethnicity as a shorthand for finding government supporters. Unpleasant and ugly, but at least we can avoid branding the violence as a form of ethnic cleansing and all the baggage that brings.

I’m not so sure. Talking to people on both sides of the divide, many were unsurprised that there had been so much violence in Kericho. The Kalenjins are envious of both sets of incomers – the Kikuyus who have set up profitable stalls, restaurants and businesses and the Kisii who have taken jobs on the vast tea plantations around the town.

The violence was not so much about the election, which was used merely as an excuse to launch attacks on outsiders and drive them home. This was ethnic violence with a political dimension.


4 thoughts on “Ethnic Cleansing in the Tea Fields

  1. I saw an Aljazeera report about the violence in Kenya about 3 months ago. People seem to think that this has just started now but in the hour special in aljazeera the same ethnic targeting of kikuyus was used long before the current elections. Kikuyus houses and farms were being burnt, people attacked and killed. If this was the case, I dont understand why the authorities did not work to prevent further violence that was surely to come after the elections.

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