Two minutes after results from Kenya’s presidential election were released, Eliot Pence ’08 watched as several billows of smoke rose from Kibera — the slum where Yale’s student election-monitoring team had been working just three days before.
It was 5 p.m. on Dec. 30 and as the team’s co-leader, Pence had stayed in the capital for several days after the presidential elections were over. Within minutes, more columns of smoke rose from other areas along the fringes of the city, scarring the azure skies as angry crowds set fire to everything from buildings to heaps of rubber tires.
The violence was only beginning.
Now, with some distance from their experiences in Kenya, the students who spent their winter breaks observing poll sites and watching out for voting irregularities can reflect on both the hope and violence that they observed while in Nairobi. Despite the explosion of post-election civil violence in Kenya — largely divided along ethnic lines — the students told the News that they observed among Kenyans a collective faith in peace and the future of their country, one that makes them optimistic that Kenya will continue to move forward.
In spite of the recent violence, the election monitors said they believe Kenyans will be able to look past their differences, instead embracing the shared ideals that will allow them to do what is necessary for their country.
“The people in Kenya are very optimistic people — they believe in the power of one person being able to make a difference,” co-leader Shazan Jiwa ’09 said. “They believe in the promise of democracy.”
With this in mind, students agree that some of their most important work is still ahead of them.
“We were observers then, but we have to be activists now,” Aniket Shah ’09, another trip leader, said.
Shah said that although the country is currently at a standstill, its economically successful past might drive Kenyans to come together to restore prosperity. If the government focuses on building a consensus and reminding the country of its previously strong democracy, Jiwa said, the country should be able to rebound and return to its previous levels of success.
But Kenya’s elections have important consequences for those outside its borders, as well. Shah said the election was very important because Kenya is a powerful driving force within Africa.
“I think historians and political scientists for years will be talking about this election,” he said. “What is interesting in this election is its value for Africa as a continent.”
Amandla Ooko-Ombaka ’10 said she hopes both challenger Raila Odinga and election-winner Mwai Kibaki can set their egos aside and do what is best for their country. Ooko-Ombaka, a Kenyan citizen and member of the trip, said she believes that Kenyans, armed with love for their country, will try to do what is best for the nation.
“I don’t think peace-loving people who cast a ballot one day would want the country to go to the dogs the next day,” she said.
Still, Ooko-Ombaka said she had been surprised by the almost instantaneous transition into violence, as well as the strong force of tribalism in her country.
On the day of elections, students recalled a sense of deep excitement and anticipation, as well as smoothly executed voting procedures. But after election results were released, everything changed. Pence said national feelings ran the gamut.
“It was a shift from tension … to a national ambiguous feeling after the election results were announced,” he said. “There was no coherence — there wasn’t collective anger, there wasn’t necessarily collective disappointment in the process.”
While frustration was commonly felt among Kenyans, Ooko-Ombaka — who remained in Kenya until Jan. 8 — said different people responded to the results through both violent and non-violent means.
“There’s been an evolution of people on the streets — from looters to ethnic violence — and then you have the unarmed peace protestors,” she said.
Still, Pence said the parliamentary unit of the police — the General Service Unit, or GSU — held Nairobi in a tight grip, and policemen were stationed “everywhere,” from morgues to parks to the city’s financial district. Immediately after the election, when the government banned all protests, Pence said it was impossible to gauge the peaceful movement in the country.
Looking back, the students believe that their work as election monitors had value, and they plan to take a proactive approach moving forward. The group will compile their observations in a report to be finished later this month, and they will work with the U.S. Embassy as well as other domestic nonprofit organizations in Kenya, Jiwa said.
The group is planning ways to remain directly involved in Kenya and to raise awareness on campus.