Kenya Violence and the Church

When I was in Kenya earlier this year I conducted many interviews about the 2008 post-election violence. Primarily I focused on the role Christians played. The following is a lengthy report on what I learned.

Like most Kenyans, Emily Choge [Choh-gay] was anxious about the state of her country when she went to church on Sunday, December 29, 2007. A week had passed since national elections, and after initial tallies showed opposition leader Raila Odinga with a sizeable lead over incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, results had slowed to a stop. For several days the Electoral Commission of Kenya had offered little information, and little explanation for their silence. Kenyans stayed glued to television news, broadcast live from national election headquarters at the Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC) in Nairobi. Rumors and reports of all kinds were rife. Something was going on behind the scenes, and no one knew just what.

Choge, a lecturer in religious studies at Moi University in Eldoret, and a Langham Scholar who did her Ph.D. at Fuller Seminary, had spent the entire night in a home prayer meeting with neighbors and houseguests from different tribal communities. She had seen tribal violence before in her village of Kesses, in which a variety of communities live close together. She feared a repeat.

At Choge’s university church that Sunday, a young man from the local Kalenjin community preached on the theme, “When Hopes are Dashed.” He drew on biblical examples of God’s sovereignty over disappointments. Choge went home feeling encouraged by his words and by the experience of warm worship in a mixed congregation uniting different communities.

That evening, just about dusk, an extraordinary drama began to unfold on her television. At the KICC, the Electoral Commission announced that Kibaki had won another term in office. A huge hullabaloo ensued, with shouting and protests filling the large assembly hall. Television broadcasts were suddenly cut off, leaving only the government channel. Journalists and other observers were ordered to leave. Then, a short time later, the government broadcast a rushed swearing-in ceremony of the President before a small, select audience.

While Choge watched on television, she could hear angry shouting begin outside her door. Venturing to a nearby shopping center, she found that a bar had been looted and all the beer, stored up for New Years Eve, distributed. A sign for a bank associated with the Kikuyu tribe—President Kibaki’s tribe–was burning.

Later, on her way to pick up a friend at a medical clinic, Choge met a man with a bloody wound on his head. He had been looting when the property owner, armed with a machete, assaulted him. Amid increasing confusion and excitement she realized that wholesale looting and burning was occurring all over the region.

Over the next week, Choge divided her time between praying at home, where a mix of people from different tribal communities gathered for refuge, and driving or bicycling through the region trying to help people under attack. Those who had taken refuge in a church or government compound had no food or water, bedding or clothing. Many had left their homes and businesses on fire. They lived under constant fear of further violence. Choge, whose Kalenjin ethnicity put her on the side of the attackers, found that her status as a disabled woman and a Kalenjin gave her safe passage. She was mostly tolerated as she ferried people and food. It was the first time she had found some advantage in her artificial leg.


Since independence from Great Britain in 1963, Kenya has been known as a peaceful and stable country. That reputation was shattered in a single night, when electoral euphoria turned to rage and violence broke out almost wherever Kikuyu lived near other communities. Eldoret, a compact farming town, was the epicenter of trouble. It lies at the heart of the Rift Valley, where white farmers once owned vast tracts of land. Many Kikuyu bought land from departing whites, moving to the area to live alongside the Kalenjin who consider it their natural territory. Other tribes also filled the vacuum; thus the area is a mixing ground for different ethnicities, with many historic animosities particularly over land.

Nevertheless, “we never expected violence,” Choge says. “The election had brought so much optimism we were caught off balance.”  Many Kenyans believed that the Kikuyu, an industrious people who have held most of the power since independence, had stolen the election. They reacted in rage, blaming the whole group for the perceived sins of Kikuyu politicians. Though exact numbers will never be known, a study by PeaceNet Kenya estimated that more than 1,300 people lost their lives. Half a million people ran from their homes, and more than a year later many still live in tented camps, supported by the Red Cross. Most of these Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were Kikuyus. For their part, Kikuyus responded to the violence with calls for law and order and in some cases organized violent counterattacks. Violence and turmoil continued for several months and threatened to become civil war, until an international effort led by Kofi Annan jawboned the opposing parties into a coalition government, where they now live in an uneasy peace.

Kenya has many Christians—85% of the population, by some reports—and in the aftermath the church was strongly and publicly blamed for its failure to provide leadership. The National Christian Council of  Kenya issued a public statement of apology. As World Relief Kenya put it in its 2008 annual report, “It was evident that the church was as wounded as most other institutions that Kenyans used to trust.” All agree that the church mirrored society in its tribalism.

In fact many churches served as support bases for particular politicians and through them for particular tribal allegiances. Money and politics often intersect at the doors of churches in Kenya, partly because of the poverty of most churches. When a church needs to raise money, local politicians will inevitably be invited to a fundraising event. He or she will bring not only celebrity, but a sizeable contribution. John Gichinga, a well-known pastor now working with World Relief in Kenya, tells of one church fundraiser where politicians were allotted time slots strictly on a cash basis. Fifteen thousand shillings (about $180) bought fifteen minutes; twenty thousand shillings bought twenty minutes. When one politician sent his wife with a contribution of merely ten thousand, she was treated with scorn.

During electoral campaigns, contributing politicians return to the church, to speak on Sunday morning and to receive the blessing of the church leaders. In some cases, pastors announced that God had anointed these politicians to lead the nation.

Most churches in Kenya are dominated by one ethnicity, and all Kenyan politicians are seen as representing their own ethnic community. Politicians often use these ethnic loyalties to solidify support—us versus them—in a way reminiscent of how segregationist politicians in America once cast every issue as black versus white. Few churches in Kenya endorsed tribalistic thinking, but most did very little to warn against it, either.


Practically everyone in Kenya will tell you that the church failed to rise above tribalism in the run-up to the election. Less well known is the church’s record after violence broke out. Most church leaders had failed to anticipate tribal violence, but when they saw people suffering many knew exactly how to respond.

Martin Shikuku is pastor of Glory Baptist Church, which meets in a mud-wattle tin-roof building in the small, poor settlement of Mailinne a few miles from the town of Eldoret. Shikuku is from the Luhyia community, a relatively neutral player in the tribal controversies, but his wife is Kikuyu and so were some members of his congregation. The night of the election announcement, none of his family got any sleep. They heard Kalenjin youth on the hills above the church singing, shouting and “preparing for war.” About thirty Kikuyu church members arrived through the night, seeking refuge. By 9:00 a.m. the church was surrounded by hostile forces; at 11:00 the mob outside tried to break through the gate and threw stones, breaking church windows. Shikuku met them at the gate and told them they could not enter the church bearing weapons.

“I heard a voice say, ‘This is our pastor.’ That saved us.” The mob backed away.

Thirty minutes later Shikuku heard gunfire and correctly surmised that it was the police, seeking to restore order. Taking a chance on a break in the fighting, Shikuku led his little congregation through the neighborhood, past burning houses, to the main road. The scene was chaotic. He glimpsed his father in law, a local elder, trying to calm angry teenagers, then being hit with rocks and falling down. In the confusion, Shikuku managed to get his flock (including his wife and children) started down the main road, hoping that police protection would accompany them safely into town. He returned to his church, to guard it.

All that week he divided his time, walking four miles from town to church in the pre-dawn hours, staying through the day providing what shelter he could to a continuing flood of refugees, then at night walking back to his family, who were sleeping on the ground at a police station. Part of his time was spent searching for his father in law in hospitals and refugee centers; he finally found him, dead, in some bushes near where he had fallen.

“I really prayed for peace in our country,” Shikuku remembers. “I began to talk to some of the Kalenjin elders, and eventually things began to cool down.” Much of his congregation has disappeared, and may never return, but Shikuku has continued Sunday services in Mailinne, beginning to rebuild his congregation.

Philip Chumo, an Anglican pastor, oversaw seven congregations in the Sandy Falls parish of Eldoret—two predominately Kalenjin, his own ethnicity, and the rest mixed. He had worried over tribal mistrust before the election, but election day was peaceful, with people voting in huge numbers. “There was a passionate feeling, but people went home joyfully, with a lot of expectation.”

Immediately after he watched the election results finalized, however, he began to hear shouting in the streets. “The Kikuyu have stolen our victory!” “These Kikuyu must go!” On the streets he found restless, roving gangs of angry youth, stopping cars, searching for Kikuyu. Coming upon one such car, surrounded by shouting young men, he found a Kikuyu family inside. The driver was trembling. Chumo’s clerical collar gained him some respect, and he managed to convince the young men to let him get in the car and drive the family to a nearby police station. Afterwards he accompanied a local police patrol in their Land Cruiser, seeing houses and vehicles burned. “People were furious,” he says. “I had to convince the police to leave, because they were overpowered and ineffective.”

The next day hundreds of Kikuyu refugees came streaming into his church. Chumo convened a meeting of his elders. Some offered sacks of grain for food. Others organized better security. Refugees came with only the possessions they could carry. By the fourth day they numbered 320. The church sheltered and protected them for a week, until the Red Cross had established a secure camp. “Please keep praying for us,” the IDPs told Chumo as they left. “Please come and visit us in the camp.”


Another Anglican pastor in Eldoret, Maritim Rirei, had expected trouble and, unlike many, discussed with other church leaders what they might do in a crisis. “We had phone numbers available—for each other, for bishops, for politicians, police, chiefs.” When violence erupted, it helped immeasurably to know whom to contact.

One mixed family—Kalenjin husband and Kikuyu wife—ran to Rirei’s house the night of the election announcement. Such mixed marriages were often special targets.  “I hid them in my bedroom and went out to talk to the boys.” Temporary calm was restored. In the early hours before dawn, Rirei loaded the family into his pickup and took them to the Holy Family Catholic Cathedral, whose spacious grounds would become a camp for thousands of refugees. Soon Rirei was running regular missions. Other Kalenjin families were sheltering Kikuyus and called him for help; he hired village boys to go with him and, shielding the refugees within a protective screen of Kalenjin youth, transported them to safety. “I knew my life was in danger,” he remembers. “I saw bodies by the road. I saw the head of a human being on a post.”

Once the families were in safe places, he used his pickup to carry food to them. Emily Choge called about bags of corn that needed to be ground before it could be eaten. The road was blocked; Rirei talked his way through with a story of a grandmother’s funeral.

Then he began applying for grants to provide long-term help to the victims, and initiated talks to bring together key leaders in troubled villages for peacebuilding talks. “In the beginning, people could not talk. They did not even shake hands.” Gradually, though, serious dialogue began on how to heal wounds and restore a shattered community.


Similar stories are told throughout the Rift Valley. Many churches, perhaps most, became places of refuge. In one village, Kitambaa, a mob burned down a church with refugees inside, and forty people were killed. In most places, though, churches succeeded in protecting fleeing Kikuyus, saving their lives if not their property. Many Christians helped their terrified neighbors—some openly, many secretly, for fear of being targeted themselves. Many also tried to calm rioting young men and stop violence, although in most cases their voices went unheeded. During the first week of violence, before the police and the Red Cross could gain control, many Christians provided what food, shelter and sanity they could.

Beyond such tangible help, Christian leaders recognized spiritual needs. Eldoret pastors knew immediately that they needed to meet together. The day after violence broke out, about 100 pastors gathered at a local hotel. “Everybody was there, from all the communities,” Boniface Mutiso from the Chrisco Church remembers. “We cried to God.” Recognizing their failures, they determined to meet every day to search their hearts together. They began to organize a larger meeting embracing more pastors. It met on the 10th of January and involved 500 pastors and leading bishops from several denominations. One result of these meetings was the institution of a daily non-denominational prayer meeting, rotating between various Eldoret churches, and a weekly Sunday afternoon worship service that brought all the churches—and all the tribes—together throughout 2008. A 24-hour prayer chain was initiated, which continued for more than two months, until peace was established. The pastors fellowship Prayer Task Force also visited some of the most blood-soaked areas to pray, confess, and beg God’s mercy.

Sports tournaments were organized for hundreds of youth in which entering teams were required to have players from both Kikuyu and Kalenjin. Prayer rallies, peacebuilding and reconciliation workshops, ministry to IDP camps where hundreds of thousands of Kikuyus lived in tents—these and other church activities became common attempts to respond to the nightmare.

“It was a wakeup call,” says Mutiso. Adds Pastor Boniface Runji of Happy Church, a Kikuyu who had to hide with his family for two days in a missionary’s home, whose children have had to leave the area to go to a school where they are not the only Kikuyu, whose formerly majority-Kikuyu church is now majority-Kalenjin, “We had never realized how tribalism can affect the church. We had taken these things for granted. We took it lightly that we belonged together. In the midst of the fighting we didn’t know who to trust. We started asking ourselves, ‘What kind of Christian is this?’ The transforming realities of Christianity, or lack of them, became very clear.” He adds that “there has been growth in the spiritual leadership of the city. There is some maturity that came to the pastors.” However, “politics will always throw us off, and push us into our tribal cocoons.”


Eldoret was the most violent area of Kenya, but in many parts of the country death and destruction took place, often in ways unique to the area’s ethnic and economic makeup. In Kisumu, the heartland of the government’s opposition, Luos attacked and drove out Kikuyu who were traders and businessmen. In Naivasha, Kikuyu gangs counterattacked in extremely violent fashion. Nakuru, where a pastor’s fellowship had found itself unable to pray together before the election because of political/tribal differences, became a free-for-all of looting and fighting. In Nairobi, gangs drove Kikuyu from the slums of Kibera and Mathare, then tried to march on downtown. Armed government officers kept them penned in the slums and killed many.

“In Mathare,” Gichinga remembers, “people were running to churches for safety. People jumped walls into theological schools, into churches, into Christian NGOs.” Near the gigantic Kibera slum, refugees took shelter in Jamhuri Park. Nairobi Chapel, a nearby church, began feeding them and providing for their needs. Other churches joined in. “I was getting calls from as far away as Machakos, saying, ‘can we bring food?’” remembers Gichinga. “[In one Kikuyu area] churches offered to provide food for Luos trapped in Thika [a small city in Kikuyu territory]. I was actually taking eight lorries of food a day, seven tons each, into Kibera. Other slums were similar.” The Red Cross eventually took over relief operations, partly because providing food became increasingly dangerous. The first line of spontaneous aid came from local churches, however.

Church leaders in Nairobi, like pastors in Eldoret, instinctively recognized their need to meet across ethnic and denominational lines. But when they came together at the interdenominational Ufungamano House on the second day of the violence, the results were fiery. “I can still almost hear people screaming,” says Pastor Gichinga. The leaders blamed each other for causing the violence by their political stands; almost inevitably, their politics reflected their ethnicity. Shouting and name calling were sometimes bitter and loud, but the group of over one hundred Catholic and Protestant leaders kept talking over several days and eventually agreed on a strategy of action. One of their first public events was a service of repentance held at All Saints Anglican Cathedral in central Nairobi. It was attended by opposition leader Raila Odinga, but he was given no platform, and the news media were asked to keep their cameras at a distance. In the service a Kikuyu pastor and a Luo pastor repented on behalf of their communities, naming historical events and stereotypical attitudes that had allowed hostility to reach such a peak.

Church leaders knew, of course, that true repentance and reconciliation would take more time and work, so they set up an new organization, Hope for Kenya, to organize reconciliation workshops for church leaders in every region of the country. These weeklong sessions have brought together church leaders from all the warring factions for extensive dialogue, often frank and sometimes confrontational, that have helped to forge lines of understanding and communication between communities. Besides Hope for Kenya, other church groups and Christian NGOs have initiated peacebuilding efforts that bring contending factions together.


“Will it happen again?”

Kenya is now stuck in a stalemate, with a coalition government that pleases nobody. An active, reforming government could do a lot to diminish the antagonism over land, money and power that fuel ethnic and political rivalry, but so far little has been done. Kenyans readily talk about 2012, when President Kibaki’s term will be up, as the next opportunity for real change. When asked whether that election could replay 2007 chaos, they are divided between optimists and pessimists, with pessimists holding the upper hand. The chief hope that Kenyans cite, when asked, is that people simply won’t choose to repeat the horror of the last go-round.

“I dread the next election,” says Wambui Kimathi of the Kenya National Human Rights Commission. “I shudder to think of it. Nobody wants to feel that fear again—but there are no guarantees.”

One can conceive of ordinary Kenyans decisively rejecting us-versus-them political ploys, refusing to let their neighbors be made into objects and rejecting us-versus-them politics. If that is to happen, it will probably require that the church play a role in the change in consciousness. The vast majority of Kenyans go to church and respect their spiritual leaders. The church’s penetration of society is amazing to an American.

“I am 50/50 regarding the possibility of violence returning,” says Boniface Runji. “The people who can undo the tribal trap are the spiritual leaders, working with the political leaders.” But he notes that churches choose their leaders along ethnic lines, not much differently from society at large. “The people in my church read very well. When they see tribalism promoted [in the way the church conducts business,] they go home and become tribalists.”

“In my [AIC] church, there has been an exodus of believers,” says Pastor Samson Samwoei of the Africa Inland Church (AIC) Fellowship in Eldoret. “They are asking God why [such violence happened.] We were a church that didn’t want anything to do with politics, but now we are seeing that something must be done. I realized that the issues of leadership are not in the hands of politicians, they are in our hand.” Adds Pastor Evans Shipala of Eldoret, “The rebuke from the congregations has been very clear. The church must take up its responsibility to disciple the politicians.

“Although peace has come,” says Boniface Mutiso,  “the work is not yet finished. We pray for a lassing peace that will spark revival. We [also] are praying for the structures of this nation to be changed.”


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7 Responses to “Kenya Violence and the Church”

  1. chasta Says:

    I found this line very interesting: “The church must take up its responsibility to disciple the politicians.”

    Are there any positive examples of this from history?

  2. timstafford Says:

    Plenty of examples from medieval church history. Whether they are positive is a matter of opinion.
    Also, you could look at most of the prophetic literature in the Old Testament through this lens. Nathan did disciple David, in a way.
    In more recent times the black church attempted to disciple Southern politicians during the civil rights movement.
    And the anti-abortion movement has tried very hard to do the same.
    Writing down these examples (and one could add more) emphasizes to me that there is no one-size-fits-all. It isn’t easy, and it takes creativity, courage and patience.

  3. mindy Says:

    Thank you, Tim. I’ve been waiting to read this.

  4. Gary Moline Says:

    Tim, this article is outstanding! Having been in Kenya the same time as you, I can say your observations are “right on”.

    Your comment that “Practically everyone in Kenya will tell you that the church failed to rise above tribalism in the run-up to the election. Less well known is the church’s record after violence broke out. Most church leaders had failed to anticipate tribal violence, but when they saw people suffering many knew exactly how to respond” is the exact conclusion I made (much less articulate, however) at the end of my 2 week tour of the same areas you mentioned.

    I listened on BBC this a.m. to a clip from a “healing and forgiveness service” taking place in Naivasha recently. These services are being conducted in many churches throughout the nation, I understand. Several of the churches and Pastors whom I visited had been involved in distributing aid and providing temporary shelter, too.

    In recent conversations with some Kenyan Pastors, I have learned that many are seeing an increase in members returning after a long absence due to the violence.

    These are all good signs, but, as you noted, the government fails to take action regarding prosecuting those who initiated the violence and remains caught up in it’s self perpetuation and corruption.

    I want to be optimistic, but the self-defeating pattern of corruption seems to dominate. We all need to pray for the role of the church in keeping the tribal differences contained and in demonstrating the unity of God’s people.


    Thank you for publishing stories of what was going on in our area. It is you come again and look at years letter and strides we have made in peace building


    Thank yoiu for the good work. It is gives good reading

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