Dominicans Prepare for Possible Election Chaos in Kenya

An Interview with Fr. Martin Martiny, OP, the vicar provincial for the Dominican Vicariate of East Africa for the Province of St. Joseph.

As Dominicans in East Africa, we are blessed to have a mix of friars from Rwanda-Burundi, Angola, from the Equatorial Africa vicariate, from Cameroon, from Congo, from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. We have 3 communities, 2 in Nairobi and one in Kisumu. Our student friars are studying at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Tangaza University College, and Consolata University College.

We are within days of the March 4th national elections. Most Kenyans are both hopeful and a bit nervous because the results of the last national elections were disputed. Political clashes became tribal fighting and then deteriorated into criminal looting, burning, raping and pillaging—bedlam. Over 1,300 died in the fighting and thousands ended up, and many remain today, in refugee camps.

We Dominicans, along with most Kenyans, are praying for a peaceful election and post-election period and an orderly transition to a new government. We ask that other Dominicans and those in the United States who support us to join us in these prayers.  Should it become other than peaceful, we will do our best to assist those who come to us for help.

We have asked all of our communities to check out our equipment, especially our backup generators, to see if we can build in some redundancy in our communication systems. During the last post-election violence electricity, water, food, and communications proved to be real challenges. We have also looked into our ability to provide support for those who might come to us for refuge.

During the 2007-2008 elections, Kisumu had the brunt of activity with refugees (“Internally Displaced Persons”, to use the UN term). There was violence in Nairobi, Naivasha, Nakuru, but in regard to our friars we had refugee opportunities only in Kisumu. Although one of our brothers had an uncle killed during the violence in Nairobi, our friars were spared.

In Kisumu we had at various times between 100 and 250 refugees and 200-300 children for whom we were responsible. Fortunately, because we had a walled compound we were OK and were able, with the help of the police, to move the refugees back to their home areas. We took in whomever came to us who needed refuge. When we were asked by people outside which tribes were inside, we said, “Everyone here is a son or daughter of St. Dominic” and left it at that. Fortunately we did not have a problem that we were not able to deal with.

Sadly, there are still many refugees in camps and they are determined not to be there much longer. Many Kenyans fear that if a conflict arises over a disputed election, those in the camps who are mostly from one tribe will come out in large numbers to take back what they lost five years ago and 2007/8 could repeat itself on a larger scale.

We did have our novices go to Nairobi during that time because there were novices from tribes that would have been vulnerable in the Kisumu area. So we were advised by higher Church authority to take those who were of different tribes out, but they came back after things settled down. Our houses in Nairobi and Karen both seem to be in relatively safe neighborhoods, but you never know what could develop, so we are doing our best to be prepared. We don’t have a political position as a vicariate or as the Church.

The Church, Dominicans in particular, is preaching peaceful participation by all Kenyans in an important aspect of the life of the citizen. Even, however, promoting peace and justice can cause irritation amongst those who believe they have been deprived for half a decade of justice and their hearts are not at peace. Our hope is to spiritualize the Kenyans approach to the elections through prayers, Masses, and meetings bringing our faith in God to a nation that needs a peaceful election followed by a peaceful and calm transition to a new constitutional government. We hope for the best, but plan for the worst. As Dominicans and Catholics, we do not have a horse in this race. We pray the Kenyans will find a Kenyan path to a peaceful democracy.

Our Lady of Grace School is a non-profit primary and secondary school for children who would otherwise likely miss the opportunity to get a Catholic education. It came into existence during the post-election fighting of 2008. Fr. Cleophas Tesha, OP serves as chaplain and spiritual counselor at both schools and assists in school administration. The schools were recently blessed with two new and productive boreholes, which have met the needs of both schools. Should the March 2013 elections become as violent as those of 2007 and refugees return to the Dominican compound, the additional water will prove most valuable.

Conducted by Fr. Benedict Croell, O.P.