Travel Weekly reporter Michelle Baran has embarked on a 10-day trip to Kenya, to report on how recent violence in the country is affecting tourism. She will spend some time in Nairobi speaking to tourism officials before going on safari.
DAY 3, NAIROBI: Last night I was awakened by a disturbance outside my window at the New Stanley Hotel. It was 3 a.m., and four young men were scuffling in the street. Their dispute, at times physical, lasted for about an hour.
Whether or not it was related to tensions due to the current political situation in Kenya, I could not possibly know. It could just as well have been incited by overindulgence in Tusker, a Kenyan beer.
But standing there, staring out my window, the thought crossed my mind: I wonder if these guys are from opposing political parties or have different tribal backgrounds. Is that what they're so animated about?
Regardless, in order to understand the underlying tensions in Kenya, it is critical to understand recent events in the country.
The post-election reality
On Dec. 27, everything in Kenya changed. The incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU), won the presidential elections. But the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party, led by Raila Odinga, claimed the voting was rigged. The dispute ignited not just political tensions but age-old tribal tensions that ultimately led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people and the displacement of more than 250,000 people.
Whether the violence was linked to ethnicity is a controversial claim. But even Kenyans admit it is often difficult to separate politics and tribal affiliation, as Kenya consists of 42 tribal groups. The Kikuyus are the largest in number and are considered by some to be economically and politically dominant. The PNU is associated with the Kikuyus, as Kibaki is a Kikuyu. ODM is linked to the Luos, as Odinga is a Luo. Though this is a gross generalization, as the conflict is much more complex and extends beyond these two political and tribal factions, these simple facts help to understand what stimulated much of the violence and where clashes took place.
Following shifts and displacements of tribal communities in Kenya, the Kikuyus have most recently settled into the Rift Valley and Central provinces, including Nairobi. The Luos have settled in the Western and Nyanza provinces. Consequently, the violence was most severe where these two groups (as well as other ethnic groups such as the Kalenjin, Kisii and Kamba) are interspersed. The cities that were hardest hit were Kisumu, Kericho and Eldoret as well as the high-density housing areas and slums in and around Nairobi, including Kibera, Eastleigh, Mathare and Huruma, according to the Kenya Tourism Federation.
After clashes in and around Naivasha and Nakuru in late January and early February, the Kenya Tourism Federation also recommended for a short period that road safaris through Naivasha and by road to Lake Nakuru be suspended. Since then, progress in reaching a political agreement has been made, and peace is slowly being restored.
Yesterday, President Kibaki and the opposition signed an agreement to end the violence after weeks of talks mediated by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, according to news reports. Though details of the talks have not been released, the government is said to be leaning toward a power-sharing agreement. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive in Kenya to put pressure on both sides to finalize the deal.
Kenya is rounding a corner, and while there is a long way to go in the political process and a great deal of national soul-searching to be done, Kenyans appear to have stopped the bleeding for now. There have been no new reports of bloodshed in recent days.
Better safe than sorry
In the meantime, I and the 42 veterinarians with whom I am traveling as part of a Corporation for Professional Conferences tour organized by Big Five Tours & Expeditions will be forging ahead on our journey. For the most part, we are embarking on a classic Kenya safari tour. We started in Nairobi with a day tour, and we are continuing north to the Samburu Game Reserve, southeast to Mount Kenya and back to Nairobi for a flight to Masai Mara.
There were two changes made in the itinerary: We will not be stopping in Lake Nakuru, and we are flying to Masai Mara rather than driving. While tourism officials now feel that neither of those changes would be necessary today, they were made in advance of recent developments toward calm and to ensure the safety of travelers.
So far, members of the group with whom I'm traveling have echoed the same sentiment. While everyone had some degree of apprehension about traveling to Kenya, they are all thankful they came given how peaceful Kenya, at least Nairobi, appears to be.
Walking through Nairobi National Park today past lions, cheetahs and wildebeest, as the veterinarians exchanged trade secrets with their Kenyan counterparts, we encountered a group of bounding Kenyan first graders on a field trip. The boys were sporting dapper ties and the girls charming dresses, big smiles across their faces as they ran to shake our hands. Yes, Kenya has some serious national wounds to heal, but it appears that some of them, the smaller ones you might say, are already healing.
To contact reporter Michelle Baran, send e-mail to [email protected].