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Kenya: Beyond the bloodshed

By Kirk Noonan

Discerning rumor from truth must have been difficult. Angry protestors — enraged by the outcome of Kenya’s general election last December 27 — were looting, burning down people’s homes and killing Kikuyus, Kenya’s ruling class. Even worse for Steven Mburu, pastor of Kiambaa Assembly of God, a mob was reportedly headed toward his church near Eldoret, a town situated in the central Rift Valley near the Ugandan border. 

Mburu wisely took precautions and invited everyone in the village to camp out on the church compound. He must have figured the church was the most secure place to be. After all, churches are places of refuge, and Kenya had a reputation as one of the most stable democracies in Africa. Why would anyone attack people at a church?

Mattresses, blankets, clothing, housewares and furniture cluttered the church grounds, making it look like a Saturday morning flea market. Mburu didn’t mind. The mismatched collection of goods represented everything the people owned — or at least everything they could carry.

The church usually celebrated on New Year’s Eve, but because of the turmoil Mburu and a handful of church elders held an all-night prayer vigil instead. Just after 1 a.m. Mburu was informed that 200 men armed with clubs, machetes, and bows and arrows were headed toward the village.

“We cried out to the Lord that we would see the morning,” recalls Mburu. “Our fear grew, but we made it through the night and into the morning.”

Hoping to be spared, Mburu and the elders agreed to meet again at 10 a.m. to pray about what to do next. Shortly after 10 a.m., the church was surrounded by a mob bent on destruction.

“The attackers were coming fast and from all different directions,” says Mburu. “Some people decided to run, while others stayed to take care of the children.”

Those who stayed hurried inside the church. As they did, Mburu overheard an attacker say that women and children could leave without threat of harm. Mburu alerted the women and children, and some of them left. Others were too scared to move.

Within minutes the mob swarmed into the compound and made quick work of piling mattresses, bedding and clothing in front of the church doors and windows. With all escape routes blocked, they doused the mattresses with flammable liquid and lit them. The people inside were trapped.

In perspective

A decades-long tension has existed just below the surface between the Kikuyu people and Kenya’s other ethnic groups. Only 22 percent of the nation’s 34 million residents are Kikuyu, yet they have made significant strides in business, entrepreneurship, politics, land acquisition and community affairs. The resulting prominence has led to envy and jealousy among other groups.

“Kikuyus own a disproportionate amount of land and money compared to other tribes,” says Mike McClaflin, Africa Regional Director for AGWM. “Because of this, a seething tension exists between Kikuyus and other people groups.” 

When Raila Odinga’s presidential bid ended after the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner, many people felt as if they had been cheated. In response thousands of Odinga supporters, led by the Kalenjin ethnic group, began attacking Kikuyus.

“The simmering frustration between Kikuyus and Kalenjin tribes erupted unexpectedly,” says McClaflin. “But the situation goes far beyond politics. It is a tribal issue.”

Gregg Beggs, AGWM area director for East Africa, says tribalism has fostered hatred and served as a source of division in Kenya for years.

“Even if the opposing parties reach peace, tribalism is not going away,” he says. “It’s demonic.” 

By the end of January more than 1,000 people were dead. The U.N. estimates 600,000 are homeless. Though the root of the violence stemmed from ethnic hatred, AG adherents absorbed much of the abuse. The attacks on AG people led some to mistakenly believe that Christians were being targeted for persecution. Nearly 400 churches were destroyed, and more than 70,000 AG believers were displaced.

“Many AG people and churches were attacked simply because of their location in the central Rift Valley,” says McClaflin. “We have many churches there comprised primarily of Kikuyus.”

Fight for life 

On New Year’s Day, Mburu and his congregation found themselves squarely in the crosshairs of an angry mob. Within minutes after the fire started, the church was engulfed in flames. Flames and smoke overcame the people inside as they pleaded for mercy and screamed for help.

A few people escaped, only to be beaten and hacked by the mob. Mburu decided he would die trying to save others.

“I thought, The children are our future, the ones who will continue to preach God’s Word,” he recalls.

He helped four children out of the burning building before the raging flames forced him to flee. As he did he heard a young boy cry, “Pastor, rescue me!”

It was too late.

Away from the flames, Mburu was attacked and viciously beaten. Several blows struck his face, and eight teeth flew from his mouth in a cascade of blood. Then he felt the searing pain of a stab wound.           

“After I was pierced I felt like I was dying,” he says. “My strength left me as my blood did.”

AG involvement

After a month of fighting, thousands of refugees still live in overcrowded camps in the Nairobi area. One teenage boy surveys his surroundings and wonders aloud about his family’s future.

“We’ve lost everything,” he says, waving a hand as if to say, Look at our pitiful circumstance. “We have absolutely nothing. No place for accommodations or for business. When we go back to our villages, we’ll have to start from zero.”

For some Kikuyus, going back to their villages is not an option. Because of this, Beggs is convinced that relief efforts will continue for months. 

“The refugee situation is deteriorating and will get worse in the coming months,” he speculates. “It’s been a difficult task to feed and shelter people. Eventually, we will begin to rebuild the churches that were destroyed, but first we must help get the 70,000 displaced AG believers back into homes.”

Doing so will not be easy. Many refugees are afraid to leave the confines of the camps — even though disease, abuse, deprivation and theft are common.

“There is a huge scar on Kenya’s psyche,” continues Beggs. “Our job is to preach forgiveness and acceptance. The tribal rift will be hard to overcome, but healing is possible. However, it may take months if not years for that to happen.”

Beggs and others believe selflessly serving others will help bring healing to the country. Since the election, tens of thousands of Kenyans have sought sanctuary at police stations, schools, fairgrounds and churches in the Eldoret, Burnt Forest and Nakuru areas. Before the violence began, people from multiple tribes worshipped side by side in AG churches. Even now, despite what they have suffered, AG believers are quick to show love toward their attackers.

Since early January, the Kenya AG has helped provide support for numerous camps throughout the country. The national church has been able to respond swiftly to immediate needs with supplies and finances provided by local churches and missionaries.

Within days after the initial bloodshed, Convoy of Hope had filled 10 shipping containers with clothing, bedding and mattresses to help those affected and was preparing for the long-term relief and recovery efforts. AG Relief supplied funds for the shipping of the containers. This aid continues to be a lifeline for thousands who have lost everything. 

Convoy of Hope and AG World Missions have partnered together to build a distribution center where supplies will be housed then sent to areas via Speed the Light donated vehicles. Because of the center’s strategic location in Nairobi, missionaries will be able to more easily address many of the continent’s scourges, including lack of clean drinking water, food shortages and insufficient housing.  Recently, ground was broken for the center, which will be completed shortly. 

“The refugee situation in Kenya is going to continue for at least several months,” says AG World Missions Communications Director Randy Hurst. “The Kenya AG believers are sharing their food and clothing with their homeless brothers and sisters as well as nonbelievers. But they are overwhelmed with the refugee need and desperately need our ongoing help to adequately feed them.”

“We need to keep offering all the hope we can to our Kenya Assemblies of God national churches that are bearing such a tremendous load in caring for the suffering,” McClaflin says.

Because of Convoy of Hope’s unique partnerships with corporations, every dollar sent to AG Relief can provide $5 worth of supplies. For $24, Convoy of Hope can purchase 110 pounds of beans; $41 will buy 110 pounds of rice; $13 will buy 110 pounds of maize; and $5 will purchase a warm blanket. Just over $2 a day can feed a family of five.

“Two dollars will provide maize, beans and a vegetable for an entire family,” says Hurst. “In 10 years of relief work I have never seen a time when $2 could stretch so far to help people in need. This is an excellent opportunity to impact people’s lives.”

Shortly after photographer Gaylon Wampler documented the Kenya crisis for this TPE World Missions Edition, Jehosephat Karingu Mungai, an elderly man who had sought refuge at Kamirithu AG in Nairobi, died. AG missionary Bryan Burr, who serves as the East Africa regional representative for Convoy of Hope and is leading relief assessment for the AG, attended the funeral. He said, “At the funeral, it was announced that because of the love and care that had been shown to their father and family, two of his youngest sons had accepted Christ as their Savior just before he died.”

“Assemblies of God missions relief efforts always offer more than just physical help,” says Hurst. “Jehosephat Mungai’s family saw the love of Christ demonstrated. That’s the strength of our Fellowship. We are present before, during and after crisis situations. When we do relief work, we touch people’s lives spiritually.”

Burr says the long-term plan to help stabilize Kenya includes helping people rebuild their lives. This will involve providing them with tools, livestock, seeds for farming, and materials to construct homes and churches.

“By giving them the basic tools to start a farm, we will be helping them get back on their feet,” he says.

Staying power

Within weeks after the violence began, attention by the international media waned. But while the initial shock factor of the disaster may have passed, the lean months of the aftermath have just begun.

Hurst recalls another horrific conflict in Africa 14 years ago: the genocide in Rwanda. “After the worst initial violence was over (almost 1 million died in 100 days), a wire service photographer was packing up to leave. He said to one of our missionaries, ‘This story is over; we’re moving on.’ Our missionary replied, ‘This story is just beginning.’”

When Indonesia was racked by an earthquake-induced tsunami, the international media, the AG and nearly 300 other relief organizations raced into Aceh province, one of the hardest hit places, to help. Three months later, 90 percent of the agencies and almost all of the international media presence had left. The AG stayed.

“We stayed for more than two years,” says Hurst. “In that time we built 67 schools. Our AG churches in the U.S. gave enough to pay all the costs of construction, and no project was left unfinished.”

Hurst says a strong AG presence in Kenya is critical.

“Though the media is not reporting on the situation in Kenya as much as they were, the people still need our help,” he says. “AG Relief is committed to sending several hundred thousand dollars to Kenya each month for the next few months, if enough AG churches respond to our appeals.”

Despite the attacks, the national church in Kenya is strong and vibrant. Thirty AGWM missionaries are ministering in the country and are actively assisting the Kenya Fellowship in its efforts to rebuild homes, churches and lives.

“We’ll be there to pick up the pieces when peace returns,” says McClaflin. “We’ll be there to help rebuild the infrastructure, offer moral support and be a conduit of tangible assistance from the United States.”

A place of refuge

Fifteen minutes after Pastor Mburu was beaten, police arrived. He was taken to a hospital where he spent more than a week.

Mburu was one of the fortunate members of Kiambaa church. More than 50 people died in the fire. Among them were women, children and several of the elders who had prayed through the night with their pastor. 

Recently, Mburu returned to his church. As he gazed at the remains, he didn’t seem bitter. Instead, he seemed overwhelmed. “The attackers did not recognize the church was a place of refuge,” he said solemnly.

But tens of thousands of homeless and suffering Kenyans are finding refuge, not in a church building but in the love shown them by the people of the church — in Kenya and around the world.


KIRK NOONAN is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Simple Plan (knoonan.agblogger.org).

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