In a room by the stairs, Shukrani Malingi, a Pokomo farmer, writhed on a metal cot, the skin on his back burned off. Down the hall, at a safe distance, Rahema Hageyo, an Orma girl, stared blankly out of a window, a long scar above her thimble-like neck. She was nearly decapitated by a machete chop — and she is only 9 months old. Ever since vicious ethnic clashes erupted between the Pokomo and Orma several months ago in a swampy, desolate part of Kenya, the Tawfiq Hospital has instituted a strict policy for the victims who are trundled in: Pokomos on one side, Ormas on the other. The longstanding rivalry, which both sides say has been inflamed by a governor’s race, has become so explosive that the two groups remain segregated even while receiving lifesaving care. When patients leave their rooms to use the restroom, they shuffle guardedly past one another in their bloodstained smocks, sometimes pushing creaky IV stands, not uttering a word. “There are three reasons for this war,” said Elisha Bwora, a Pokomo elder. “Tribe, land and politics.” Every five years or so, this stable and typically peaceful country, an oasis of development in a very poor and turbulent region, suffers a frightening transformation in which age-old grievances get stirred up, ethnically based militias are mobilized and neighbors start killing neighbors. The reason is elections, and another huge one — one of the most important in this country’s history and definitely the most complicated — is barreling this way.
In less than two weeks, Kenyans will line up by the millions to pick their leaders for the first time since a disastrous vote in 2007, which set off clashes that killed more than 1,000 people. The country has spent years agonizing over the wounds and has taken some steps to repair itself, most notably passing a new constitution. But justice has been elusive, politics remain ethnically tinged and leaders charged with crimes against humanity have a real chance of winning.
People here tend to vote in ethnic blocs, and during election time Kenyan politicians have a history of stoking these divisions and sometimes even financing murder sprees, according to court documents. This time around, the vitriolic speeches seem more restrained, but in some areas where violence erupted after the last vote the underlying message of us versus them is still abundantly clear.
Now, the country is asking a simple but urgent question: Will history repeat itself?