Kenyan Christians Overcome Ethnic Violence, Build Hope

A village high up in Kenya’s fertile Rift Valley is ablaze with hope—thanks in part to peacemakers from Nigeria, the outreach of local churches, and the willingness of bean farmers to build bridges of peace toward former enemies.

The community of Burnt Forest was settled in the early 1960s by families who burned the local trees to make way for farms. Since then, it has frequently been the site of ethnic tension and violent uprising between tribes.

Two years ago, when Kenya’s current president, Emilio Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner in a disputed election, thousands of people reacted in violence, taking up arms against people from minority tribes who, they thought, had supported the president.

Thousands were forced to flee for their lives. Houses, shops, and schools were burned. Many people died.

The Reformed Church of East Africa (RCEA), one of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee’s partners in Kenya, includes churches and members from many different tribal backgrounds. They were deeply affected.

“A year ago I visited Safia RCEA Tingwa church in Burnt Forest,” recalls CRWRC-Kenya staff member Fred Witteveen.

“It was an ethnically mixed congregation with the majority of members coming from the majority tribe. After the post-election violence, the church was struggling. Many neighboring farms had been burned. Many people in the church and community were fearful or angry. Attendance was less than 100 people and giving was low.”

Slowly, Burnt Forest and the RCEA have begun to heal. Shortly after the post-election violence, a local organization welcomed two well-known peacemakers from Nigeria. They facilitated a reconciliation process between the conflicted communities based on work that they had done in their own country between Muslim and Christian groups.

The reconciliation process led to the rebuilding and revival of the local market, where people of all tribes can buy and sell goods.

The church also began to rebuild. Members set a goal that within 15 years, 100 youths from the community would graduate from university. They then engaged their neighbors from all tribes to be part of the initiative.

Using no funds from outside sources, the church mobilized the community to raise money, purchase seed, and begin a new project to grow and export produce on the international market.

“As the group ran its projects, neighbors began attending Bible studies, and soon the church began to grow,” said Witteveen. “I asked them how they were relating to the neighbors who were forced to flee during the post-election violence. Their answer? Trading French beans. Through trade they were rebuilding trust, bit by bit.”

A year later the church had enough money to pay university fees for 18 youths, membership had grown to 300, and offerings had increased dramatically. Most important, the neighbors with whom members traded French beans had started attending the church.

“The church has learned that healing between communities leads to healing within, and healing within leads to greater healing between,” Witteveen said. He concluded, “The healing in Burnt Forest isn’t complete, but it has begun.”

About the Author

Kristen deRoo VanderBerg was part of the World Renew Communications team from 1999-2016. She now serves as director of Communications & Marketing for the Christian Reformed Church.

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