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January to February 2008


February 13, 2008

Friends – here we are again, still ….

As I was sending “Letter from Kenya #2”, things were deteriorating rapidly in Nakuru and Naivasha, two towns in the Rift Valley very dear to me. I was born in Nakuru, and that is where we would have been into our 4th day of shooting the BBC comedy series when everything turned nasty on 25th January. Naivasha is where my parents lived for 8 years, and the home of many friends. And between the two lies Soysambu Conservancy where we spent the best years of our youth and where Kat, my sister-in-law, is struggling to build a co-existence between the wildlife and neighbouring communities.

In Nakuru we did not see the looting and burning of businesses as happened in Kisumu at the start of the chaos. But whilst the town centre was tense, scores of houses were torched in the low income residential estates in the southern suburbs leaving many more families homeless.

Naivasha is Kenya’s horticultural centre and the flower farms employed hundreds of people from all regions of Kenya. Gangs of “imported” youths wreaked havoc in the town. The level of violence was horrific and we saw the true meaning of bloodlust. This continued for 3 days until an uneasy calm settled, but leaving thousands more displaced people, a terrified local populace and the farms operating with reduced staff levels. Within days, though, there were people waiting at the gates hoping to replace those who had been evicted.

On Monday morning, the 28th January, the mood in the office was sombre, but Lillyan, our Production Assistant and a Luo who lives with her extended family in Kibera, provided some light relief announcing that her newborn nephew is to be christened “Mass Action”… “Teargas” came in a close second.

Mediation talks began the next day and gradually calm has returned and Kofi Annan seems to be making progress. Kenya is no longer headline news and long may that last.

The focus is now on the humanitarian crisis. For the 300,000 displaced people living in the hastily set up camps, it is estimated that the same number of people have been taken in by neighbours, friends and families. The response from Kenyans is overwhelming. Collection boxes placed at the entrance of major supermarkets are literally overflowing with donations, day after day. The Naivasha Community Project is reporting that residents in the area are providing more assistance than the Red Cross and all the NGO’s together.

Thousands of pupils have not returned to school, many of their schools having been destroyed and their teachers hounded out because they are considered to be foreigners. There are an estimated 100,000 children in the IDP camps, most traumatized by violence but makeshift schools have been set up to continue the learning process. Many families were separated and the Red Cross is doing a great job reuniting children who have been separated from their parents.Tourism has taken the heaviest toll with many hotels closing down and 20,000 workers laid off. Conversely, the ecosystem in the game parks – especially the Masai Mara, gets a well earned respite from minivans, and wildlife film-makers who decided to stay on have paradise all to themselves.

Spare a thought for our police force. The expressions on the faces of truckloads of police being ferried into Kibera told it all. Many were fresh recruits from Kiganjo Police college sent to the frontline with little experience because the force was so overstretched In an hour’s interview on television with Police Commissioner Ali, all apart from two displayed text messages from the viewers were supportive praising the policemen’s behaviour under pressure. We have never seen such tremendous support for the police thanks to Brigadier Ali, arguably the best Police Commissioner Kenya has had.
And finally, an example of an enterprising farmer … how do you move your entire livestock herd of 50 goats and 4 cows when you can only afford one 3-ton truck for a single trip? I was following this truck last week: it had high sides with metal frames across the top. Through the sides I could see the cattle comfortably standing in the truck, and above them the goats all suspended in hammocks made of nylon sacking, 4 goats per hammock with their heads sticking out surveying the landscape!

Now the Mediation team have gone to an undisclosed destination to finalise the negotiations. Kenyans hate secrets and the press are frantically trying to find out where they are. It is quite hilarious – brings back memories of the paparazzi trying to find our “Survivor” location in 2001 and that wonderful quote from Aidan Hartley “in this country ‘my lips are sealed’ means you are talking out of another orifice”!

January 27, 2008

Dear Friends,

The situation still changes on a daily basis. Early in the week it was all doom and gloom – a “peaceful” prayer meeting by ODM on Tuesday, sanctioned by the police but with the usual doubts that peace would prevail. Then Raila calling for another 3 days of mass action Wednesday to Friday. Further, the mediation group led by Kofi Annan seemed to be taking their time getting here.

The memorial prayer meeting was for victims of the violence in the slums and was held at a football ground on Ngong Road. All went peacefully until a small group of youths arrived and started stoning the police, who retaliated and panic erupted. John Sutton was monitoring the situation and his comments follow :

I was at Harlequins ground watching the entire proceedings and providing travel safety updates. No cars were burnt but all the windows of the telkom building were smashed. The function was being held at the "Ligi Ndogo" football ground next to Harlequins ground. After the police tear gassed the meeting there was no attempt to regroup and everyone went home. Despite the large crowd blocking Ngong road there was more fear from the motorists than actual acts of violence as seen in the previous rallies. I did not see any vehicle pelted with stones. Apart from experiencing the discomfort of tear gas and moments of apprehension when everyone was scampering for cover leaving pall bearers running down the road with their coffins trying to stop their respective vehicles from leaving them behind to the mercy of the GSU. Generally the crowds were noisy but mostly peaceful. At the request of Kofi Annan, the mass action called for the next three days was cancelled by Raila and life goes on. There are no shortages, the traffic is awful, and the Kenya Shilling is weakening dramatically.

Meanwhile, the violence continues in remote rural communities and our film industry has suffered its first casualty as a direct result of the ethnic violence. Peter Mbugua, a carpenter with our Construction Crew, went back to Molo together with his brother to evacuate his elderly parents from their family home. This area has suffered the worst and saw the first ethnic violence back in the Moi era. Peter, his brother and father were all murdered and their vehicle burnt. His mother has since been evacuated and we are holding a collection to assist his wife who is left with a month old baby.

On Saturday, 12th January, I travelled to Nakuru accompanied by the BBC security assessor and John Sutton. Everything was normal in Nakuru town and we went to Njoro for lunch with Andrew and Zoe Nightingale, where the actors were to stay. The Nakuru Showground, where we hope to film several scenes, was accommodating several hundred displaced families. On the way back to Nairobi we could see homesteads burning on Eburru and the Mau, and the large number of vehicles traveling towards Nairobi loaded with household possessions were noticeable.

On Tuesday, 15th January, the streets around Parliament were closed off in preparation for the Swearing-in of the new Members as well as the election of Speaker of the National Assembly, which was broadcast live on TV. We watched the sworn enemies back-slapping and laughing together whilst Kenya suffered. The ODM contender eventually won the vote as Speaker – and the slums erupted in jubilation. And for the Deputy Speaker’s position, the gentlemanly PNU candidate conceded to his opponent. More ODM celebration and dancing in the alleys of Kibera. Proceedings were orderly and the speakers were eloquent. After clarification that MP’s were swearing allegiance to the State and not the (?) President, the procedure continued until 1.30 a.m. and Kibaki sat all the way through as MP for Othaya.

As we watched TV the heavens opened. Sixty millimeters of rain fell overnight and continued into the morning – a good sign as Kenyans are generally fair-weather rioters. We braced for the mass action. Next morning work in Nairobi continued, traffic jams were back, and at Pontact it was business as usual. Late morning the rain cleared. Apart from a half-hearted march towards town by some of the ODM leaders which was quickly repulsed by police with teargas, the violence was contained in the slums, mainly Kibera, and it was intense. The police and GSU (General Service Unit, the military arm of the police) circled Kibera and stopped protesters leaving; first a goods train was stopped and the cargo of foodstuffs bound for Kisumu looted, then they managed to uproot a kilometer of railway line.

The City cautiously continued business as usual, but on Thursday afternoon trouble threatened and the police called for all businesses to close and everyone evacuate the Central Business District in 15 minutes! Nose to tail traffic ensued, but moved safely and the police contained whatever the threat was. Can you imagine your capital city evacuating in 15 minutes? On Friday, businesses opened again but started closing earlier than usual. And on Saturday everything was back to normal and this continued up to Wednesday and the aforementioned abhorted prayer meeting.

>From several eye witness reports it is obvious that the trouble is always started by a small group of youths who goad the police into retaliating. They number about 2% of the crowd. They are probably being paid, but by whom?

We have been having meetings between the stakeholders and the Kenya Film Commission to plan the way forward and damage control. The tourist industry has been hit the hardest with many hotels, particularly at the coast, closing and laying off hundreds of workers. Tanzania, meanwhile, reaps the benefits. All the cruise ships has diverted to Dar es Salaam and it is only a matter of time before Mombasa Port starts suffering as it becomes more difficult for goods to transit to Uganda and the Lakes region.

On Thursday, Kibaki and Raila stood on the steps of the Office of the President with Kofi Annan and shook hands. Then Kibaki mentioned in his short speech that he is “the elected and sworn in President of Kenya”!

There has not been much progress reported on the talks in the last 48 hours. But the news from Nakuru is bad as violence has flared up and several people killed. The fighting is amongst the lower income people in the residential estates West of the town, whilst the town itself is quiet but very tense. The headline being put out by Sky News that half the town was burnt is not true, in fact very far from the truth. The army are helping the police (because a large army battalion is based in Nakuru), and there is a dusk to dawn curfew. Meanwhile, Waterbuck Hotel (our crew base when we are there) is open for business and many people passing through have reported groups of foreign journalists cruising around town like tourists. We will keep a watch on the situation and report in the next letter.

January 15, 2008

Dear Friends,

Having received emails from all over the world we thank you for your concern. With the situation changing daily, this letter has had many beginnings but, with the current steady improvement its time to dispatch it.

The run-up to the General Election went smoothly and Kenya was looking forward to the closest result in history. There was no antagonism. Many, including the younger middle class, wanted change in the form of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and Raila Odinga, whilst others appreciated the stability of the encumbent President Kibaki and his impressive economic record of the past five years. Voting went smoothly on 27th December with the highest ever turnout and everyone eagerly awaited the results. Most Kenyans, regardless of party loyalties, were delighted that most of the unpopular old “dinosaurs” of the previous Cabinet lost their seats. Democracy was prevailing.

On 29th December, as the counting proceeded, things started going downhill. As we watched the results being read out by the Electoral Commission (ECK) Chairman, it was obvious that Raila was forging ahead of Kibaki. But it was equally obvious that those results were from Western province (Raila’s area) whilst those of the much closer constituencies in Central Province were being held back … the easier to “fix” the numbers for Kibaki once they knew his opponent’s figures. Raila and his team appeared at the Conference Hall and started objecting and the ECK refused to even acknowledge them. This blatant rigging was broadcast live to the nation. Some differences between Constituency results and ECK announcements were as much as 500,000 in favour of Kibaki. (In retrospect, it must be said that Raila has admitted rigging on ODM’s part as well, hence the impasse). On Sunday 30th, when the objections increased, the ECK Chairman was hustled out of the hall and the venue closed, and within the hour he appeared on TV announcing Kibaki as the President, closely followed by a hurried swearing-in ceremony at State House. Chaos erupted instantaneously.

The media wasted no time in spreading the news of the violence, in fact several people have told me they first saw it on CNN and BBC World. But it was real, and it was shocking. We watched in disbelief and horror the looting and chaos, particularly in Kisumu and Eldoret and the Nairobi slums. Neighbour attacked neighbour. Our beautiful country burned.

A few diehards returned to work on 2nd January – myself included purely because I live and work on the mostly Kikuyu side of town which was calm. It did not take long for life to return to normal all over Nairobi. Fuel is back in the pumps and supermarket shelves are restocked. Who could have thought that sitting in a gridlocked Nairobi traffic jam would bring a feeling of well being?

Many family, friends and workers had travelled to the countryside for Christmas and New Year. Regular Travel Safety updates circulated on SMS from our security consultant, John Sutton, guided people back home. John provided this as a voluntary service and patrolled the streets for days and nights without sleep, at the same time liaising with the Police. Those who ventured further afield, to Western Kenya, are still trickling back because they have to wait to travel in convoys with Police escorts.

By all accounts, all our freelance film crew are safe and sound. Some who live in Kibera had to evacuate their homes hastily, and they are biding their time elsewhere.

The shocking scenes of violence and burning you have been seeing on your television screens have been in Mathare and Kibera slums which are home to many unemployed people and lawless gangs and hooligans who wait for an opportunity such as this to loot and burn. Other low cost suburbs like Majengo and Gikomba (the main”mitumba” market) with multi-ethnic communities have remained peaceful throughout. And Eastleigh, the Somali neighbourhood, has been unaffected and quiet.

It is hard to perceive that two people can cause so much chaos to millions, not only in Kenya but also Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi. But Kenyans are resilient and caring. The Red Cross and camps for displaced people are flooded with donations and volunteers. The numbers in these centres - police stations, agricultural showgrounds and church compounds – are reducing as families return to their home areas and are taken in by relatives some haven’t seen for decades. The extended family system is still alive in Kenya.

Whilst the world media have coined a new phrase – Post Election Violence – and kept repeating violent scenes long after calm had been restored, the local media and entertainment industry have played a major role in calming the situation. FM stations and music celebrities are coordinating assistance for the displaced people and film crew offering their personal expertise wherever it can help.

As we hope and pray for a solution, we shall see what this week brings with the opening of Parliament, election of Speaker of the National Assembly, and the promise of 3 days’ “peaceful” mass action by ODM, for which support seems to be dwindling as more people yearn for tranquility.

The BBC comedy series in Nakuru from 21st January to beginning March has been postponed until later this year. The decision was not taken lightly but was unavoidable considering the UK Foreign Office travel advisory of “essential travel only” and subsequent insurance issues. Meanwhile, wildlife documentary crews are still filming and more are planning to come in February.

For those of you planning on filming in Kenya in the coming months, please consult us. Your safety is our prime concern. We are currently discussing damage control with stakeholders in the industry, the Kenya Film Commission and relevant authorities.
Postscript – Our efforts were not in vain

The good news is that “Heart of Fire”, which we filmed in Kenya for TV60, from July-September, has been accepted for the competition section of Berlinale (The Berlin Film Festival).

Keep a lookout for this outstanding film at a Festival near you.











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