Kenyan Unrest, Jersey Style


If you know where to look as you travel through Jersey City, you can spot the institutions of one of the most vital Kenyan communities in the United States. There’s the Mallory Coffee Shop, where Kenyans can order ugali, an
oatmeal-like dish, with a side of goat meat and managu, a leafy vegetable. There’s the Nyati Lounge and Tropical Grill, a social club where on some nights you can listen to live benga, a brand of East African dance music, and on others attend a fundraiser for a sick elder. And there are the churches, important centers for a people known for spending hours in holy worship: Muungano Seventh-Day Adventist, Tumaini Kristo Lutheran, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, and others.

Located on West Side Avenue, just off a busy intersection, stands Mzalendo One Stop, a multipurpose business that repairs computers, sells large bags of corn flour, stocks DVDs of Nigerian movies, and sends money grams overseas. On a recent evening, Kenyans filed in and out of the store, speaking animatedly of the unrest in their home country. More than 1,000 people have been killed and 600,000 displaced in the violence that has followed the disputed presidential election of December 27. Before long, it was obvious that Mzalendo One Stop has become a hub of support for the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party of opposition leader Raila Odinga, who has visited Jersey City several times, most recently for a rally in October.

“Kibaki’s an animal,” muttered one man as he breezed through the store. He was referring to Kenya’s incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU), who was the beneficiary of blatant voting irregularities, according to election observers.

“Hey!” shouted another in mock indignation. “That’s the president of my country!”

Much of the talk centered on the violence that has wracked the nation for weeks as political leaders have failed to come to a meaningful reconciliation. The attacks, which are spurred on by a complex array of economic, political, and ethnic factors, have often pitted members of Odinga’s Luo tribe and other allied tribes against members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s largest ethnic group and long a dominant force in business and politics, and its allies (or perceived allies). The preferred weapons have been machetes, bows and poisoned arrows, stones, and clubs, and the scenes have been ugly. One American official has characterized some of the violence as ethnic cleansing.

The anti-Kibaki men at Mzalendo
One Stop, mostly of the Luo and Kisii tribes, described tension-filled phone calls, sometimes as many as several a day, to family members back in Kenya. “My father couldn’t talk today because his house was surrounded,” said Richard Ogutu. “The guy is 86 years old. He’s so worried he doesn’t know what to say next!” One man spoke of how his mother had been forced from her home, which was then ransacked; another complained that the Kenyan police weren’t providing protection for his hunted brothers.

Then a young man wearing a New York Yankees cap mentioned something that increasingly worries the leaders of the Kenyan community in Jersey City and environs: “The problem is that it is starting to divide our people here,” said Duncan Omwenga, a student who works for a phone company. He said that Kikuyus—a minority tribe in Jersey City, at least—have started to separate themselves from Kenyans of opposing tribes. “They don’t come here to get their phone cards anymore,” he said.

While there are only about 4,000 Kenyans in and around Jersey City, their influence far exceeds their numbers, particularly back in Kenya. An even moderately successful Jersey Kenyan can pay for the construction of schools and churches, support families and extended families, and even influence elections. If a New Jersey resident decides to support a candidate, a whole village in Kenya might follow his lead.

As such, both the opposition ODM and the ruling PNU have party organizations in New Jersey, and each has held fundraisers and rallies in support of their candidates. It has been estimated that about 70 percent of Jersey Kenyans are ODM supporters, with the remainder favoring PNU. So it’s no surprise that Raila Odinga and other ODM officials have visited the area more frequently than PNU leaders. Benson Wandabwa, a regional organizer for the PNU (and a member of the Luhya tribe) who helped to coordinate a fundraiser for the party in North Bergen, admitted that not much money was raised at the time. “We just wanted to popularize the party here,” he said.

Many community members are eager to speak of how Kenyans in the United States (many here on student visas) have dealt with each other as fellow Kenyans rather than as Luos or Kikuyus or Kalinjins. Such national fellowship is helpful for finding jobs and apartments. Intermarriages are common and uncontroversial. “This is the first time that we are even asking this question,” said Wambugu Thuo, a Kikuyu supporter of Kibaki who insisted that he thinks of himself first as an American of Kenyan origin. “We all go to the same churches, we go to the same social functions,” he said. “I personally haven’t seen the division. If it emerges, it will be a very unfortunate situation.”

Others have seen it, however. A short while after the discussion at Mzalendo One Stop, a prayer service was held at St. Patrick’s Church, a short ride across town. Religious leaders from several denominations ascended the pulpit to exhort local Kenyans to move beyond the differences that are roiling their home country. “When you call back to Kenya, tell your family to stand above tribalism,” said the Reverend Haron K. Orutwa, a Lutheran.

Shem Joel Onditi, a Seventh-Day Adventist elder who operates a pair of day-care centers, preached peace. At one point, he implored: “Stop attacking each other on the Internet! Please stop it!”

The Internet seems a prime vehicle for Kenyan frustration in the United States. Several Kikuyus from Jersey City who didn’t respond to requests for comment weren’t shy about posting their comments online. According to the Public Eye, a Web site that covers community events, “some Kikuyus are unsubscribing from Web sites and forums owned by other communities, they are moving out of shared apartments and disassociating themselves from activities of other Kenyans.” A few speakers at St. Patrick’s noted the poor attendance at the meeting, complaining that the full spectrum of the community wasn’t represented. Another meeting—this one intertribal and interdenominational—was quickly scheduled for later in the month.

The worry, said Onditi in an interview a week before the prayer service, is that the situation in Kenya—despite some progress in peace talks last week—will continued to spin farther and farther out of control. “If this goes to genocide, we need to prepare ourselves,” he said. “If that violence continues, it’s not going to be very friendly here.”