11 August 2008


Machetes and Elections

Published: February 21, 2008

Until he was circumcised with a machete in front of a jeering mob and then dragged off to be beheaded, Robert Ochieng had been a symbol of modern, post-tribal harmony in Kenya.
A member of the Luo ethnic group, 16-year-old Robert had played and studied with members of another ethnic group, the Kikuyu. They were friends. And then Kenya erupted in rioting after a rigged election, and suddenly Luos were chasing and killing Kikuyus, and a mob of Kikuyus was running down Robert.

He claimed that he was Kikuyu as well, but the suspicious mob stripped him naked and noted that he was not circumcised, meaning that he could not be Kikuyu. That’s when his attackers held him down — smashing his arm when he tried to protect himself — and performed the grotesque surgery in the street to loud cheers from a huge throng.
The crowd shouted war cries and was preparing to decapitate Robert with a machete when the police arrived and rescued him. Doctors did some repair work and say he will recover physically, but as he sat in a church shelter for the displaced here in Kisumu in western Kenya, he seethed with hostility that may never heal.

“When I see Kikuyu shops that have been burned down,” he told me, “I feel good inside.” Never again will Robert be friendly with Kikuyu or have anything to do with them; he is now a symbol of the primeval tribal tensions that threaten Kenya’s future.

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