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Union alums offer first-hand accounts of rioting in Kenya

Union University graduate Phyllis Anyango witnessed shootings in her native Kenya while she was there for her wedding. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)
Union University graduate Phyllis Anyango witnessed shootings in her native Kenya while she was there for her wedding. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)

JACKSON, Tenn.Jan. 14, 2008 – Phyllis Anyango’s Jan. 2 wedding in her native Kenya was supposed to be a time of celebration.

Instead, it was a time of fear and destruction.

“For about two days I didn’t even leave the house,” Anyango said. “You would hear gunshots going off, just right across the street. Houses were burning down. There was smoke everywhere. Nothing was functioning at all.”

Anyango, a 2005 Union graduate, returned to her home in Bells, Tenn., Jan. 9 after witnessing the mayhem in Kenya following the disputed outcome of a presidential election. During her time in Kenya, she saw shootings, store closings, road barricades, destroyed bridges and nonstop commotion and disorder.

Nearly 500 people have died in the rioting and attacks following the announcement that incumbent president Mwai Kibaki was the election’s winner.

Anyango’s journey home was delayed because of the unrest, as the airport in Nairobi was closed for several hours, and all departing flights were booked solid with people fleeing the country. Her new husband Patrick remains in Kenya and is trying to secure a visa to move to the United States.

Anyango recounted watching the results of the Dec. 27 presidential election between Kibaki and rival Raila Odinga.

“The opposition was actually gaining a huge lead,” Anyango said. “There was a time they were leading by over a million votes.”

The final result of the election wasn’t reported for about four or five days. The delay allowed intense emotions to simmer, as Anyango said “it was obvious something was wrong.”

The violence began when it was finally announced that Kibaki had won the election. Kibaki’s opponents believe the election was rigged, and thousands of rioters took to the streets protesting the outcome.

Justin Veneman, a 2004 Union graduate, was in Kenya as part of the International Mission Board’s journeyman program. He left the country Dec. 31 before the major outbreaks of violence started.

“When we drove to the airport, we just had a couple of roadblocks we had to drive around, but we didn’t run into any problems,” Veneman said.

He lived in a compound in Nairobi shared by the IMB and the Baptist Mission of Kenya, and says he didn’t leave the compound during his final hours in Kenya.

“There’s a slum behind our compound,” Veneman said. “We heard quite a few gunshots throughout the night.”

But though Nairobi was the focal point of the civil unrest, the problems weren’t contained there.

“It’s not just Nairobi,” Anyango said. “It’s the whole country. It’s everywhere.”

Anyango said all the stores were closed in her village, located several hours from Nairobi. Gas stations stopped selling fuel, because it was being used to burn down houses.

“I was in town and I actually saw police throw tear gas at people,” Anyango said. “Somebody was actually shot, just right there.”

To get out of the country, Anyango had to hire a taxi driver who had managed to secure some fuel. But that was only half the battle.

“Every 50 yards there was a barricade, so we had to stop every 10 seconds to try to find a way through,” she said. “That wasn’t just in one place. It was everywhere.”

Because airline tickets were hard to find, Anyango had to wait about three days before she found a woman who was tired of traveling and who sold Anyango her ticket. She flew from a small town to Nairobi, then to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Amsterdam in the Netherlands and finally Memphis, Tenn.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Anyango said. “I don’t know if it will ever be the same.”

Through the unrest, Anyango’s wedding did proceed – albeit with some slight modifications.

“I didn’t even get to cut the cake,” Anyango said. “It was stuck in Nairobi. It never made it.”

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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