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Kenyans Struggle Toward Normalcy


More and more Kenyans are saying it these days: Things are getting back to normal. After months of political and ethnic unrest left 1,000 people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more, lawmakers this week ratified a power-sharing deal that brings the political opposition into a coalition government.

But as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, life in Kenya these days is a lot like life in any household after a big family fight. Everything may look normal, but nothing is quite the same.


GWEN THOMPKINS: If you want to know how Kenyans are doing nowadays, head straight for the grocery store. There among the maize meal and the milk and the toilet tissue, you can learn a lot. Moses Kugwema(ph) is the manager of a little grocery in downtown Nairobi. He can hardly afford what's on the shelves.

Mr. MOSES KUGWEMA (Manager of Grocery Store): Life in Kenya is very hard, very, very hard because we cannot afford every thing which you need to use, like milk. Most people, they don't take tea with milk, they take cream 'cause they can't afford milk.

THOMPKINS: Peace is expensive in Kenya, where political and ethnic fighting in the agricultural heartland of the country destroyed crops and killed livestock. Higher transportation costs are also driving up prices of everyday items. Maybe by the next harvest, maize meal will be more affordable. But corn can't grow any faster than it grows so until nature takes its course, Kenyans will have to pay up. Trouble is, some people are down to one meal a day.

Ms. SARAH NYAMBORA(ph) (Shop Owner): Nowadays, if it gets even five or six days without selling anything.

THOMPKINS: Sarah Nyambora runs a little shop for tourists near the grocery store downtown. But tourism, a mainstay of the Kenyan economy, is dead these days. And the last thing most local people want to spend money on is a carved buffalo head. That is, unless the head comes with a side order of fries. Nyambora's income is dropping.


Mr. PETER WAWERU(ph) (Hotel Employee): You can hardly sustain yourself. You can hardly take care of costs.

THOMPKINS: Peter Waweru works at a swank hotel downtown. But he says that even he can't afford all the niceties he used to enjoy. A single young man likes cocktails and pretty girls, but both are almost out of his reach. Waweru is a Kikuyu tribesman. He's now helping to support family members who were burned off their farms in the Rift Valley.

Mr. WAWERU: And that caused upon all of us in the family to put in something into a kitty that is supporting these displaced people.

THOMPKINS: Displaced and anxious. Killings last weekend have left more than a dozen Kenyans dead, mostly in the countryside. Clarice Odiambo(ph) is unsettled. She's a preschool teacher with seven kids of her own to raise. They used to live north of Nairobi in the Kikuyu-dominated central province of Kenya. But when the unpleasantness erupted after the election, Luos, like Odiambo, weren't welcome anymore.

She says she felt uncomfortable speaking her own tribal language.

Ms. CLARICE ODIAMBO (Preschool Teacher): We could not speak unintelligible) where you could not. We used to be (unintelligible).

THOMPKINS: After a Luo man was beaten to death in front of her daughter, Odiambo moved the family to a Masai area four bus rides away. The Ngong hills were made famous by the book and film, "Out of Africa." The lover of author Isak Dinesen is buried here. But Odiambo couldn't care less about the romance of this place. She just wants the peace.

Odiambo says her children now cower when they hear people speaking Kikuyu.

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THOMPKINS: But peace is loud in Kenya, and multilingual. Back in Nairobi at the main market in one of the world's most crowded slums, vendors of every ethnic stripe are piecing together their stalls and selling what they can.

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THOMPKINS: This is where you can see a machete, the weapon of choice during the troubles, do a good thing, like cut lumber to size. Terrasia Camal(ph) is a Kikuyu who sells cookies, hard candy and steel wool in her stall. She doesn't speak English a lot, but she really wanted you all to hear what she had to say, so she said it twice.

Ms. TERRASIA CAMAL (Vendor): May God bless the work of my huts. May God bless the work of my huts.

THOMPKINS: The vendors here are quick to tell you their ethnicity. Two months of ethnic fighting can do that to a population, particularly in the mishmash of Nairobi, where during the height of the tensions, a person's tribe was either a boon or a handicap from one block to the next.

But maybe more people here should go to the movies. Before the previews of every movie played in Kenya, the screen fills with an image of a billowing Kenyan flag. The audience stands up, and a recording of the national anthem plays. Today, before the afternoon showing of the movie "Juno," a young girl bounded out of her seat and snapped to attention. In the dark, she had no ethnicity - she was just a Kenyan.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.

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STAMBERG: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.