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Sports Program Seeks to Bring Tribal Peace to Kenya's Volatile Rift Valley

Sports programs in Kenya's Rift Valley seek to build trust by teaching the value of teamwork
Sports programs in Kenya's Rift Valley seek to build trust by teaching the value of teamwork

Two years ago, Kenya's Rift Valley was the epicenter of ethnic violence that followed the country's disputed presidential elections. As the country heads to the polls again Wednesday to vote on a draft constitution, there is fear that divisions over the constitution will again ignite tribal fighting. A local effort to bring peace through sports is gaining international attention.

Twenty-five year old Eldoret resident David Maina is lucky to be alive. In early 2008, doctors feared he would not survive after he was struck by an arrow that tore through his chest.

Maina says he did not know his attacker except that he was a member of the Kalenjin tribe - the same tribe of Maina's neighbor, Titus Koech.

Koech says Maina was targeted simply because he was a Kikuyu, the tribe of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki. The Kalenjin accuse Mr. Kibaki of stealing the election.

Koech says the election results enraged the Kalenjins, and many began hunting down Kikuyus because they supported Mr. Kibaki. Koech says once the violence began, it was almost impossible to stop.

The town of Eldoret, and other areas of the Rift Valley, have a long history of violence between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. For decades, the two tribes have fought over land, political power and economic opportunities in conflicts fueled by politicians in Nairobi.

The presidential vote in December 2007 unleashed pent up anger in the Rift Valley and other contested areas of the country. Months of violence and mayhem left 1,500 people dead and more than a half million others homeless.

In the Kalenjin-dominated Rift Valley, there is still plenty of evidence of tribal tensions. Hundreds of ethnic Kikuyus and members of allied tribes still live in temporary camps because they cannot afford to rebuild their homes or are too afraid to go back.

But one local peace-building effort is aiming to change the way ethnic communities view and interact with each other.
A project called Rift Valley Local Empowerment for Peace is using sports to restore community ties.

One of the local leaders of the project, Timothy Lusala, says since last year, about 150 teams have been formed, teaching more than 3,000 youths from different tribes the value of teamwork.

"What we did, we started forming teams. We gave each influential leader of ethnic community a ball - a volleyball, others football. They go back to their communities to start a team and we had a condition. The team must be a mixed-tribe team. The sports component was just to bring people[together] and to remove that tension," said Lusala, program manager for Africa Sports, Talents and Empowerment.

Removing tension means building trust. And using exercises like this one, where one blindfolded player has to rely on another to kick a ball through an obstacle course. New friendships are forged.

The international aid organization Mercy Corps and the American sportswear giant Nike support the program, donating money and team uniforms.

Maurice Amollo, the Mercy Corps' project manager in Eldore, says both organizations are proud to be contributing to an effort that allows both parents and children here an opportunity to understand and embrace ethnic diversity.

"We are hoping that by bringing all these people together, and reaching as many as possible, we will be able to create a critical mass of individuals who can stand up and say 'no' to the merchants of violence when they come. That is really enhanced through sporting activity that they carry out. It increases interaction. It's intense. It's continuous, and, of course, then, it provides space from within which they can begin to talk to each other, know each other, meet each other at a different level," he said.

One kick at a time, communities are making progress toward a future, where no Kenyan will have to experience the horrors of ethnic intolerance ever again.