"When I visited the village of Sombo in Kenya’s eastern Tana River District this past August, I made an instant friend. She was five years old, and all big brown eyes and a mouth full of missing baby teeth. I was supposed to be working – greeting the local water committee, asking questions of my Kenya-based colleagues about the Action Against Hunger water projects I was seeing – and I was, just not the whole time.
Part of the time I found myself entrenched in a game with this little girl from the village who was following our group intently – I smiled at her, and she smiled back bigger. I smiled even bigger, and then she basically smiled her face off. It all ended in a fit of bona fide giggles. We didn’t speak the same language, but somehow she quickly became pretty much my favorite person ever.
I’m thinking about my smiley friend a lot this week, as Kenyans prepare to make their way to the polls on Monday, for the first time in five years. I’m thinking about the fact that five years ago, more than 1,000 Kenyans lost their lives in violent election-related clashes. I’m thinking about the fact that, as the New York Times reported last week, Tana River is already experiencing violence along ethnic lines over which candidates to support. I’m thinking about the strange duality of Kenya, the stable, growing economy with a strong middle class – and Kenya, the nation vulnerable to the disruptions and insecurity of elections that are not peaceful.
The outcome of these elections will be consequential. New leaders will be charged with implementing Kenya’s new constitution, and tasked with decentralising the government in a massive overhaul. Decisions this momentous stir fierce emotions in Tana River and elsewhere, and yet we can all hope that the elections and their aftermath take place in a civil, safe manner.
Tana River had its share of insecurity even before this elections period started. Days before I visited, a clash between farmers and pastoralists there killed nearly 200 people, many of them women and children not unlike my smiley friend. It was, and still is, nearly impossible for me to resolve the disparity between the warm, welcoming communities I met – and danced with, and dined with, and smiled my biggest smiles with – and the fears they have to face every day.
According to the United Nations, post-election violence could displace some 400,000 people across the country. Whatever happens next week, Action Against Hunger’s teams will be there to stand with and support the people of Kenya. Our emergency response teams are ready to scale up our nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene, and food security programs for those who need them.
My hope right now is that they won’t have to. My hope is that my friend can keep growing up in Sombo, smiling her perfect smile."
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