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St. Petersburg priest helps broker peace in Kenya

ST. PETERSBURG

Father John Kivuva Mwiya is back home now, safe, reunited with his wife and children.

But his mind is troubled. At night, sleep comes slowly. Better get some counseling, he's been told.

He is just back from Kenya, his former homeland, where he was caught up in bloody postelection violence. Disturbing images are burned into his brain:

Gunfire, violent mobs, the murder of civilians, terrified and hungry refugees. Perhaps worst, he watched as two men were dragged from his car and tortured on the side of the road.

Though Kenya is relatively calm today, with the rival political parties announcing a power sharing Cabinet earlier this week, the unrest took at least 1,200 lives. The toll is likely higher, since some were killed in rural areas, and those bodies may never be found. Tens of thousands fled or lost their homes.

Normally cheerful and outgoing, these days Kivuva is a quieter man.

He left for Kenya Dec. 12 and stayed in contact with the St. Petersburg Times by phone and e-mail. In interviews, he told of a journey that began with high hope and turned into what he called his "darkest day."

A contested election, then violence

Kivuva, 45, a priest at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church and part-time chaplain at St. Anthony's Hospital, left St. Petersburg for what was to be a two- to three-week visit to his former homeland. He planned to meet with Somali and Sudanese refugees on behalf of a group he helped to found in Kenya, supported by the Mennonite and Episcopal churches and others. He also was to speak to young people at an Anglican convention in Mai-Mahiu outside Nairobi.

He managed to do both before Kenya's Dec. 27 elections erupted into a national crisis. The conflict began with an announcement that President Mwai Kibaki, of the powerful Kikuyu tribe, had been re-elected.

Opposition candidate Raila Odinga, of the Luo tribe, contested the results, and soon the violence began. Homes belonging to Kikuyus were torched, forcing many to seek safety in open-air stadiums, churches, schools or on roadsides. It was the start of a vicious cycle of retaliation between the two groups.

Kivuva's widowed sister-in-law and three children — Kikuyus — lost their home to fire in the initial outbreak of violence. They sought refuge with about 2,000 others in a Roman Catholic church and a school in Molo, a town about 150 miles west of Nairobi. Kivuva was unable to reach them for several days. His mother, who was visiting Kivuva's brother, also couldn't return home.

Worse was to come.

'The darkest day
of all dark days'

It was Jan. 27, and Kivuva and several friends were driving to church in a town outside Naivasha, a city with a mix of tribes because of its many jobs in the European flower export business.

"We started seeing heaps of vehicles turning back," he said, some backing up rapidly.

"No one was talking," he said.

As they got closer, Kivuva and his passengers saw smoke from burning tires and vehicles that hundreds of young men had used to block the road. Police shot tear gas into the crowd and an officer said it was safe to continue.

"When we got close, that's when I saw evil," said Kivuva.

"Luo people don't get circumcised, and the Kikuyu people know that. That morning they decided that this was the day (for Luo men) to be circumcised. They stopped buses and told people to show their IDs and to begin counting from one to 10.

"They knew what tribe people belong to by the way they count. I had some people in the car who were in the wrong tribe. They were pulled out of the car. The two guys were taken into the bush then stripped and then the circumcision took place."

Some people tried to pay off their abductors with large sums of money, he said. Various news organizations reported the crude operations by angry mobs, and reported some died from the assaults.

"It was the worst thing I think I have dealt with. It hurts my mind and soul every time I think about it. I can't get over that. That picture can't get out of my mind," Kivuva said.

"I tried to intervene, but they said, 'We're being so nice to you, Father.' "

The priest said he drove to get help from police, who were badly outnumbered that day. They took his injured friends to a hospital.

"A lot of people were killed that morning. Every church was closed that morning," he said.

"That was the darkest day of all dark days."

Shopkeepers show trust to an outsider

Kivuva said his status as a priest, a U.S. resident and a native Kenyan earned him trust and respect that he was able to use to help those in need. Also, he is not a member of the rival ethnic groups.

On that unforgettable day in Naivasha, he helped the Red Cross erect tents for the displaced. "I thought it would please the Lord," he said. "The kids were hungry, thirsty."

Kivuva said he was able to persuade shopkeepers — whose businesses are usually part of their homes — to open their shops and give him food for the children. He had no money, but they trusted him to pay them later.

Despite the horror of that Sunday, Kivuva believes some good came from it.

"Naivasha was the only thing that made this fighting stop," he said. "That was the turning point."

After the incidents in Naivasha, he agreed to lead a group of religious and tribal leaders from the district in a series of peacemaking meetings. They met from Feb. 7 to 15, but Kivuva was not optimistic.

"I didn't think it would go anywhere. It was just like covering fire with a lot of paper," he said of the daily meetings.

"It was bad, just emotional, a lot of anger being expressed."

In the end, the group agreed to present a unified and harmonious face to the thousands expected to attend their closing program. The event did not begin well. Instead of peaceful words, Kivuva said, tribal leaders decided to rehash old gripes.

"I said, I don't' know why we met. We accomplished nothing," he recalled.

A family waits and worries in Florida

At home in St. Petersburg, Kivuva's wife Bernice, 44, a Kikuyu, and their three children — Paul, 17, Mercy 16, and Peter, 11 — waited and worried.

"Every day I was stressed out, and I was just thinking how dangerous it was. I was just feeling that he was not in a safe place," his wife said.

"The children could read through the Internet, and it was every day in the paper. We were all worried, and we kept on praying, and there were so many people supporting us.

"We kept calling him every day, so we spent a lot of money. We called him and we called friends, in case he doesn't tell us exactly what was happening."

Once the conflict started, she said, it was obvious that her husband would not be able to return home as scheduled.

"We know that he was needed there, but we needed him here too," she said. "We thank God he came back safely."

In Kenya, Kivuva longed for the calm and safety of home. His family still owns a house in the military town of Gilgil, but there was little relaxation.

His sister-in-law and her children took refuge there, as did several of her friends. When Kivuva left, there were 20 people living in the house. His car, too, was not solely his. The police often borrowed it.

"I didn't know how stressed I was until I got to Nairobi. I didn't realize that the plane got off the ground and didn't wake up until we got to Amsterdam," he said.

On March 23, the State Department relaxed a travel warning to Kenya after an agreement between the two politicians appeared to bring an end to the violence. On Sunday, Kibaki announced a power-sharing Cabinet, with rival Odinga as the new prime minister.

Kivuva is relieved, but thinks the peace could be tenuous. He plans to return to Kenya in a couple of months to further his reconciliation efforts. He is spearheading a project to build a chapel that will be a place of sanctuary for all tribes. Its walls will carry the names of each one of the country's 42 tribes.

"It's our house of unity," he said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Key dates in a priest's haunting journey to his homeland

Dec. 12: Kivuva leaves St. Petersburg for Kenya. He plans a two- to three-week visit.

Jan. 3: He tries to get to Molo, to rescue his sister-in-law and her children, whose home was set on fire and who found refuge with about 2,000 people in a Roman Catholic church and school. Molo is about 150 miles west of Nairobi.

Jan. 27: "The darkest day," when Kivuva and his passengers were stopped when driving to a town near Naivasha. Two of his passengers were forcibly circumcised.

Feb. 7 to 15: Kivuva heads a reconciliation committee in Naivasha.

March 9: Kivuva leaves his former home in Gilgil to travel back to the United States.

St. Petersburg priest helps broker peace in Kenya 04/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2008 3:53pm]

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