Kenya's small Jewish community unscathed by violence

Crisis has Jewish NGOs preparing for long-term effects.

kenya very good 224.88ap (photo credit: AP)
kenya very good 224.88ap
(photo credit: AP)
While the Jews of Kenya seem unscathed by the country's political crisis, Jewish nongovernmental agencies that work there and elsewhere in Africa are bracing for the long-term effects of the sudden outbreak of violence. Inter-ethnic violence erupted Dec. 27 after the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, declared himself the winner of the country's presidential election amid evidence of widespread fraud. Opposition leader Raila Odinga maintains he won the election. An estimated 500 to 1,000 people have been killed and more than 250,000 left homeless as a result of rioting and pitched battles between members of minority tribes, including Odinga's Luo tribe, and members of the Kikuyu tribe, the elite clan that has controlled Kenyan politics since the country gained independence in 1963. The unrest has shaken the nongovernmental organizations that work in eastern and central Africa. Rioting and roadblocks set up by vigilante groups have made travel impossible, and the violence has endangered workers. Though the violence has eased somewhat this week, Jewish groups are on alert. "People are afraid about the violence and are staying home and out of the street, and it is very difficult to reach people," said Julia Greenberg, the director of grants for the American Jewish World Service, which funds the relief work of 14 organizations in Kenya. The AJWS works mostly with groups in the slums of Nairobi, including Kibera, and in western Kenya, where the fiercest violence has occurred. It wasn't until Monday that the AJWS was able to regain contact with the groups it funds, according to Maitri Morarji, the program officer who oversees East Africa for the organization. The AJWS is assessing the needs of the groups it funds and may distribute small emergency grants to help feed people, Morarji said. "Everyone is looking at security issues, and everyone is holding back new projects," Will Recant, the assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, told JTA. Recant oversees the JDC's international and nonsectarian projects, including the construction of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, which the JDC is building to house orphans of that country's 1994 genocide. A spike in gas prices over the past week resulting from the violence already has made the use of cars and buses difficult, Morarji said. Recant said he is concerned that the instability in Kenya will spark across-the-board price hikes. Meanwhile, Kenya's small Jewish community seems unscathed by the violence. Nairobi has 400 to 500 Jews - mostly British, Australian, Canadian and American expatriates. The community has a synagogue congregation that meets weekly, according to the director of Chabad of Central Africa, Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila. Bentolila is stationed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, about a three-hour flight from Nairobi, but he arranges for Chabad rabbis to serve Nairobi's Jewish community on holidays. He said he has been in contact with Jews in Nairobi and in Mombasa, a resort town on Kenya's coast, where a dozen or so Jews live. "There is some high tension," Bentolila said. "Kenya is a country which has always been stable. It's a country where there are no revolutions. It is a noble country where people go to work every day and come home at night. They are not used to revolutions. "For the last few days, the country has been upside down, but in Nairobi it was only in the slums," he said. In the residential part of town, where the Jews live, Bentolila said the streets were empty last week, but as the violence ebbed this week people began to return to their lives and livelihoods. But, he cautioned, "They know things can turn in an instant." During the height of the violence, the key to remaining safe was staying vigilant and trying to avoid hot spots, said Daniel Pollack, a 21-year-old senior at Queens College in New York, who was in Nairobi when the violence broke out. Pollack, who had gone to distribute money he raised to help repair a school in Kibera, left Sunday for Egypt. He said the US Embassy told him to expect a war in Kenya. "The embassy had called me and said stock up on food," Pollack told JTA. "I saw a lot of destruction. I saw minivans burned out in the middle of the road, hundreds of shops burned and destroyed. When I would come home from Kibera, I would have to pick glass out of my shoes," he said. Pollack said he did not feel threatened immediately, even though he was within a 10-minute walk of the violence, "but you had to be aware." "I felt safe because I didn't put myself in harm's way," he said, "but I could have easily gotten killed. Kenya has a history of calm in a volatile continent, with the country relatively immune to the tribal warfare that has torn apart other African nations. NGOs have used Nairobi, Kenya's capital, as a safe hub from which to dispatch aid workers and materials into nearby countries. In one example of the ripple effect of the unrest in Kenya, contractors seeking to transport goods through the country to landlocked Rwanda say they may need to find alternate, and longer, routes for their goods. The price of concrete already has risen as a result. "We have heard from our contractor that we should expect a rise in cost," Recant said. "If one pipeline breaks down, it has a ripple effect and everything is affected." Recant said the JDC would not abandon the Agohozu-Shalom project, but it may have to scale it back because of rising costs. "We might not have a library," he said.