February 6, 2008

Students Volunteering in Kenya Forced to Flee

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On the news, Kenya is a war-torn scene of violence, clashes and chaos. However, for a group of Cornell students, it was briefly a place for learning, community building and cultural exchange over this past winter break.
Unfortunately, their work was cut short when violence broke out after the Kenyan presidential election on Dec. 27. On Jan. 2, after a few tense days of gathering information and communicating with officials at Cornell, the students were forced to evacuate to the Ugandan border.
The group, Project Kenya, is a student-run international service organization. It sent eight undergraduates and one staff member to a remote village near Bungoma to educate the people about HIV/AIDS and nutrition. Though they worked closely with a Kenyan non-governmental organization called Inter-Community Development Involvement (ICODEI), the students developed the project on their own, researching and producing all their own educational materials.
Project Kenya began in 2006, when five Cornell students went to Kenya on their own dime and initiative to develop a program to help people living in AIDS-affected communities in Kenya.
“The NGO needed a program for people already living with HIV/AIDS,” Kate Mosso ’08, who went on this year’s trip, said. “They decided to attack it from a nutritional angle,” she said.
The group worked to help educate both people with AIDS and those without.
Amanda Messinger ’07, a health promotion assistant at Gannett and the group’s staff leader, said, “We used nutrition as a conduit for other health knowledge,” , said. “We tried to teach them things that families can do to boost the immunity of everyone in the family as well as anyone with HIV/AIDS, whether they’re on treatment or not.”
Prior to this year, the group had not received funding from the University. However, it sought to become officially recognized by Cornell in order to get funding and emergency insurance.
“We had such a hard time getting insurance,” Mosso said. “We wanted to get S.O.S. Insurance, which study abroad people get automatically, but we needed to be officially affiliated with Cornell to get it.”
After approaching multiple organizations and departments within Cornell, the group received support from Prof. Emeritus Michael Latham, nutritional science, who he helped them turn the project into a three-credit class.
Latham, a specialist in nutrition in East Africa, was “a perfect fit — like a glove” for the group, Antony Kironji ’10 said.
“We used the class to not only to get information about HIV/AIDS and nutrition, but also to discuss what it means to do service leaning work abroad,” said Kironji. “We had a series of guest speakers come in and talk about how we can present our information cooperatively, to avoid going in there and being like ‘We know all, follow us! If you don’t, it’ll be bad!’”

Ethnic tensions arose soon after the election, even before the results were announced, causing the group to rethink the duration of their visit.

“The threshold for me was when I heard that all travel into Nairobi was blocked,” Messinger said. “We were about from the Ugandan border at that point, so I thought if we had to leave, we’d go west to Uganda, because we couldn’t go east.”

According to Kironji, Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president, was popular in the central region, while Raila Odinga, the opposing candidate, held sway in the west. When the central province withheld their poll results for several hours before declaring Kibaki the winner, Odinga accused Kibaki of cheating.

“There was pulling and tugging of election results and the way that they were announced. But ultimately it came down to this tribe against that tribe,” said Kironji, who lived in Kenya until he was 10 and still has family there. “The country is segmented on who dominated where.”

Students said the chaos continued to escalate in the coming days.

“The leaders were so impotent directly after things got really violent. They didn’t do anything to stop it. It really developed and expanded beyond the realm of anybody’s control. It’s really sad,” Messinger said.

After Messinger learned of a violent incident in Eldoret, a town about 25 miles east of Bungoma, Messinger said it became more clear that it might be unsafe for students to stay.

“Forty people, refugees, were burned in a church in Eldoret,” she said. “That’s when I started talking more seriously to Cornell about what their threshold for evacuation was. I found out that they were already at the threshold, they just didn’t have a good idea of how to get us out.”

On Jan. 1, Messinger spoke directly to David Whittman, vice provost for international relations, to figure out how to evacuate the country.

“There was a window where a decision needed to be made,” she said. “There was supposed to be a rally in Nairobi on Thursday that was supposed to spur off a lot of extra violence and be a tipping point for the conflict, so we had to get to Uganda within 24 hours.”

Gasoline was scarce, but the group managed to get a diesel vehicle to drive them, a few other volunteers, and the director of ICODEI to the border. Once there, they met a private security detail that escorted them to a hotel where they waited for their flight home.

“We were so lucky,” Messinger said. “We just had windows of safety to move in the way that we did. If we had waited until Thursday, we wouldn’t have been able to leave. And if we hadn’t gotten the flight that we did from Uganda, we would’ve been there for another week.”

Messinger stressed the difficulty of getting reliable information in Kenya.

“Everything was very rumor-driven where we were. It was hard to tell what was true and what wasn’t. The information we had was really patchy,” Messinger said.

The group is now trying to encourage Cornell to build a structured program for international service projects, to make it easier for students to travel safely.

“It’s hard now for a group to go abroad and do public service work,” Kironji said. “We already did all this work, getting funding and insurance — there’s no reason for the people next year to reinvent the wheel. Cornell can use what we did as a model for future groups.”

Despite the ordeal they went through in order to back to the states, some members of the group expressed frustration that their story has attracted so much hype.

“Everyone’s looking for edge and danger, and that’s just not what happened,” said Kironji. “We didn’t see any violence. We were never in any imminent danger.”

“The important thing here is that students can empower other people,” said Mosso. “Even though we’re not professionals, we can make a real difference.”