Escape from Kenya
How two Chicoans found themselves caught up in the post-election violence and unable to get out of the country
The city of Nakuru is located about 100 miles northwest of Nairobi, in the heart of the Great Rift Valley, which bisects western Kenya from north to south. It’s a popular destination spot for tourists, who visit nearby Lake Nakuru to see the colorful spectacle of millions of pink flamingos in one place. But in late December, following a disputed presidential election, it and many other cities and villages in the valley erupted in murderous riots, and tourists were scrambling to escape.
Among them were Chicoans Ray Hansen and Teresa Wood-Hansen, along with their son Patrick Hansen and Patrick’s girlfriend, Cara Scarola. They were on their way through Nakuru heading southwest, toward the famous Masai Mara Game Reserve, on the southern border with Tanzania, when they got caught in the violence, their van besieged by a mob of screaming men banging on it and trying to tip it over, with them inside.
The elections had been held three days earlier, on Dec. 27, and polls beforehand had shown that the challenger, wealthy businessman Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, had a slight edge over the incumbent president, Mwai Kabaki, a Kikuyu. But when the ballots were counted and the results announced three days later, Kabaki had won by a razor-thin margin. The announcement was almost immediately followed by charges of vote rigging, and ethnic violence broke out across the country.
The most horrific incident occurred in a village near the city of Eldoret, in the Great Rift Valley about 100 miles north of Nakuru. There, several hundred Kikuyus took refuge inside a Kenya Assemblies of God church. The next morning a furious mob—composed of members of the Kalenjin, Luhya and Luo tribes—showed up, overpowered the Kikuyu guards, poured gasoline on the church and burned it down.
Most of the people escaped, but about 50, many of them children, burned to death.
By the time the violence subsided, after about a week, more than 1,000 Kenyans had been slaughtered. Rape had been epidemic, more than a half-million people had fled their homes, and thousands of businesses had been looted or burned. The country came to a virtual standstill; fear of a Rwanda-style genocide was widespread and terrifying; and tourists like the Hansens were caught in the middle.
Ray Hansen, who is hard of hearing, has taught deaf and hard-of-hearing students for more than 30 years through the Butte County Office of Education. Teresa Wood-Hansen is a physical therapist who works for the county Health Department and is stationed at Chico’s Loma Vista School for disabled children.
The couple went to Africa on vacation and to spend time with Patrick and Cara, who were teaching in a secondary school in Bunyore, a village near Kisumu, a city on Lake Victoria about 200 miles northwest of Nairobi. The foursome first met up in Egypt, where they spent several days, and then flew to Rwanda, where they stayed four days. Most memorable was a trek into the highland jungle to track the elusive—and vanishing—mountain gorillas.
On Dec. 24 they flew to Kisumu to spend some time in Patrick and Cara’s world, meeting their friends—notably a Swiss couple, Mark and Sue le Roux, who operate a charitable organization called Community Outreach Centres—and people in the village. They were impressed by the villagers’ friendliness and generosity, despite their poverty. “They’re the kind of people who would give you the shirt off their back, if they had a shirt on their back,” Ray said.
On the day of the elections, Sue le Roux warned the Hansens that things could get dicey because of long-simmering ethnic tensions and advised them to spend the day inside, which they did.
The next day, though, they flew to Nairobi with Patrick and Cara for a planned seven-day safari to several Kenyan game reserves. They met up with their driver, whose name was Daniel, and headed north, crossing the Equator on their way to the Samburu National Reserve, which is famous for its elephants.
After two days, they traveled back through the Rift Valley toward Nakuru and points south, heading for the Masai Mara Game Reserve on the Tanzania border. They kept asking Daniel if he knew who’d won the election, but they didn’t find out the results until they reached Nakuru.
As they were driving slowly through the city at dusk, a celebratory crowd of men swarmed toward their van, shouting and carrying pro-Kabaki signs, and began banging on it. Then they started rocking the vehicle, as if trying to turn it over. They were Kikuyu and therefore happy, not angry, but to those inside the vehicle it was terrifying.
Daniel was Kikuyu, but even he was scared, so he gunned the van through the crowd. “Daniel, you’re going to kill someone!” Cara shouted, but he wasn’t about to stop. Bodies leaped out of the way as the vehicle surged forward. As far as the Hansens know, nobody was hit.
They stayed that night in a “luxury tent” in a campground outside the city. Still frightened from their close call in Nakuru, they feared the lodging would provide little protection if the violence reached it, so they spent a restless but, as it turned out, uneventful night. In town, they later learned, several houses were burned down and Kikuyu men roamed the streets with machetes and nail-studded baseball bats, looking for rival tribesmen to attack.
By this time Patrick and Cara had gotten news via their mobile phones of violence elsewhere, especially in Nairobi, so they knew they couldn’t go to the capital. And their driver, Daniel, refused to go to Kisumu, which is in Luo territory. “I’m a Kikuyu, and we’d all be at risk of losing our lives,” he said.
So they continued on to Masai Mara, hoping against hope that they could cross the border into Tanzania. Text messages from their Swiss friends in Bunyore were exhorting them to get out of the country as quickly as possible.
The crisis and confusion were especially hard on Ray, who couldn’t hear much of the discussion of the situation and, frustrated, was always asking, “What’s going on?”
But they had no visa to enter Tanzania, and were stopped at the border. There was nothing they could do, so they decided to go forward with their exploration of the reserve.
Meanwhile, the Hansens’ other son, Kyle, was frantically trying, from his home in San Diego, to contact the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania and explain his family’s predicament. Somehow, in just a few hours, embassy officials were able to tell him that arrangements had been made for the four Americans to obtain emergency visas, but they had to get to the border—quick!
The party had just set off on a three-hour safari when the news arrived on the mobile phone. In order to convince Daniel to turn back, Cara pretended to be violently ill, and the driver reluctantly turned south.
When they got to the border, however, another problem presented itself: The Kenyan guard, who was armed with an AK-47, wanted a $50 bribe from each of them. Patrick explained to Daniel that paying the bribes would leave them no money for his tip, and somehow Daniel, with help from a Serengeti National Park ranger, was able to convince the guard to relent.
After saying good-bye to Daniel, the foursome spent the next two days hitch-hiking across the Serengeti Plain to reach a resort lodge at Arusha, near Mount Kilimanjaro. From there, Ray and Teresa went on to Dar es Salaam, the capital, to catch a plane home. Patrick and Cara, reluctant to leave their friends in Bunyore, stayed there for three weeks, until they thought it was safe to go to Nairobi.
In Nairobi, however, they learned that a Kikuyu militia was being formed in western Kenya, so they took the advice of Kenyan police and flew home to Florida.
The way Ray sees it, the trip was a good thing, despite the dangers he and Teresa faced. Had they not gone, he thinks Patrick and Cara would have stayed in Bunyore, surrounded by violence. “We might have saved their lives,” he said.
The couple remain worried about whether, with stores burned out and the transportation system broken, the people they met in Bunyore are getting enough food to eat. “This has been a huge step backwards for Kenya,” Ray said.