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Originally published January 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 7, 2008 at 9:55 AM

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Nairobi slums on knife's edge

In Nairobi's slum district of Kibera, people prayed for peace Sunday under the charred cross and blackened walls of the burned Lutheran...

Los Angeles Times

NAIROBI, Kenya — In Nairobi's slum district of Kibera, people prayed for peace Sunday under the charred cross and blackened walls of the burned Lutheran church. But in the narrow alleys just 100 yards away, the thugs with machetes still rule.

When the service ended, the parishioners in their Sunday best walked home through neighborhoods still teetering on a knife's edge.

With no sign of a solution to Kenya's political impasse, an opposition rally planned for Tuesday has raised fears of a new spike of killings. Last month's presidential election unleashed tribal violence across Kenya, pitting Luos and others who support opposition leader Raila Odinga against Kikuyus and their allies who support President Mwai Kibaki.

Odinga accuses Kibaki of stealing the Dec. 27 election. Western observers said the poll did not meet democratic standards. More than 300 people have died in the violence.

When one parishioner, Rebecca Muthoni, a 38-year-old Kikuyu, plodded to the Lutheran church Sunday, her heart was heavy. Muthoni's shack and the kindergarten where she taught children had been torched, as well as her church.

As Pastor Dennis Meeker prayed, Muthoni fell to the ground, tears flowing from her eyes, crying out hysterically: "Forgive them! Forgive them!"

As she yelled, Meeker repeated over and over, "We shall persevere."

"My pain is really deep," she said after the service. "I am feeling bad in my heart. I have no house and no job. And I am the only breadwinner in the family."

The fire left the church walls intact, but there was a black scar on the wall behind the altar with a white patch in the center. Meeker plans to leave it there to remind people what happened in Kibera over the past week. He said Tuesday's attack by looters could destroy the building but not the church, and urged the congregation to forgive.

"You struggle with anger. You struggle with weeping," said Meeker, an American who arrived from Iowa in September. "I don't think you can make sense out of it. In fact, this is caused by politicians because we were really living in peace and going along well until the presidential election."

Severe food shortages in Kibera and other slum districts have fueled the instability, particularly in Luo areas, where there is deep anger over the elections.

Nairobi has long been the thriving capital of East Africa's strongest economy, so the past week's chaos has brought a new sight: thousands of desperate people lined up at food-distribution centers, pushing and jostling for aid.

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On Sunday, a Red Cross food distribution had to be moved from a crowded neighborhood in the Mathare district to a nearby police compound when the large crowd got out of hand. Hundreds of people sprinted along behind the Red Cross trucks and were joined by hundreds more hungry residents, all pressed against the compound gates waiting for food.

The Luo areas have been hit harder by the food crisis. Many of the shops in those zones were owned by Kikuyus, who fled after their businesses were burned and looted.

While the Nairobi slum districts are very poor, residents generally have access to food. But women queuing for aid Sunday at the Mathare police compound said their families had not eaten a meal since Friday.

"I never thought I would see a situation such as this," said Peris Omutoko, 40, with two children ages 5 and 10.

As people jostled for food in the police compound, opposition lawmaker Margaret Wanjiru of Raila's Orange Democratic Movement arrived. Addressing the clamoring crowd through speakers mounted on a vehicle, she told them that she had brought the food in the Red Cross trucks.

The crowd stopped pushing and shoving and started howling and cheering wildly.

She called for an end to tribal violence, but soon after she departed, the food distribution deteriorated into chaos.

As angry men in the crowd began abusing Red Cross officials, paramilitary riot police were called in to control the situation. They beat back people using long sticks, even as the handouts continued. The food ran out around sunset.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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