KERICHO, Kenya — As wages go, 4 cents a pound for plucking tea leaves might not seem like much to fight about. But the thugs who raided a tea plantation recently had a message for the few dozen workers they drove off with bows and arrows.
"They said we had been too successful in our work," said Jacqueline Bonareri, 39, whose craggy fingers were testament to a decade picking tea. "They wanted our jobs."
The clashes that have left hundreds of Kenyans dead in the past two weeks have been blamed on tribal rivalries. But in a country where millions are jobless and even the backbreaking, dawn-to-dusk work of picking tea is something to covet, economic inequality is a major force behind the unrest.
Under President Mwai Kibaki, Kenya has developed one of Africa's most vibrant economies. But that progress hasn't been shared equally.
In Nairobi, the fast-growing capital, glitzy shopping centers abut the squalid slums where most of the city's inhabitants live. And in the rolling hills of Kericho, in western Kenya, dirt-poor laborers toil in the golden bushes of multimillion-dollar tea farms — and they are the fortunate ones, because they have jobs.
In the hills around Kericho, stone barricades block dirt roads, and local militias prevent access to the vast tea farms, where residents say mobs have killed dozens of laborers.
Many of the laborers on the lush green farms, including Bonareri, come from a neighboring tribe called the Kisii, a fact that hasn't sat well with locals in Kericho, especially the hordes of young, jobless men who are blamed for a spate of deadly attacks following Kibaki's contested re-election last month.
Feeling shut out of the country's growth, most of the poorest Kenyans supported Kibaki's opponent in the Dec. 27 election, Raila Odinga, a wealthy businessman who ran as a populist. When Kibaki claimed a slim re-election victory despite widespread allegations of vote-rigging, Odinga supporters rioted across the country.
Some of the worst violence came in the tea estates near Kericho, where residents say mobs from the local Kalenjin tribe, which backed Odinga, slaughtered scores of laborers. Aid workers and local authorities haven't been able to confirm many of the accounts because tensions have prevented them from visiting the farms.
The unrest has driven 255,000 Kenyans from their homes. And it's deeply worried U.S. officials, who'd considered Kenya a haven in a troubled region that includes Somalia and Sudan.
During an urgent, four-day visit this week, Jendayi Frazer, the Bush administration's top diplomat for Africa, urged Kibaki and Odinga to resolve the social inequities that triggered the fighting.
"The nature of this violence demonstrates there are deep social grievances between the various communities," Frazer said.
Around Kericho, a city of some 470,000 about 150 miles west of Nairobi, jealousy has simmered for years between the Kalenjin, who regard the land as theirs, and migrants from other parts of Kenya who came here to find work. Two outside ethnic groups predominate: the Kikuyu of central Kenya, the country's dominant tribe, and the Kisii from nearby in the west.
Many Kikuyus opened small businesses while the Kisii took the back-breaking jobs on the tea farms, which many locals considered demeaning, said Daniel Kiptugen, an expert with the British relief agency Oxfam. But as the economy of the area stagnated, jobs grew scarce and the social fault lines deepened.
"The Kalenjin feel they have the right to work here, not the outsiders," said Susan Onyango, a relief worker with the Kenya Red Cross Society in Kericho.
The Kikuyus and Kisii voted overwhelmingly for Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and the election's outcome immediately made them targets. Minutes after Kibaki was declared the winner on Dec. 30, a group of local youths torched a warren of wooden market stalls that was owned by a Kikuyu businessman, forcing dozens to flee.
Now the stalls are being rebuilt — by a Kalenjin. As he watched a group of workmen erect the new stalls, Thomas Moi, a stringy, 24-year-old Kalenjin who ekes out a living by ferrying goods around on a handcart, was unapologetic about the destruction.
"It's time for those people to go back to their own places," Moi said. "They have already earned a lot of money here."
Even Odinga supporters weren't spared. Robert Ooko, who is from Odinga's Luo tribe, lost his home when a local gang set fire to his block of shacks, which housed several Kikuyus and Kisii. Now he and his family are refugees in their own town, sleeping on the grass in a park in the center of Kericho.
"The locals have been threatened by Kikuyus and Kisii who have been successful here," Ooko said. "All of us are suffering because of it."
Living alongside Ooko are dozens of workers from the tea farms, who said they may never return. In a good month, said Bonareri, she could earn the equivalent of $5 a day — a decent sum considering that most Kenyans live on less than $2.
Bonareri, a single mother, lost much more than that in the attack. When the mob arrived on the evening of Kibaki's inauguration, waving their weapons and bursting into the workers' quarters, her 4-year-old son wasn't with her. In the chaos, she was forced to run with her three other children — leaving the boy behind.
"I have no idea" where he is, she said stoically. And she doesn't know if it will ever be safe to go and look for him.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008