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DJ Shadow: The Kenya I saw

Soon after the hip-hop star DJ Shadow visited Kenya, the country errupted in violence. And the crisis is far from over

When the sunshine illuminated its green hills last spring, the Rift Valley in central Kenya looked every bit the lush paradise that attracted the wealthy British settlers who made it their African playground in the 1920s.

Among the travellers passing through the region was the Californian musician DJ Shadow, who stopped off to take photographs of the stunning scenery during a tour of Oxfam projects aimed at reducing the tribal conflicts and cattle rustling that have destabilised some rural Kenyan districts.

The tensions then were barely perceptible to the outsider and certainly gave no indication of the mob violence that would sweep the country before the year was out, in the wake of allegations of corruption in national elections. One of the towns that Shadow visited was Eldoret, where dozens of people were burned to death on New Year’s Day as they sought refuge in a church.

Three months later and 87,000 people are still in refugee camps in and around Eldoret, part of the estimated 300,000 Kenyans who remain displaced by the violence. As the rainy season now begins in Kenya, the displaced face heightened risk of disease in camps which were originally makeshift but are now expected to be their homes for the rest of this year.

Speaking to The Independent during a visit to London, Shadow (real name Josh Davis), spoke of his affection for the Kenyan people and appealed for support for Oxfam’s attempts to alleviate suffering in the camps.

“I remember seeing on the news that people had been attacked and the number of bodies that had been found and thinking ‘Damn, we were there.’ It was sad and shocking,” he said. “A lot of the violence occurred on the route we followed out of Nairobi heading west.”

During last year’s tour of Kenya, when he visited remote north-western villages and the urban slums of Nairobi, Shadow was shown Oxfam’s work in reducing the availability of firearms. The focus of the charity’s activities has now switched to the refugee camps. “There’s a large number of people displaced and the priority is providing food and medical care to people stuck in the camps.”

Vincent Kock, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Advisor in Eldoret, said there were up to 20,000 sheltering in the Eldoret Showground, 3km from the town centre. He said many camps had been built as short-term solutions, with no expectation that they would have to house people for many months.

Though a form of peace has been brokered at national level between rival Kenyan leaders President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, following the deaths of 1,500 people, Kock said that it would only be meaningful if it translated to a local level. “It requires above all a political situation at district level and security guarantees. The information we are getting is that a number of people who chased others away are not unhappy with the current situation,” he said. “The focus of the international community was very much on the political process headed by Kofi Annan. Rather than focusing on the humanitarian impact the focus was on dealing with the problem and that has maybe taken attention away from the plight of the displaced.”

Oxfam is working alongside the Kenyan Red Cross to maintain high standards of hygiene in the camps amid fears of the rapid spread of disease. “The biggest need at the moment is proper hygiene and drainage, especially with the rains coming and increasing the risk of hygiene-related diseases.”

Shadow encouraged people to support the "Oxjam" series of musical events taking place in Britain next month, some of the money from which will go towards helping those in the Kenyan camps. “The Kenyan people were open, friendly, unassuming and unpretentious,” he says of a nation ripped apart by ethnic violence. “They were willing to give their stories and heritage to an outsider and not worried about being judged in any way despite the relative poverty. I would love to go back at some point.”

Oxjam , billed as the UK’s biggest musical event, takes place throughout April