Working in the Middle
March 2008

by Danfung Dennis

Any minute now the Kenyan paramilitary General Service Unit was going to charge the mob of protesters in the Kibera slum of Nairobi. I stood in between the crossfire of tear gas from the police and the rocks launched from slingshots by the rioters, staring at the wildly angry faces of the mob on one side and the cold, robotic expressions of the riot police on the other.

© Danfung Dennis/WpN
A man reacts as he is treated in a hospital in Nakuru, Kenya, on Jan. 26, 2008. An eruption of tribal clashes that has left more than 140 dead over four days spread further across the country.
Then the riot police surged forward at a full sprint. I ran alongside, photographing them. Did they push me or did I trip? All I know is that the next moment I was airborne, hurtling through space, then crushed to the ground. The riot police trampled over me as they charged towards the rioters. When they passed I sat up, dazed in a swirling cloud of dust, bleeding from both my arms, my leg, back and side. Pieces of my camera and lens lay in pieces around me. I limped back to my car where my driver said, "This is when the police will start shooting people," as if to prod me back into the melee. I considered returning into the vast sea of tin shacks that is home to over a million people. Then I took a look at the remains of my camera and the blood soaking through my clothes and realized that I needed to go to a hospital more than I wanted to photograph any more police and rioters.

After a painful week nursing my wounds and taking a massive dose of antibiotics to stave off infection, I shook off my self-pity, picked up my remaining camera with my one functional arm and headed to the Rift Valley. I had come directly from Iraq and I was still enjoying the familiar freedom of being able to travel on open roads without the constant fear of an IED explosion.

© Danfung Dennis/WpN
People run away from police in Naivasha, Kenya, on Jan. 29, 2008. Machete-wielding gangs hacked and burned to death dozens of rival tribe members in Western Kenya, as the death toll following the disputed presidential election neared 800.
Nakuru, the capital of the Rift Valley province, is described by guidebooks as a cheerful agricultural town with a vibrant vegetable market, near a lake teeming with pink flamingos. Yet, when I arrived it had become the site of horrific violence and suffering with whole sections of the city in flames. On the streets were gangs armed with machetes and clubs while refugees streamed past loaded with possessions.

In one of the worst hit areas near the fault line between rival Kikuyu and Loa tribes I asked my driver Michael to lock the doors and ask one of the armed men nearby if I could take pictures of them. Michael just replied confidently, "Don't worry, these are my people." In his eyes since he was a local Kikuyu and we were in a Kikuyu-dominated neighborhood, we were safe. So I stepped out of the car only to be confronted with dozens of armed youth who began to shout and point their crude weapons at me. I got back into the car and told Michael to leave immediately. Instead, with his window rolled down, Michael began pleading with the furious gang that had descended on our car, his voice growing desperate, then panicked, as he spoke to people he trusted. His own people. But as Michael found out, there is no negotiating with an angry mob. They began shaking and banging the car, then swung open the car doors. As I fought to close and lock the doors, I said to Michael as calmly as I could, "Drive. Drive. Drive."

© Danfung Dennis/WpN
Family members stand next to the body of Grace Mbone, 16, in Naivasha, Kenya, on Jan. 27, 2008. The family said Mbone was shot in the head by police, leaving behind a 1-year-old baby. Machete-wielding gangs hacked and burned to death dozens of rival tribe members in Western Kenya, as the death toll following the disputed presidential election neared 800.
But Michael did not listen and we did not move--he seemed to be in shock. I managed to coax him into driving and together we navigated our way back to the main road. Michael, looking distraught, said he even knew some of the men who had threatened us. I realized that I had gravely endangered someone else. Putting myself at risk was one thing but what authority or legitimacy did I have to put someone else at risk? I thought of a friend's text message sent earlier that day, "No photograph is worth dying for."

While the recent spate of violence in Kenya is ostensibly along tribal lines, it is actually the deep-rooted grievances over land and the wide economic inequalities that are the underlying causes of the current conflict. When Kenya achieved independence in 1963 the departing white farmers were largely replaced by the politically well-connected Kikuyus, who gradually became the dominant ethnic group because of their land ownership. Their longstanding economic and political domination resulted in a deepening resentment in other tribes, especially the Luo. This festering resentment was stoked by Luo politicians after the allegedly rigged election, sparking the spiral of violence. To a large extent, the Kikuyu and the Luo have been at the heart of the violence in Rift Valley.

© Danfung Dennis/WpN
A man mourns next to an open coffin at a prayer meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008. Skirmishes between police and youths have broken up an opposition prayer meeting in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, for victims of the post-poll violence.
The result of this conflict is obvious in towns like Naivasha and Nakuru. The unending stream of victims with horrific machete injuries inundated the hospitals in both these towns. The Médecins Sans Frontières doctors whom I accompanied had adopted a triage policy focusing only on those patients who had a chance of surviving. When they decided that a patient was going to die, they moved on. I saw bodies laying on the floor, head to toe on the stretchers. There was barely time for the blood to be wiped off a bed before another groaning, wounded person was placed on it. Barely attached limbs were quickly washed and simply wrapped in dressing before the next wave of bloody victims was dragged in. Mangled bodies, many burned into unrecognizable charred lumps lay in piles in the morgues. More than a thousand people had been killed in the recent clashes.

Over 300,000 people have been displaced due to the violence in Kenya. At a makeshift refugee camp I saw people streaming in hoping for security, shelter and food. Thousands huddled in the dust and searing heat. When convoys of Red Cross trucks carrying supplies arrive, masses of people swarm around them, frantic for food and water. The stories I heard about what children had experienced and witnessed were heart wrenching. Kenya's president and opposition leader might have signed an agreement to create a power-sharing government but whether order can be restored out of this chaos is a big question.

© Danfung Dennis

Danfung Dennis, 26, is a freelance photojournalist from Ithaca, N.Y. He graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Applied Economics in 2004, and began his career as a photojournalist by stringing for The Associated Press in Beijing. He is now based in London and is represented by World Picture Network. His work has appeared in Newsweek, TIME, The New York Times, The Sunday Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Le Figaro Magazine, L'Express, Der Spiegel, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.

More of Danfung Dennis' work is available at

Click on the following link to read Danfung's Dispatch from Iraq in the June 2007 issue:

Dispatches are brought to you by:
canon - dispatches