Political Violence in Kenya: Glenn Hughson on Field Work and the Importance of Good Coffee

A conversation with Action Against Hunger’s Project Coordinator in Kenya.
ACF-Malawi, photo courtesy: J.E. Atwood

What Led to Kenya's Post-Election Violence?

Kenya held elections on December 27th, 2007 and the skewed results led to accusations of ballot fixing. The aftermath of the results led to ethnic violence between a number of different communities that had supported the leading parties. Homes and businesses were burned and looted, water points poisoned, families separated, women were raped, and over 1,200 people were killed. All in all there were approximately 250,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Kenya this past year, many of whom were pushed from the rural areas towards the main urban centers of Nakuru and Molo.

"There were approximately 250,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Kenya this past year."

In Nakuru there were two main camps, separated along ethnic lines. The camp in Afraha Football Stadium grew to a population of just under 10,000, while on the other side of town the Nakuru Showground swelled to nearly 17,000. The number of IDPs within Nakuru and elsewhere continued to grow as dotted incidents of violence plagued the countryside.

What Needs Did ACF Address in Nakuru?

ACF was on the ground in Nakuru by the first week of January 2008, helping displaced populations with immediate short term needs: essential items like blankets, pots, cooking utensils, plastic sheeting, soap, wash basins, feminine napkins, buckets, and jerry cans were distributed. As the population of the two large camps in Nakuru swelled, ACF began nutritional surveillance and therapeutic nutrition programs for children under 5 years of age. We also initiated the construction of latrines, shower blocks and water point facilities in the camps as well as ‘soak away’ drainage and refuse pits. More IDPs continued to arrive and the need for hygiene and health education programming grew critical. This ‘soft’ style of program complemented the ‘hardware’ construction phases of our water and sanitation activities.

When the IDP populations began returning back to their locations of origin, ACF initiated early recovery programming in the form of cash-based interventions. Two distinct programs were launched: (1) an urban, low-income housing cash distribution that aimed to provide IDPs and host families who had taken in IDPs with direct capital to restart livelihood activities; and (2) a rural cash voucher program aimed at providing non-food items and assisting returnees in their transition home.

Were the Programs Successful?

ACF successfully responded to the immediate needs of the population when the need was the greatest and the population the most destitute—right after the violence took place. This timely intervention allowed ACF to establish a relationship with the beneficiaries, which led to a greater level of success in programs going forward.

ACF also successfully implemented a very effective exit strategy—key to any emergency response program. All of the program initiatives we implemented were subsequently handed off to the appropriate ministry or phased out in a timely manner. Throughout, ACF successfully coordinated with and provided assistance to the government administration. Thanks to our collaborative efforts, ACF’s nutritional surveillance and outpatient care services were effectively taken over by the regional Ministry of Health.

What Led You to Pursue Humanitarian Work?

"I enjoy connecting with people from different cultures."

I have to admit that the traveling is quite an attractive draw! But to tell you honestly, I enjoy connecting with people from different cultures. I enjoy learning from them and sharing ideas through constructive dialogue that leads to an improvement in their circumstances.

And Why Work for Action Against Hunger?

The direct action that Action Against Hunger takes in its interventions, paired with the transition towards creating longer term solutions to chronic problems, is the main reason I am with the organization. I appreciate and respect this approach. The thrill of establishing a new team and getting them to work together with the local community is what continually brings me back.

Glenn at a Glance

What can’t you live without when working abroad?

It is impossible to live without music while working abroad. Music that is familiar and connects one with home is always nice.

What music cures home sickness?

All kinds though mostly music from Canada. I listen to music depending on my mood and depending on what I am doing. House or trance if I am working (no lyrics to distract), rock or metal for waking up, showering, etc. Folk, old country, or reggae while driving.

Name a guilty pleasure you indulge in when working in the field.

Packets of powdered Kraft dinner cheese; mix with pasta and voila, Kraft dinner. Not entirely healthy but if you’re from North America, then for sure you’ve grown up with the stuff.

What’s the strangest food you’ve ever eaten abroad?

Hard boiled chicken fetuses. Doesn’t even taste like an egg!

Most bizarre cultural custom you’ve come across.

Drinking a bottle of vodka before having a meeting in Mongolia.

Most important survival tip for people beginning humanitarian work.

Communication. Got a problem? Talk it out. Got a story or information to share? Tell it. Communication is the backbone of every culture and will take you a long way.

Single item you can’t leave home without?

My camera. Aside from work, I love photography. Every now and then I somehow believe I am quite good.

After a year in the field, what’s the first thing you do when home?

I have a Tim Horton’s coffee. (There is one on the road right outside the airport in Toronto.)