The United States Peace Corps has suspended activity in Kenya, pulling out over 50 volunteers across the country. This is the second time in the last decade Peace Corps volunteers have been evacuated from Kenya for safety reasons.
Tensions are high in the East African state, where a spike in grenade and gunfire assaults over the last couple years, including a mall attack leaving 67 dead last fall, has raised serious concerns by Peace Corps officials on behalf of their volunteers. After a recent security assessment failed to meet the organization’s standards, they felt it necessary to put efforts on hold for an undetermined amount of time until conditions improve.
The Peace Corps press director, Shira Kramer, told Devex that “volunteers’ safety and security are the Peace Corps’ top priorities” and they will reassess the situation “at an appropriate future date to determine if and when volunteers can return.”
The U.S. State Department heightened security measures earlier this year and removed various personnel as well, transferred a regional U.S. Agency for International Development office out of the country, and stationed armed Marines outside and on top of the embassy building.
The Associated Press spoke with three Peace Corps volunteers pulled out of Kenya who attested to the increased emphasis on security by the U.S. government organization. Eventually conditions reached a point where, despite any precautionary efforts, the safety of aid workers could not be guaranteed.
“Some volunteers weren’t very pleased with the level of security they provided, but I’m not sure what they were expecting. We don’t have security guards to protect us, and it’s Kenya, so sometimes bad things happen regardless of any preventative measures,” said volunteer Nick Shcuetz.
“They taught us to be smart about our surroundings and to trust the hairs on the back of our necks to sense whether it was a safe situation or not. And some things like bombings or grenade attacks, you just can’t prepare for other than leaving the country,” he added.
The U.S. was in quiet talks for a while about suspending Peace Corps activity in Kenya. The tipping point was, perhaps, the fatal gunshot to a German tourist on a Kenyan beach just days before the official announcement to withdraw. The Peace Corps volunteers pulled out of Kenya thought the decision was reasonable as well.
The Peace Corps’ ability was able to accurately assess the state of security in Kenya and evacuate its members at what seems like the appropriate point in time. The decision is reinforced by the testimonies of the field workers removed from their stations who, for the most part, felt safe up until just before their removal.
The volunteers and officials recognize that the situation is not victimless, however. The Peace Corps assisted in education, health and community and economic development including HIV/AIDS treatment and counseling for numerous Kenyans. Those who depended on the organization’s services will suffer most until conditions stabilize and any developmental progress boosted by the U.S. will stagnate in the meantime as well.
“Kenya is spearheading the growth and trends of so many sectors in East Africa,” said volunteer Travis Axe. “It is a shame to see such a wonderful program be cut from a country that has so much potential.”
– Edward Heinrich