The Peace Corps is suspending its programs in Kenya because of security concerns and is pulling more than 50 volunteers out of the country until threat levels decrease, the Peace Corps and State Department said Thursday.
A statement to The Associated Press from the State Department said that the Peace Corps “has been closely monitoring the security environment in Kenya … and has decided to officially suspend the program in Kenya.” The Peace Corps will monitor the security situation and determine when volunteers can return, it said.
The decision comes amid a tightening of security by the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which has seen dozens of grenade and gunfire attacks over the last two years. Earlier this year the embassy increased the number of security personnel at the embassy and put armed Marines behind sandbag bunkers on the embassy roof. The State Department also reduced the number of U.S. personnel here by moving a regional USAID office out of the country.
“While volunteers are leaving, the Peace Corps plans to retain its office in Kenya and will continue to assess the safety and security climate,” said Shira Kramer, the spokeswoman for the Peace Corps.
The decision to suspend the Peace Corps program has been in the works for a while but was not announced publicly. U.S. warnings about the high risk of terror attacks in Kenya always ruffle the feathers of Kenyan leaders, and the State Department and Peace Corps statements underscored the long U.S.-Kenya relationship and the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. pours into Kenya every year.
But it was clear that given the grenade and gunfire assaults, as well as the massive bombing of Westgate Mall last year that killed at least 67 people, the government felt that its Peace Corps volunteers — who live in far-flung villages with little security protection — were vulnerable.
Recent Peace Corps volunteers in Kenya said they felt the U.S. government program did a good job of keeping them updated about security, including the sending of security text messages, but they acknowledged that security was deteriorating and that ensuring a safe environment for the dozens of volunteers was all but impossible.
“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 Nik Schuetz, a 28-year-old volunteer in Kenya from 2009-11 now studying at the University of Kansas.
“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 said.
Anna Martin a Peace Corps volunteer in Busia, Kenya from 2010-12 who still lives in the country, said she always felt safe as a Peace Corps volunteer because the U.S. mission was “always making the best decisions regarding our safety and well-being.”
“My opinion … is that things just weren’t getting better,” said Martin, who remained in Kenya after her Peace Corps commitment was completed. “Peace Corps had already taken measures to protect volunteers but had to ultimately make a bigger decision. And it a wise one.”