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Kenyans shrug off violence fears with massive voter turnout

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Voters across Kenya on Monday formed giant queues and waited for hours in the sweltering heat to cast their ballots in key elections that many fear could turn violent.

In the western lakeside town of Kisumu, a flashpoint in bloody post-poll violence five years ago, lines of voters snaked through rundown slum streets and across dusty playing fields as people patiently waited their turn.

Many had gathered in the cool hours long before dawn playing vuvuzela trumpets and singing to mobilise others to come out to vote as polls opened at 6.00am (0300 GMT).

"I have been here three hours and I expect to wait a few hours more," said Shadrack Owuor, 39, a teacher, trying to find some shade under a bougainvillea bush.

"We want to make sure that our voice is heard this time round, we would wait even to midnight," he said.

Neck-and-neck rivals for the presidency, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his deputy Uhuru Kenyatta, have publicly vowed there will be no repeat of the bloodshed that followed the disputed 2007 polls.

"This time we think it won't be the same because leaders have said they will accept the result or go to court," said Job Ochieng, a local civil society activist.

"Obviously there is still some fear though, we are hopeful but also nervous," he said.

Violence in Kenya's Indian Ocean coast -- where six policemen were killed in an ambush blamed on separatist insurgents hours before polls opened -- marred the start of the elections.

But elsewhere across Kenya voting went smoothly, despite frustration in some centres when polling got off to a late start, or where queues moved slowly due to faulty electronic registration equipment.

In the Rift Valley town of Naivasha, home to several international flower farms and one of the towns hardest hit by the 2007 post-election violence, armed police in open trucks patrolled the town, but the lines of voters were not deterred.

"The voting process has been slow but I shall wait and cast my vote even if it takes eight hours," said Jane Waithera, voting for the first time having just turned 18.

-- Calm queues, fear for future --

But confidence at the peaceful progress of the vote is tempered by concern at possible unrest when the results come through, potentially within 48 hours of the polls closing.

The last elections in December 2007 were also calm, and it was only after the announcement of the contested results that large-scale violence broke out.

At a polling station at a primary school in Kisumu, sandwiched between two crowded shanty towns, motorcycle taxi driver Fredrick Omondi said he was expecting some trouble if results went the wrong way for his supporters.

"We have some more faith in the process, but if Uhuru Kenyatta wins then for sure I think there can be some chaos," he said, referring to Odinga's main competitor in the presidential race.

Kisumu, a stronghold for Odinga, witnessed some of the worst violence in 2007-8 when his supporters went on the rampage against supporters of the declared winner of President Mwai Kibaki.

Residents in other former flashpoint regions said they wanted to show that they had learnt the lesson of the bitter violence last time.

"We are praying for peace and we are hopeful," said Ann Njeri, a 30-year old mother of three in the Rift Valley town of Nakuru, where in 2007-8 over 200 people were hacked to death, homes were torched and more than 100,000 displaced after the last polls.

"This time we want to show the world that we have matured in democracy," she added.

For others, even those who have lived in Kenya for decades, it was the first time to vote.

In the leafy Nairobi up-market suburb of Karen, Margaret Downey, 59, a second generation Kenyan whose white hunter-turned-conservationist father arrived in the country in 1925, turned out to vote for the first time.

"I've never voted before because I never knew who to vote for. But I think it's very important this time," she said.

"I think it's very important that Kenya goes forward peacefully and in the right direction."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130304/kenyans-shrug-violence-fears-massive-voter-turnout