Nonviolence as a tool for empowering warring communities to be agents of their own change

By Elizabeth Kanini Kimau

Note: The following story was submitted to the Nonviolence and Just Peace conference in Rome in April 2016. Conference participants were invited to share short reflections on their own experiences of nonviolence and peacemaking.

In 2009, I began my peace mission in South Sudan (Sudan by then) and Northern Kenya, which is characterized by armed conflicts among pastoralist communities which inhabit that region. In Northern Kenya I went to live at the grassroots (Leyai IDP-camp) with the people who were badly affected by the Rendille-Borana conflict. In South Sudan I teach in RECONCILE Peace Institute which trains key persons, mobilized from all corners of South Sudan, on peace and trauma healing. For the last five years I have met participants who were born, lived, married, and are now aging, in war. Most of them have been in and out of refugee camps. In February 2015 I started helping a Catholic diocese in the western part of the country in establishing a Peace and Trauma Healing Museum. This region has also been affected by war — and worse, by the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army or LRA, a rebel group from Northern Uganda which has abducted many women, girls, young men, and boys, and maimed and killed many. The language of nonviolence helped me transform myself and empowered me to be able to live and work in these hostile environments and among people who are violent as the result of protracted conflicts. Nonviolence has also been key in transforming the Rendille-Borana conflict in Northern Kenya.

This paper will only focus on my experience in Northern Kenya and how nonviolence was very powerful in changing violent relations to peaceful relations.

Experience of Violence in Leyai Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp

The Peace and Justice Commission (CJPC) of Tangaza University College, where I was a member, visited the Marsabit Diocesan CJPC to help in peace activities for one week. I learned that the conflict situation in the region has subjected many people to live in dehumanizing conditions. I resolved to participate in building a culture of peace in the region by empowering people to be agents of their own change. The ten pastoralist groups in Marsabit County were fighting each other. I decided to focus on the Rendille-Borana conflict which was claiming many lives at that time.

I went to live in Leyai IDP Camp to create a rapport with the people, understand their culture, build trust, allow the people to know me and deeply understand the violent conflict. I saw that Leyai primary school was closed several times due to insecurity and had just reopened with only three teachers. Therefore, as I lived with the local people, I started teaching their traumatized children in the school.

Leyai IDP Camp was inhabited by the Rendille community. While there, I observed that the Rendille and Borana communities were deeply divided and never interacted. Each community used its own source of water, means of transport and never traded with each other. They perceived each other as an enemy and whoever killed an enemy was praised and termed a hero. I witnessed situations where people were killed and cattle were raided. The pain of loss, bitterness and anger was temporarily ‘relieved’ after revenge.

As I interacted with the children, I learned that the enmity and hatred had been passed down from generation to generation, leaving the conflict in a vicious cycle. Whenever I asked the children to draw, they all drew guns, people killing each other and cattle being raided. I asked different questions at different times. What will you do when you grow up? “I will go kill Borana and take back our cattle.” Who created your parents? “God.” Who created the parents of Borana children? “The Devil.” When I bring Borana children, what will you do with them? “We will kill them.” My interaction with the pupils informed me of an urgent need to cut the chain of enmity and hatred.

Overcoming Violence with Excessive Violence

The hatred and enmity between Rendille and Borana communities was a big obstacle to any dialogue attempt or to solving disputes constructively. I heard from the local communities that many peace meetings had ended in violence. In addition I observed that any act of violence was reacted to with excessive violence. If cattle were raided and a person killed, revenge was immediate and it was doubled in many cases. Many victims of revenge were innocent people, especially from Songa and Jaldesa locations who live at the border of the two communities. The revenge mission escalated the violence to a very high magnitude, leaving the area very insecure.

Introducing Nonviolence as an Alternative to Solving Conflicts with Bloody Violence

The deep rooted culture of violence and revenge could only be transformed if people changed the way they perceived each other and communicated. Consequently their violent actions will change. I met Imtraud Kauschat from Germany and her team who were training in nonviolent communication. In collaboration with Irmtraud, we introduced nonviolence between Borana and Rendille communities. We began by training the elders who are the key decision-makers. They were taken away from the violence zone to a peaceful area (more than 600 km). The elders started to interact, listen to each other, and perceive each other as human beings. They were able to sit and discuss the violence which has enslaved them. The elders went back to Marsabit as a team, and when people saw them together in Marsabit town, they asked, “When did Rendille and Borana elders start talking together?” These elders visited various villages to ask people to unite and take responsibility to build their own peace.

Secondly a team of Morans/warriors (key perpetrators to the conflict) were trained in nonviolent communication. Some confessed how they were to kill each other during several violent attacks. They decided to remain friends. When they went back, they resolved to preach peace to their peers and keep them from raiding or killing.

The women whose children and husbands had been killed by the bloody conflicts were also trained. All these people became agents of peace in their region.

The Opportunities Created by Nonviolence

The language of nonviolence changed the perception of an enemy to a human being whom they can collaborate with in developmental activities. Consequently the elders, who are key decision-makers, started holding dialogues and resolving disputes before they escalated to violence.

Incidences of killing and raids have been greatly reduced. People living in IDP camps like Leyai have gone back to their farms and resumed agricultural activities. In May 2014, they contributed 5,000 kgs of maize to areas affected by drought in Marsabit County. There was enhanced communication where each community started alerting each other in case they sensed any danger. The two communities started trading together and using the same means of transport. Some Rendille started working as casual workers in Borana farms. Elders started tracking raided cattle and return them to the owners. Criminals are punished with no regard from which group they are. The elite youth took responsibility for promoting interaction between Rendille and Boran youth through sports and parties which have promoted good relationships among the young people. Consequently, the Rendille and Borana have now lived in a peaceful environment for the last three years after many years of bloody conflict.

Conclusion

My experience of using nonviolence to myself first and then communities at war with each other has motivated me to gain deeper understanding. Nonviolence is the solution to the protracted conflicts which have resulted in the loss of meaning for the preciousness of life and subjected many people to live in dehumanizing conditions. However, many people — especially those working for peace — do not have a deeper knowledge of the practice of nonviolence. This is why many negotiations have not yielded fruits due to eruptions of violent communication which worsen the situation.

The Catholic Church is very well-placed in the society. It is connected with people all over the world from the top, middle, and to the grassroots level. Therefore the Church can be a good channel of active nonviolence. Jesus is an icon of nonviolence, therefore if active nonviolence is taught at all levels, it will become a language which can overcome the violence being experienced in many parts of the world. Through the Council of Justice and Peace, a manual can be developed which can be used to train people at the national level, hence spilling over to the grassroots. Finally there is a need to document successful stories of nonviolence which can help others to learn.

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