The #IamPaxChristi interview: Martha Okumu of Peace Tree Network, Kenya

In this latest installment of the #IamPaxChristi interview, we’re profiling Martha Okumu of Peace Tree Network which is based in Nairobi, Kenya. This series aims to highlight short conversations with the women and men who make up our movement. The interview was conducted over email.

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How did you become involved with peace and justice work? What led you to do this kind of work?

I got involved in peace and justice when a college friend introduced me to a peace organisation which employed me. It was an eye opener in the sense that I had previously not interacted with civil society and community based organisations. I worked there for a period of two years and gained experience in peacebuilding and conflict transformation, advocacy, mediation and dialogue. The organisation was mainly involved in conducting workshops, hosting peace forums and offering certificate training courses in partnership with one of the Catholic Universities in Kenya.

With time I realised that I did enjoy the work and getting to learn about the genesis of conflict and the existing resolution mechanisms that existed needed to utilise in addressing the conflict issues. With this, I later found myself working for Peace Tree Network which works and partners with the community in developing conflict resolution mechanisms as well as enhancing the capacities of community members, especially the youth and women with skills in resolving/preventing conflict.

During your time at Peace Tree Network, what do you think is the greatest contribution that Peace Tree Network has made to the people you serve? Is there something that you recall in your work that you think really led to a positive change?

One of our greatest achievements was working with the youth in Mt. Elgon region in Kenya during the 2007/2008 violent conflict inflicted on the community by the SLDF which was a militia group. The violence was a result of the perceived marginalisation of a section of the community during the land allocation exercise by the government. As a result, a militia group made up of the youth from the community that felt marginalised started to terrorise people living in the areas of Kopsiro, Kipsigon, Cheptais, Kaptama and Kapsokwony. This led to people deserting their homes, rape, destruction of property, and physical and mental trauma.

At this point, Peace Tree Network identified and partnered with youth leaders, local organisations, and the church, as well as the local administration in identifying activities that would bring the parties in conflict together; we had a series of dialogues to help identify and resolve the issues of concern. We also had workshops and trainings in peacebuilding and conflict transformation with the aim of equipping the community with skills for finding alternatives to conflict as well as identifying latent issues that could lead to an eruption of conflict.

Martha Okumu in white shirt, 2nd from left.

Bringing in the local administration was important, as the local community were hostile to them, and this resolved the lack of sharing information that would lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. We also partnered with the security agents and organised ball games between them and the youth; this helped in mending relationships that had been broken.

This was a process that went on for a number of years, and, in concluding our project in 2016, we initiated a Peace Connectors Project whose aim was not only to build the skills of the youth in peacebuilding but also to economically empower them with life skills and identify income-generating activities, like communal farming, that brings together parties in conflict to work together. In the process, they learn about each other and discuss contentious issues amongst themselves. We also implemented table banking whereby the members would contribute towards an income-generating activity — in this case, the buying and selling of grains. The profit made would be ploughed back into the business while at the same time members would make their monthly contribution which would be lent out and repaid with a small interest on the principal borrowed. At the conclusion of this project, we had trained over 1000 trainers of trainers in peacebuilding and conflict transformation in Mt. Elgon who still are active in preaching peace.

We like to believe that our work has positively impacted people and led to meaningful changes in their lives. One instance that stands out for me would be an incident that happened last year in the Kinondo area in Kwale County after the announcement of the winner of the seat being vied for in the General Elections. The presiding officer announced the winner (this was later reversed and a new election was held on 18 April 2018) of the political seat despite having two candidates having the same number of votes. This led to a situation whereby the supporters clashed, leading to heightened tension in the area. In partnership with our partners on the ground as well as participants that had previously gone through our trainings, we managed to bring the parties in conflict together in a forum where they vented their displeasure on what had happened and agreed to conduct themselves in a peaceful manner while campaigning for their candidate and respecting the decision of the IEBC. This made the people aware that they could agree to disagree without escalating the situation to violence, and we also learnt the importance of providing a platform for people to address issues that negatively affect them.

What does nonviolence mean to you personally and professionally? How would you describe it? Is it important to your work?

Nonviolence to me is when one uses peaceful means when resolving conflict without forcing their will on others so as to bring about change.

Martha Okumu, center, at the Nonviolence in Africa conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, December 2016.

I would also say that through the use of dialogue, advocacy and skills enhancement, we try to bring about social change, justice and political change in our society.

Nonviolence is important to our work as our mission is to develop and maintain collaborative relationships among people and peace actors to develop sustainable peace, and this can only be achieved through dialogue, finding points of collaboration, and working through our differences peacefully so as to bring about change.

Is there someone who has been influential in your life in terms of the work you do for peace and justice? Someone you admire or who inspired you?

I would say I have been inspired by a number of people during one stage of my life or another. Initially, when starting out, I was inspired by my friend who introduced me into this line of work as the dedication and interest that I saw in him made me want to get involved.

After working with the community, I would say there are two people in Mt. Elgon (Sakong) and one in Kwale County (Barroh) who stand out as they are devoted to their community and are willing to sacrifice themselves in order for the voices of the community to be heard; to me, this is remarkable and selfless. This makes working in this field worthwhile as they are a source of inspiration.

What does it mean to you to be part of the Pax Christi International network?

For us, being part of the Pax Christi International network is an opportunity to share our experiences, work together and share our values to bring meaningful change in the world. It also signifies a platform for positive change through its advocacy platform which has a wide reach that helps in transforming the lives of people it touches.

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