In this latest installment of the #IamPaxChristi interview, we’re profiling Elizabeth Kanini Kimau of the Horn of Africa Grassroots Peace Forum which works in Kenya and South Sudan. This series aims to highlight short conversations with the women and men who make up our movement. The interview was conducted over email.
Can you give a concrete example of conflict resolution and peacebuilding in your region or country in which you were involved?
The northern parts of Kenya are torn by persistent inter-ethnic violence among pastoral communities who inhabit that region. In 2009 I went to Marsabit with a team of Justice and Peace Commission members from Tangaza University College. At this time over ten ethnic communities where in conflict with each other, apart from the Rendille and Samburu ethnic groups.
I resolved to contribute to peace in the region as a volunteer and decided to focus on Rendille-Borana violent conflict which takes place around Marsabit Mountain (one of the few arable areas in a region characterised by desert). First I carried out research on the conflict to understand it better. The research established that these two groups were in conflict for many years. The violence had left the communities deeply divided, with a lot hatred, enmity and a quest for revenge which was passed on from generation to generation leaving the violence in a vicious cycle. There were efforts by the government and civil society to resolve the conflict, however it would calm down for some time only to then escalate again.
In a such deeply divided society, I felt the only way to attain sustainable peace was using an approach which would generate relationships, build trust, tolerance, and understanding, and enhance genuine inter-communal dialogue.
The communities were very suspicious and did not want to listen to anyone speaking about peace. In addition I was a young woman in a patriarchal society where women do not speak in front of elders or give them advice in any decision-making process. In this situation I chose religion as my entry point to these communities. This is because religious leaders are trusted by grassroots people so it makes it easier for them to accept anyone who comes through them. This enabled me to go and live among the people to first create a rapport and also deeply understand the violence situation.
Secondly I noticed that religion provided a big opportunity in bonding these divided people; however this potential had not been exploited in building a culture of peace in the area. The grassroots leaders had shared values inspired by their religion — like love, respect for life, and a recognition that all beings are children of God. Building sustainable peace is a slow and continuous process, but I observed that NGOs came and went after one year, two or three. Religious leaders are always with the people. In addition the ethnic groups who were fighting shared the same religious leader. For instance, the priest who celebrated mass for the Rendilles was the same who served the Boranas, so he was listened to and respected by both communities, hence making him a channel of peace in the area. Finally many peace initiatives are dependent on heavy donor funding which creates dependency at the grassroots and the peace process ends when the funding ends. When religious leaders are empowered with the right skills, they will continue strengthening the peace initiative even without money.
The potential which religion holds helped me to choose it as an instrument of bonding people. First I chose 14 elders who were key decision-makers and influential in their communities. They were composed of Muslims, Christians and traditional elders. I took them to Nairobi, more than 6oo km from Marsabit. The long journey on poor roads made them forget their differences. In Nairobi we held our meeting in a church which was burned some years back by Muslim youth when seeds of hatred in Kenya were taking root. After five days of interaction and learning a nonviolent way of communication, the elders went home as a team and visited various villages asking people to come together despite their religion or ethnic group and to work for their own peace.
Secondly I met with the religious leaders at the grassroots and asked them what role they can take to build peace in their area. The leaders started organising common worship where one month they prayed among the Boranas and next month they prayed among the Rendilles. Each year the leaders were organising a very big worship service where people prayed and shared meals together. For instance in 2018 during the political campaigns, several cattle were raided. Children were then killed by slaughtering them like animals in order to anger the other community to revenge. The grassroots people refused to take revenge. They organised for a very big worship service in July 2018 which brought Christians, Muslims and traditional elders together from various communities. They all asked for forgiveness and decided not to exact revenge. Despite the high tension brought by politicians, the communities refused to go to war. The grassroots leaders continued to mobilise the communities to pray together without any money. People who had not talked together found themselves in discussion on how to organise the worship and where to get food from. Children and youth from the warring communities organised a common choir and spent a night in the community where the worship was to be held. Additionally, the youth organised themselves across various religions and started organising sports matches which also facilitated the regeneration of relationship between the two communities.
These initiatives helped to bring so many people together.
What were the challenges in terms of reaching conflict resolution and peace building and why was it successful?
Some of the challenges I faced on this journey were;
- Strong political influence which was dividing the people we were trying to unite.
- A lot of dependency on “sitting allowances” created by NGOs — people came to meetings when they knew they will get money and eat good food.
- I lived with the people at grassroots so I heard negative stories of loss and lots of anger. Children always told me that when they grow up, they will go kill the enemy and bring back their livestock. So I got traumatised and did not have a team or institute which was helping peacemakers in this situation.
- I was working without money even though the mission made so big of an impact. Some people got interested to support the initiative; however after some time, they raised money for their own use instead of the mission. Others wanted to make the initiative their own work. Struggling alone to retain the mission for the sake of marginalised people drained so much energy from me.
- There was very poor infrastructure, no means of transport and I was cut off from friends and family for a long time. Being in such insecure and hardship areas, many of my friends believed that I was getting so much money and am not inviting them. This made me lose several friends.
- The success of this mission was because of my insertion into these communities where people knew me, accepted and trusted me, and knew my intention was not to look for money but peace. In addition I saw each person as precious to me and had the right motivation of contributing to peace where many people who lived in a dehumanising situation would be able to live as human beings. This enabled me to overcome many challenges which I faced on the ten year’s journey.
What have you learned from this experience?
I have learned the following:
- Peace in deeply divided societies is possible without lots of money if we have actors who have the right motivation and are committed to making lives better.
- Religion has a lot of potential for building a culture of peace in the society because it is always with people; however this power has not been fully exploited.
- The grassroots people who are the majority in society suffer most in times of war and they have the potential to work for their own peace; however many actors do not recognise this potential and end up doing the work for the people. Hence there is no sustainability of the peace process.
- Finally there is a lot of money given for peace and very little impact is made.
- Building relationships in a deeply divided society is key to attaining sustainable peace.
Why is the role of faith leaders important? What is the added value in conflict resolution and peace building?
- The religious leaders are always with the people.
- In a society where peacebuilding has been commercialised, these leaders are guided by religious values not money.
- The structure of several religions enables the leaders to influence decisions at the top, middle and bottom levels.