I am Pax Christi, Women and Peacemaking

The #IAmPaxChristi interview: Kanini Kimau, Horn of Africa Grassroots Peace Forum

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. 

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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.

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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.

DSC00794What 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.

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Nonviolence, Women and Peacemaking

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.