I am Pax Christi, Women and Peacemaking

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.

I am Pax Christi, Women and Peacemaking

The #IamPaxChristi interview: Wiltrud Rösch-Metzler of Pax Christi Germany

In this latest installment of the #IamPaxChristi interview, we’re profiling Wiltrud Rösch-Metzler, former member of the International Board of Pax Christi International. She is from Germany and has served as the national chair of Pax Christi Germany. This series aims to highlight short conversations with the women and men who make up our movement. The interview was conducted by communications intern Marie Just earlier this year.

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Marie Just: How did you become involved with peace and justice work, and what was your first involvement in Pax Christi International??

Wiltrud Rösch-Metzler: I think international justice is a central theme to my life. This initially started to connect with the ecclesiastical youth work that I was involved in; it got me interested and engaged with what we call ‘one-world-topics’ today, or at the time the ‘North-South conflict’. That is why I went to study politics. And it is also the reason for my strong affiliation with justice. Then there was also the topic of stationing missiles in Germany in the 1980s — American nuclear missiles were stationed in West Germany and corresponding to that the armament took place on the Soviet side too, and we have demonstrated against that, we called for the disarmament of atomic rockets. That was then the first time I marched for peace, and the time that I joined Pax Christi: we founded a local Pax Christi group in Metzingen.

MJ: During your time at Pax Christi Deutschland, can you recall a moment in which the work of Pax Christi Deutschland made a real difference in the situation of your country, or in the lives of the people living there?

WRM: There were never short-term moments, but rather long-term processes. This means that you need to have a lot of patience. And that you have to stay focused on the message of peace, and in carrying that out. One example is the work we do in the Middle East, and therein the example of the work on the violent Israeli settlements. Pax Christi supports a two-state solution, as in accordance with international arbitration within that particular peace process. To make this two-state solution possible for the Palestinians – hence in order to be able to create a Palestinian state – its territory needs to be freely available. However, in the current situation, the Palestinian state area (i.e. the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip) is subjected to (new) Israeli settlements being built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And it doesn’t stop here, there is also the land which is claimed by Israel – the occupying power. This means that this land will be taken from what would potentially be Palestinian State territory. Furthermore, the settlements violate international law, for, according to the law, no occupying power can transfer its own population to Occupied Territories. International law also obliges other states, e.g. Germany, not to support a breach of international law. So we think that if we do not label settlement products – i.e. we do not distinguish between Israeli goods that originate from Israeli territory or from the Israeli settlements – we do not know for sure whether we are taking part in a breach of international law. Yet consumers who do not want to purchase goods coming from these settlements, have a really hard time distinguishing one from the other. That is why the Pax Christi Middle East Commission in Germany launched the campaign “Besatzung schmeckt bitter” (i.e. “Occupation tastes bitter”), which demands an obligated labeling of settlement products. To this end also, the EU decided two years ago that settlement products must be labeled and that they have no tax exemption – like any other product coming from Israel. This was a big and important step towards the right direction, but we still cannot speak of a genuine breakthrough, since – also in Germany – this decision has not been put into effect yet. I still haven’t seen any signs in any supermarket that indicate a certain product being imported from the Israeli settlements.

The campaign “Besatzung schmeckt bitter” has been running since 2012 and is ongoing.

MJ: What does nonviolence mean to you personally and professionally? How would you describe it?

WRM: Nonviolence is a political concept that allows civilians to get involved in resolving conflicts, but in which they do not run the risk of getting injured and which provides a fairly just balance between the parties.

MJ: How many years have you been part of Pax Christi Deutschland?

WRM: Since ’81, so 35 years.

MJ: What other roles have you had within Pax Christi International?

WRM: For seven years now, I am the chair of Pax Christi Deutschland. Before that I was, for nine years, the spokesperson of the Middle East Commission of Pax Christi. I have also been a member of the international board of Pax Christi for six years (two terms) – which came to an end this year.

I am Pax Christi, Women and Peacemaking

The #IamPaxChristi interview: Teresia Wamuyu Wachira, IBVM, of Kenya

In this latest installment of the #IamPaxChristi interview, we’re profiling Teresia Wamuyu Wachira, a Sister of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (also known as the Loreto Sisters). She is from Kenya and a member of the Pax Christi International Board. This series aims to highlight short conversations with the women and men who make up our movement. The interview was conducted by communications intern Marie Just in December at the Nonviolence in Africa conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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Marie Just: How did you become involved with peace and justice work, and what was your first involvement in Pax Christi International??

wamuyu-longTeresia Wamuyu Wachira: I first got involved in peace and justice work at the university in Kenya during my graduate studies. During English literature studies, I took a unit on “Women” and it was during class discussions that I came face-to-face with the stereotypical attitudes towards women – perception of women as ‘second class citizens’ and also the institutionalization of violence against women. I felt called to do something about this.

My first involvement in Pax Christi International was while I was studying my Masters in the UK. Valerie Flessati was my supervisor, and during this time I met Pat Gaffney and the late Fr. Giovanni Schudiero. The way they spoke and dedicated themselves as members of Pax Christi was impressive and this is what influenced me to be a member of Pax Christi.

MJ: During your time with the Loreto Sisters, can you tell us a story about a time that the work of the Loreto Sisters made a real difference in the situation in your country, or in the lives of people there?

TWW: Loreto Sisters are actively involved in education, mainly of girls. In the early 1900s, the Loreto Sisters ran schools for girls at a time when education of girls was not considered a priority. They did this against the African culture at the time that required girls to get married once they were of age and also to bring forth many children. As a result of going against such practices, some of the girls that got an opportunity to go to school are in influential positions in Kenya and across the globe, making a difference in the lives of men and women of our times. One of these girls that has left a legacy is the late Peace Nobel Laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai who has left a legacy of the care of our Mother Earth.

MJ: What does nonviolence mean to you personally and professionally? How would you describe it?

TWW: I believe that human beings are good and ultimately desire peace. When provoked human beings react in a particular way either peacefully or nonviolently. According to me, nonviolence is the way to go. However, this is not usually the first option when one is provoked. The easier and faster way is the way of violence. As a member of Pax Christi, when someone annoys me or acts violently towards me, this gives me an opportunity to practice what I proclaim to others – the way of active nonviolence. This means first looking at the situation, reflecting on it and making a decision on how to respond. Do I want to react in a violent way or do I decide to act nonviolently?

When I am faced with this dilemma – to act violently or nonviolently – it is like I have two things in my hand to choose from: one that will bring life and the other death. Often when faced with this dilemma in my daily life, I try not to fight back; I also try to choose my words carefully so that I will not make a violent situation worse. For instance, instead of blaming the other for the anger I feel, I just express that I am feeling very angry for what has just happened. I make efforts to try and get an opportunity to dialogue and reconcile with the other person as soon as an opportunity avails itself as I value good relationships.

Being a member of Pax Christi has really helped my outlook to life. When provoked, I find myself thinking: “Okay, I might be angry but I don’t want to react immediately.” Thus, as far as I am concerned, nonviolence is really about making choices; it is taking that prophetic step: “standing up and being counted” as one that is walking that ‘road that is less traveled’ – the path of nonviolence.

The more I reflect on what it means to act nonviolently, the more I am convinced that ‘nonviolence is at the core of our being’ – we all have the ability to act in a nonviolent way, but we have to work on it. We have the freedom to choose the nonviolent way which leads to life or the violent way that leads to death. Active nonviolence is therefore choosing the ‘road less traveled’ as it were. I believe that we have to be committed and consciously choose this path. Following this path is therefore not going to be easy; at times it will make us look and feel like a fool, especially among people who do not understand why we are acting this way. I believe that even when I am pushed to the wall, there is an option. The option is not to fight back in a violent manner but as it were ‘to turn the other cheek,’ to dialogue and see my own image in the other.

Therefore, in acting nonviolently, I believe we are following in Christ’s footsteps – Jesus who while crucified on the cross chose the path of forgiveness instead of the path of retaliation and violence.

MJ: How many years have you been part of the Loreto Sisters?

TWW: I joined the Loreto Sisters a long time ago immediately after my high school in 1975. The school was an all girls’ boarding school that was run by the Loreto Sisters. The sisters were very kind and lived an ordinary way of life and this is what attracted me to them and their way of life. I was seventeen years old when I joined the Loreto Sisters. I have already celebrated my Silver Jubilee as a Loreto Sister.

For my Master’s Degree I went to the UK in 1997. It was here that I got attracted to Pax Christi. Then I went back to Kenya, where I was appointed to be a principal of a Loreto girls’ boarding school with over 700 girls. I stayed in this school for four years and then left for the UK in 2007 to pursue a Ph.D. in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. During this time I was in constant communication with Valerie Flessati and Pat Gaffney.

MJ: When we talk about supporting women, do you have an example of your work, when you focus on women’s issues? Do you have a story that you can share?

TWW: I do not have only one story because I have a passion for working with women. Years back when I was a student in the university, I was attending to women and youth. Today, I make a point of meeting them where they are, especially the women. I meet them in the churches because this is where a lot of women who may not have a lot of money or who are struggling financially gather. When I meet these women, I do not dictate to them what topics to discuss but allow them to select the kind of topics that they are interested in. Most of them are interested in topics that deal with youth.  Currently the discussions and training have been mainly on how to mentor their teenage children, especially with the current challenge of youth radicalization. Another topic is on family relationships, especially considering the breakdown of family values in today’s context. Also the discussions are on issues of violence in the home, especially on gender-based violence, and how to address this without creating a cycle of violence.

Before joining the Pax Christi International Board in 2016, Teresia Wamuyu Wachira was an active member of Pax Christi UK. She has contributed to a workbook for key stage 4, PSHE and Citizenship, and for chaplaincy and retreat work, Peace People who Changed the WorldCurrently, she is a Senior Lecturer in Peace Studies at St. Paul’s University in Nairobi, Kenya.