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.

Lent, Nonviolence

Lent 2017: Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent, March 5 – From revenge to reconciliation

by Moses Sichei Sakong, with Martha Okumu
Peace Tree Network

Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7 | Romans 5:12-19 | Matthew 4:1-11

ashwednesdayclipMy name is Moses Sichei Sakong from the Mt. Elgon region in Bungoma County in Kenya. I was born on the 6th of June, 1987 into a Sabaot family and I have ten siblings of which I am the second born.

During my childhood, I had never experienced violent conflict, but by 2004, there were warning signs of the coming violence. The Ndorobo people, who were our neighbours, came and burnt down our houses and granaries. By the time I was in secondary school, life had become tough for me as we had lost all our possessions as a family. I started asking myself a lot of questions and developed a negative attitude towards the Ndorobo community.

From 2005 to 2007, the third phase of land redistribution by the government of Kenya in the Mt. Elgon region was underway. It was then that the land conflict escalated and violent clashes started to occur with militia groups being formed. The Sabaot Land Defence Force was formed with the aim of protecting the land interests of its community from the perceived injustice in the resettlement process. The group received support from politicians as membership was drawn from among the youth. It was at this time that I had a desire to join the militia group but my mother refused.

With the escalation of violent conflict between the Soy and Mosop — of which I am a Soy — there was a lot of killings, torture and destruction of property. I lost many relatives including brothers, cousins, uncles and close friends, and it was then that we became internally displaced.

Everyone in my family ran to safety. I and my elder brother went together but on the way we almost got killed as there were gunshots everywhere and we frequently faced death. It is only through God’s will that we made it. I experienced a tough life of slavery; eating was a problem, and this affected me psychologically, physically, emotionally, socially; my education was disrupted.

After the ethnic conflict of 2008, I became aware of the work of Peace Tree Network (PTN) and I started participating in their work in 2009 centered on peace-building. PTN has played a big role in my life by transforming my outlook through their seminars, trainings, and exchange programs, and I now live life in a positive way. For instance, during the conflict period, my heart was filled with revenge for losing my relatives and I did not want to socialise with the Ndorobo group, but through the teachings and skills learnt, it has brought about healing and reconciliation in my life and changed my negative thinking of revenge towards positive living with all people, especially the ones I viewed as my enemies.

I have also discovered my career path for counseling psychology which I am currently pursuing. I have become a peace ambassador and engaged in a reconciliation process in my community through the use of mediation and forgiveness and through that I have learnt the importance of maintaining peace. I educate the youth against engaging in violence and being misused by leaders for their personal gain.

With these skills that I have, I live positively, not a life of hopelessness and negativity, and I am very thankful to be here and to be a testimony of a positive peaceful existence.