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.


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.


Celebrating Non-Violent Resistance in Aotearoa-New Zealand

As November comes around again, we in Pax Christi Aotearoa-New Zealand turn our thoughts to what we will do this Parihaka Day, 5 November. Last year, we promoted a new film, “Tatarakihi – the children of Parihaka”. The year before, we held a seminar to catch up with the latest developments in the process of trying to get this day and the events it commemorates onto the national calendar.

What is Parihaka all about? What has it to do with peace-making, here in Aotearoa but also, internationally?

Parihaka Village in the 1880s

On 5 November 1881, 1600 fully-armed troops and cavalry assembled outside the village of Parihaka which lies under the shadow of Mount Taranaki. They were hoping for a battle and another chance to show the Taranaki region Maori who was master, to put an end to their resistance to the confiscations of land which had being going on for the past 20 and more years.

They were particularly keen to put an end to the careers of two prophetic leaders, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi. These two had established the village on land seized by the government following a series of land wars during the 1860s. The village thrived, expanding to more than 2000 inhabitants who impressed nearby settlers with their industry and the quality of their products. They also inspired a high level of covetousness as more European settlers arrived looking for land on which to set up their own farms and settlements.


The government increased their efforts to claim these confiscated lands and began to survey it and threaten force in the face of growing resistance based on Parihaka. But as the land near the township was surveyed and offered for sale, Te Whiti and Tohu began the series of non-violent actions for which they have become famous. They first of all removed the survey pegs and ploughed across the lines of new roads. Next they put up their own fences where roads and farm boundaries were supposed to be, thoroughly disrupting the process of division and sale by showing that they believed they still had rights to the land which had been unjustly confiscated.

This led to the arrest of eventually more than 400 men. As each small group of ploughmen was arrested, none of them resisted but allowed themselves to be taken and transported around the country, some to the cold areas of the South Island, 1000 miles from their homes. But as one lot was arrested, transported and held without trial, another came and continued their work.

Troops about to invade 1881
Parihaka peace festival, January each year

The non-violence of Te Whiti and Tohu’s resistance was lost upon the settlers and their government and rumours spread about a violent uprising, in spite of clear evidence to the contrary. In October 1881, Native Minister, James Bryce, assembled his troops while the head of state, who had resisted the use of force, was out of the country. They entered the village at dawn on 5 November but instead of armed resistance, they met children skipping up to them and offering them food. The irony of this was ignored by Bryce and his men who arrested Te Whiti and Tohu, committing them without trial to 16 months jail. 1600 of the inhabitants of the village were dispersed around the surrounding countryside without food or shelter and the remainder were put under heavy bond restrictions. In the course of this destruction, soldiers looted and burned the village, abusing and raping women, leaving some infected with syphilis. Subsequently, with resistance quelled, the land was divided and sold and even land to which Maori had clear rights was taken to defray the costs of the invasion of their village.

Although the government did its best to keep its actions out of sight, reporters were in the village and soon filed reports of the invasion which spread around the world. It is believed that the story came to the attention of Mahatma Gandhi, either through reports in colonial newspapers or at his meeting an Irish delegation who had visited Parihaka.

The leaders of the village were released in 1883 and Te Whiti and Tohu returned with some of their followers but they were continually harassed by soldiers and settlers and never allowed to fully revive their community. Both eventually died in 1907 but their legacy of non-violent resistance remained and has gradually been seen as an influence on the use of such means in other parts of the world, so much so that in 2003, an international delegation representing Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King visited Parihaka to honour its founders as “fathers of non-violent action”.

Pax Christi has joined a growing minority who are trying to put Parihaka and its celebration of non-violent resistance in its proper place of honour. So, as November comes around, we turn our minds again to find some way in which we can promote the memory of these two prophetic heroes who tried to integrate their own traditional spirituality with the stories of resistance in the Christian scriptures which they knew well. In doing so, they developed a practice of non-violent resistance which is part of a world-wide movement reaching into our own time. We are working to see that they are given full recognition in this their own land among other such leaders, both international and indigenous, who have sought the path of reconciliation and the non-violent resolution of conflict in the spirit of the peace of Christ.

Kevin McBride (with appreciation for material supplied through Wikipedia)
Pax Christi Aotearoa-New Zealand