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Hope in dark times

The peace agreement between the Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga achieves calm but not peace. Meanwhile, many Kenyans are trying to make peace themselves. Ewa Jasiewicz talks to some of those involved

April 16, 2008
5 min read


Ewa JasiewiczEwa Jasiewicz is a Palestine solidarity activist, union organiser and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition.


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With an estimated 1,000 dead (some put the figure at 2,000) and 600,000 displaced, as well as 12,000 refugees in Uganda, the social map of Kenya is changing. The losses and changes in relations between people are deep. But there is also a process of peace initiatives being steadily built from below. According to Wangui Mbatia, co-ordinator of the Kenyan Network of NGOs

(Kengo) and the People’s Parliament (Bunge La Mwananchi), a grass-roots debating and action network: ‘People themselves are trying to intervene – it can’t come from above. A number of

people are doing small, good things for each other. Kenyans are helping themselves.’

‘The Kenyan people are not fighting actively as before – tensions are lower,’ Mbatia continues. ‘It is very difficult to get Kenyans into a state of civil war; the mediation talks have allowed for the situation to calm down. Despite the political class having hijacked the issue, constitutional reform is back on the table. The capacity shown by the Kenyan people to assist each other has been inspiring. We are still able to talk between and across communities. In certain arenas we are still in a sense able to go beyond their differences.’

Non-partisan approach

The People’s Parliament has been organising all over Kenya, including the flashpoint towns of Nakuru and Eldoret. Its non- partisan approach has given it an advantage over bigger NGOs, which have often been compromised by their support for either one of the candidates.

Salim Mbua, the director of Foymasa (Swahili for ‘forum for real change’), is working on bringing about rapprochement between clashing tribes. Based in Nakuru, where thousands of people are living in the town’s stadium and a curfew is enforced from dusk till dawn, he and 30 others from various tribal backgrounds have been holding education and peace-building seminars. ‘Each organiser goes to his or her own tribe and talks to them; this way we reach everybody,’ he explains. ‘Foymassa has been focusing recently on meeting with elders. We are trying to do this so that they talk to their children and ask them not to fight.’

Nakuru is a cosmopolitan town, with some 40 different tribes, many of which have come into conflict with the dominant Kikuyu. According to Mbua, ‘There have been incidences of ethnic cleansing. The reason is that people believe there has been an unfair allocation of resources, but this is not true. It has been occasioned by the negative campaigns, we think, by politicians.’ He says the most urgent needs are to support peace-building efforts from below and to bring those who have committed crimes to justice, whatever their backgrounds.

Similar efforts are being made in Nairobi. Geoffrey Osiba, programme co-ordinator at Kengo, explains: ‘We’ve been going into some of the areas where there has been conflict and arguing on that which people have in common; that there’s no good in fighting, and it will not add anything to their life whether it is Kibaki or Odinga – it’s up to them in their villages, in their homes, to come together; that we need each other more than we need these leaders.’ He concedes, however, that the interventions need to come from the top too. ‘If people unite at the top and set an example, then people on the ground will follow.’

Land and freedom

The issues of ancestral lands, the plight of squatters and colonial mono-crop occupation have come to the fore in Kenya’s post-election conflict, as some groups find themselves displaced for the third time in a century. Kengo is formulating proposals for a truth and reconciliation commission and submitting a document on constitutional reform to the United Nations. Knowing who really won the elections is a fundamental point of departure.

Determining the starting point for addressing restitution has proved

problematic. ‘Do we begin with 2007, or 1992 or 1963?’ asks Wangui Mbatia. ‘Any discussion about land in Kenya must also be a discussion about the British interest in Kenya. The land problem is getting bigger and now it’s not just between African Kenyans but between the descendents of the settlers as well.’

According to Geoffrey Osiba, one family alone – the Kenyattas – owns a third of all Kenyan land. The occupation of land by tea plantations such as those supplying the Unilever group of companies and fruit plantations supplying the likes of Delmonte are coming under popular scrutiny. ‘There is one camp of displaced people right next to the Brooke Bond tea plantation in the Rift Valley. People there are deeply questioning the roots of their displacement,’ says Osiba.

Between Nairobi, Naivasha and Nakuru, faith in a human capacity for regeneration and co-operation remains strong. The spaces where people come together on terms not set by parties or sectarian agendas or temporary partitions are the spaces of hope, with the workplace as a key site

for interaction between people from different backgrounds.

‘If people are working together, if we can agree to co-exist together, then that will influence the negotiation process. If the process goes well, I don’t see why we cannot live together,’ says Osiba. ‘We are working together in the same schools, the same offices, the same workplaces. Damage has been done but we can heal it.’

Kenya’s People’s Parliament is fundraising for a peace caravan and documentary initiative. Contact Kengo at infokengo[at]mail.com to offer support

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Ewa JasiewiczEwa Jasiewicz is a Palestine solidarity activist, union organiser and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition.


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