Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

An Olive Branch Grows in Africa: A Kenyan Peacemaker Talks about the Power of Listening in the Midst of Violence

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

An Olive Branch Grows in Africa: A Kenyan Peacemaker Talks about the Power of Listening in the Midst of Violence

Article excerpt

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WIDESPREAD VIOLENCE BROKE OUT in Kenya after President Mwai Kibald declared himself victorious following disputed elections in late December 2007. The conflict claimed an estimated 1.000 lives and drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, many of whom have yet to return.

Mennonite Central Committee a relief, service, and peace agency of the North American Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches is supporting a Kenyan organization, Nairobi Peace Initiative-Africa, in a project to reconcile Kenyans divided by ethnic and political differences. George Kut, a coordinator for NPI-Africa, described this "listening project" in an interview this spring with Tim Shenk, a writer for MCC.

Tim Shenk: How did the National Peace Initiative (NPI) listening project get started?

George Kut: When the election results were announced, there was a lot of violence that erupted in different parts of the country, particularly those parts that supported the Orange Democratic Movement, which Was the major opposition during the campaign. Because of the violence, the killings, a lot of looting, and a lot of very violent demonstrations, we needed to consider the ideas, the stories, and the images that people of Kenya hold of the crisis and in time be able to translate this into leadership capacities for peace.

At NPI, we decided to go out to those people and listen to their stories, to hear what sense they made of the particular violence that was going on. That was really the purpose of the listening project.

Did this involve people who were committing the violence, as well as others affected by it?

Yes. During the first stage of the listening program, we were targeting mainly the leadership of the militia groups of the country. One day I was in Kisumu city, in the western part of the country, the headquarters of the opposition. I managed to get information when I was listening to members of a youth militia that was planning an attack on a police station where members of another community were hosted. I informed the police about the planned attack, and the police were able to move in and evacuate people. We did quite a number of such activities during the violence. We were listening and acting at the same time.

How has the situation changed since then?

The moment the two leaders [President Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga] began to discuss power sharing, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked the country to be calm--to wait two weeks to conclude the power sharing issues--and we saw people calm down. But people have not stopped their demands. What they have stopped is the direct violence. However, the structural violence is yet to be addressed. Remember, there was displacement and people moved very far from one another. And if you go to any area, you will find communities that drove the other away. They have not been able to meet.

What you have seen are only leaders meeting in Nairobi. There was a disconnect between top leadership and the grassroots leadership, and actually the violence has taken on its own life. There is no process that has tried to address this. There is a very big latent conflict, because what we saw during the listening visits--for example, the militarization of the youth--has not stopped. The youth that were preparing themselves for war are still continuing to do so.

What did you discover through the listening process?

Our listening process actually found three types of violence. …

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