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Paths to Peace

Kenyan women lead peace effort


It was mid-August. I had finished a master’s course in peace and conflict studies in Northern Ireland and was heading to Wajir, a district in northeast Kenya, on the border of Somalia. The State Department warned that the area was drought-stricken and rife with banditry. I knew there was an indigenous group of Somali women there leading their war-torn district to stability through nonviolent, community-centered peace initiatives. I thought I could write my thesis about them.

I flew from Nairobi in a small propeller plane, squeezed between sacks of goods. After an hour-and-a-half, the plane turned fast and descended. I landed with the cargo onto Wajir’s red sand. Members of the peace group met me and drove me to town -- a tangle of paths worn by use, lined with some cement homes and thatched-roof shelters. It served as a gathering place for people who had been shepherds and herders for centuries, and over the last 20 years, had collected in the area to lessen the impact of drought and war.

Tensions were high

With thousands in town, tensions were high between the three long-disputing clans -- the Ogaden, Degodia and Ajuran. Following the first multiparty national elections in Kenya in 1992, violence broke out between the Ogaden and Degodia, who had been political rivals in the election. The most violent clashes occurred from June 1993 to the mid-1994 and involved all the tribes in the district. During the Bagalla massacre of October 1998, 189 people were killed and 36 injured. Three thousand head of livestock were stolen. All the victims were from the Degodia tribe and the attackers were believed to have been from Wajir’s minority clans, backed by the Ethiopian Oromo Liberation Front.

During my seven-week stay in Wajir, I interviewed 40 people -- founders of the peace movement, combatants, victims and government officials. They were men and women, all ages, all survivors. I lived with a family -- 15-plus relatives from ages 5 to 60 -- in an enclosed compound.

In the early 1990s, at the start of Wajir’s conflict, “No one in the community was helping the peace,” explained Rukia, one of the founding members of Women for Peace. “It got out of hand. Women and children were being killed. Women even began refusing business from the women of other tribes.”

A woman named Dekha, my initial contact to Wajir, said, “The problem had become explicitly ours. We women had no choice. If your house is on fire, what do you do? Sit and wait for someone else to extinguish it? No. You find a way to put out the fire out.” After a violent incident, women would bring soap and household goods to the victims. The female members of warring tribes began sharing meals together.

“Women for Peace was born out of necessity,” Dekha explained. “We started with small initiatives that quickly launched into a highly organized movement. We knew that though this was not so simply a women’s problem, we women could inspire positive change through nonviolence. … But if we said we could do it single-handedly, solely as women, the community would have crushed us. People would have been very critical. So instead, we said, ‘Let us incorporate them and let them lead.’ ”

By publicly deferring the leadership to the male elders and young male leaders of the community, the Women for Peace nonviolent movement was accepted as mainstream and legitimate. Nonetheless, the women continued to maintain direct influence over the movement, becoming the hidden hands that supported the political platform of peace that was now endorsed by the men.

“Peace is a collective responsibility,” said Tulo, one of the first men to devote himself to the peace movement, which was renamed the Wajir Peace Group and later known as the Wajir Peace and Development Committee. “Peace,” Tulo said, “is dependent on all those in the community, not just the government. If you have a hole in your shoe and your foot is getting cut, you know exactly where the problem is.”

Hussein, a former teacher living in a nearby village of survivors, told me, “We were attacked from all sides. I was running, carrying my two children when the bazooka was [fired]. … My parents were both killed. … All of my students were killed. All our Qurans were burned.”

Following each incident of violence, government forces imprisoned some offenders and hospitalized some victims. The Wajir Peace Group became a rapid response team of community volunteers prepared to respond directly to people affected by the clashes. “By getting to the conflict site quickly, we were able to help lessen resentment and thus reduce the number of retaliatory attacks,” said Amran, another founder of the group.

In the summer of 1999, after the rape of a young girl by a man from another tribe, the team rushed to the communities of the victim and the perpetrator. With the former, they discussed restraint instead of retaliation; with the latter they discussed accountability and justice. The Wajir Peace Group’s methodology worked in conjunction with Somali law, which requires the involvement of the entire clan for the resolution of a conflict. Traditional law seeks justice not so much through punishment as through material appeasement.

“Initially only some responded positively to the rapid response team. But we were persistent -- we were gentle and we were sincere,” Dekha said. “ ‘We have come in solidarity,’ we told them. ‘We are ashamed of what happened. We do not approve of the violence.’ ”

Within the Wajir Peace and Development Committee were women and men from all three contesting clans. They responded to each conflict as a cross-community unit, committed to nonviolence. Dekha said, “We took the blame. We apologized. It didn’t matter to us if it was our fault or someone else’s. What mattered to us was that violence was reduced.”

Reversal of power

Not everyone in Wajir welcomed the new peacemakers initially. Wajir Peace and Development Committee members were primarily young people and some of the townspeople assumed them to be irreverent and incompetent. Mama Zeinab, a strong-willed businesswoman, remembers questioning the peace group when it first approached her. She recalled asking Dekha, “Now my daughters come to lead me through this process. Is this not a reversal of power?” She soon became one of the peace group’s strongest supporters.

During the most violent clashes of the mid-’90s, Tulo helped to organize Wajir’s first Peace Festival, “Peace is a Collective Responsibility,” held in July 1995. “Generally, it is the local police chiefs who mobilize their communities to fight other clans,” he said. “So we invited and financed for all of the chiefs to come to the festival. And we awarded the chiefs. The chiefs were confused. They all thought, ‘I finance war and now I am not only being invited to the peace festival, but I am also being honored at it, as a peacemaker!’ ”

Tulo said this simple act “altered the chiefs’ psychology.” They began to regard themselves as the peacemakers. “The chiefs think differently now,” Tulo said. “They pull up their socks so they can keep getting presents!”

Some say the women were the peacemakers in Wajir. The elders were the peacemakers, or the chiefs were the peacemakers, according to many. That God was the peacemaker is unanimous.

“We all learned that peace is sweet,” explained Tulo. “It didn’t really matter who made it, so long as we could all benefit from it. So we all pitched in.”

I wake now in Washington to reports of increases in military expenditures, continued sanctions and plans for further bombing campaigns. I wonder what it will take for us to try an alternative approach.

Emma Dorothy Reinhardt received her masters in peace and conflict studies from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. She is currently living and working in Washington D.C.

Peace in history

  • 33: Jesus lives a life of compassion and nonviolence and is crucified for it.
  • 1181: St. Francis of Assisi turns his back on wealth as a youth and lives a life of nonviolence and care for others.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002