The next general elections in Kenya are not due until 2012, but initiatives are already underway to avoid a repetition of the violence which broke out in the wake of the 2007 poll. Moreover, a new Constitution has now been voted on by the parliament and will go to a referendum later this year. Responding to an invitation from the Kenyan team of Initiatives of Change, the Gandhi voyage of dialogue and discovery arrived in Nairobi on Sunday 28 March for a five-day program of meetings and discussions.
Speaking at the Oshwal centre on the first evening, Rajmohan Gandhi highlighted fearlessness as an indispensable attribute in any non-violent struggle for justice. He drew on the experience of his grandfather, who ‘was not afraid to speak the truth to his own side.’ In today’s Kenya, with deep mistrust along tribal lines (there are 42 different ethnic groups) there is a growing call for courageous individuals to reach across the divides, and at the same to speak forthrightly to their own groups.
Ann Njeri, a young Kikuyu woman, spoke of her own attitude to the Kalenjin people and her personal journey of reconciliation. It began when she acknowleded her bitterness and underlying hatred and apologized to Kalenjin friends for it. She subsequently visited their communities and took the bold step to invite Kalenjin people into her home - something unprecedented in the history of her family. It was this initiative, she says, that brought the challenge to her own people and her own family, and extended the process of reconciliation one step further. You can read more of this story here
Initiatives of Change in Kenya is working in various ways to build this trust between tribes. Their work has also drawn on the experiences of Imam Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye of Nigeria, whose story of reconciliation has now been told around the world through the film The Imam and the Pastor. Their visit to Eldoret, in Kenya, and the reconciliation work that has continued afterwards, is recounted in a new documentary, An African Answer, to be released in May this year. Joseph Karanja, who has been intimately involved in that process, described how both sides were asked to identify nine points they disliked about the other tribe and nine points that they appreciated. This was the starting point of an honest dialogue – one that has some way to go, but which has now begun.
The Voyage had two meetings with university students in Kenya, at the African Nazarene and Daystar Universities. Both events showed that younger people are engaged with these issues, but several expressed a sense of frustration and powerlessness. In response to one question about the pain of loss, and how a violent reaction can be tempered, Gandhi focused on the choice each individual has: ‘In the position of a father who has lost a child, for example, I could of course decide that I will make another father feel that pain, but if I choose to, I can make a decision that no other father should feel that pain.’
As well as the urgent need for reconciliation, other constant themes were corruption and the gap between rich and poor. Visiting Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa, illuminated the depth of poverty that many Kenyans face, but also stories of initiative and empowerment that emerge. One such example is The Pillars of Kibera, who through theatre, sport and other activities are conveying a message of hope for their community. Ochieng Kevin Keegan, the Director of Theatre for Pillars of Kibera, left Kibera for university, but was clear about returning to serve his community afterwards; ‘my roots are here, this is my home, and I don’t want other young people to have to face the same challenges I was confronted with as a child.’
The question of poverty is tied to the obstacles created and perpetuated by corruption, which was also raised on a number of occasions. Julius Khakula, a lawyer and currently Chairman of Initiatives of Change in Kenya, stressed that corruption is a two-way street, for example when it comes to bribery. ‘It requires someone to offer, and someone to receive – if I refuse to receive a bribe, there can be no corruption.’ But the principled commitment to honesty, he says, has its own sometimes unexpected consequences. He related one story of refusing a bribe from a certain group during his time in public administration. Some years later, as he began in legal practice, that same group were one of his first clients – ‘they trusted me’, he concludes.
As well as the grass-roots encounters, the Voyage team, including representatives of Initiatives of Change Kenya, also had the opportunity to meet with both the Prime Minister and the Vice-President. Gandhi echoed his observation from South Africa on the need for bridges to be built between the leaders and the led, and his hope for partnerships that would continue to knit the fabric of a just society.