Kenya's Young People Speak out for Peace
“The message we wish to send out is that the vulnerability of Kenya’s young people should not be abused easily by interested groups such as politicians,” Fr. Fred Stringer, a missionary who teaches anthropology at Nairobi’s Tangaza College, remarks.
The date is Saturday, May 3, 2008. Several hundred young people, most of them from the slums, are attending a Youth Open Forum at Dagoretti Corner, Nairobi. Organized by various religious, civil society and grassroots organizations, the event seeks to offer young Kenyans a forum for self expression in view of the country’s recent post-election violence, in which there was intense ethnic fighting largely carried out by youthful perpetrators.
The day begins early, with participants streaming into the venue from around 7 A.M. By about 10 o’clock, venue and the adjacent Dagoretti township are teeming with enthusiastic youths donning either black t-shirts with the Swahili word “Amani” (peace), or the more conspicuous white ones emblazoned with a pigeon holding an olive branch over the inscription, “It’s a new dawn”.
Hundreds of young people mill around the main podium as Africa Peace Point Director Michael Ochieng makes his welcoming speech. Popular radio presenter Titi Nagwalla then chirks them up, urging them to revel and enjoy themselves “in the name of peace”. The youths dance and watch a few select performances, setting the mood for the forum’s rallying theme, “Youth United for Peace in Kenya.”
Presently, all activity shifts towards discourse. A number of thematic tents are set up, and candid discussions on various composite issues threatening peace and unity in Kenya’s kick off in earnest. A quick shuttle between the tents makes it clear that Kenya’s young people are in fact acutely aware of the root factors behind ethnic tensions in the country. Their message is that they want lasting peace and a chance to occupy their rightful position as the guardians of the nation’s future.
The participants at the “Ethnicity Tent” are by far the boldest. They blame politicians for feeding off tribal tensions, citing the recent post-election violence as a perfect case example.
“We need to ask ourselves this question, is there a nation called Kenya?” moderator Leah Kimathi poses. Various views spring up as the audience strives to carve out the identity of the Kenyan nation. Through consensus, they agree that although Kenya has 42 ethnic communities, all the diversities melt into one proud “nation” under the state flag.
At the “Active Non-Violence Tent”, participants are split into two groups. One side is composed of Mahatma Gandhis who believe in total nonviolence, while the other side holds participants who consider violence a necessary intervention method in certain situations. After a spirited debate, the discussion bridges into a recognition of dialogue, justice and tolerance as indispensable fundamentals in conflict resolution.
According to the United Nations, over 1,500 Kenyans died and 300,000 were displaced during the country’s recent post election skirmishes. A “Counselling Tent” at the forum seeks to decipher the deep-seated human factors that may have contributed to the unprecedented spate of violence. Youngsters from various ethnic groups sit in a ring and share their experiences, candidly tackling issues that local society would normally prefer to sweep under the carpet. They talk about tribal stereotypes, ethnic discrimination and the disdain that many of their parents have for intertribal marriages. It emerges that most of these young people’s perspectives are almost completely out of touch with those of their parents. In fact, many of them view ethnic profiling as a burden carried over from their parents’ cultural pasts.
Could this mean that a new generation of “detribalized” Kenyans is emerging?
“Yes, I think so,” Janet Wabwile, a 19 year old college student from Woodley says, “I believe tribalism will weaken with time given that most of us grew around people from many other tribes.” Quite an optimistic thought, but she is from urban Nairobi. What of the vast majority of young Kenyans who live in their rural tribal homelands, will they also acquire this cosmopolitan outlook? Or will they be the proverbial wet blankets that will prevent intertribal harmony from becoming a reality?
Moses Moreku, a young South African studying counseling in Nairobi, draws attention to a handful of counselors carrying out one-on-one counseling behind the main tent.
“They are attending to perpetrators and direct victims of the violence who need personalized counseling,” he explains before darting off to continue with his role as one of the moderators in the group therapy session.
In the “Good Neighborliness Tent”, discussants seek to understand how Kenyans went as far as persecuting neighbors and friends they have lived with for years, suddenly declaring that they are from the enemy tribe, incinerating their homes and relegating them to a squalid life of uncertainty in makeshift camps.
Participants in the “Youth as a pillar for Development Tent” focus their discussion on ways to surmount the hopelessness that so commonly afflicts the underprivileged youth in Kenya. A pervasive inability to meet basic human needs often leads these vulnerable youths into crime, violence and even prostitution as they seek to self extricate from this smothering web of desperation.
Joseph Thuo aptly defines the young people’s predicament.
“It is not that we are bad people,” the young man from Kibera says, “It is only that the harsh situation often leads us into unlawful activities, and periodically, vice becomes an integral part of our survival.”
His friend Nicholas Otieno agrees. “Our difficulties harden us and our desperation makes it easy for politicians to use us for their dirty work,” he adds.
It is interesting to note that Thuo and Otieno are from two tribes, Kikuyu and Luo, whose rivalry formed the centerpiece of Kenya’s recent post election violence. They say they are best friends, having grown up together. Watching the two young men jokingly exchange stereotypical depictions of their respective tribes, one question comes to mind - will these tribal derisions they are laughing about one day obliterate their friendship and cause them to hold machetes aloft “in defense of our tribe?”
The thematic sessions wind up and the Eagle Dancers enthrall the crowd with their titillating gyrations. The Koinonia children’s choir sings a song admonishing tribalism and later on, the crowd dances feverishly to a ragga-rap song performed by Raphael Pizarro, a 14-year-old resident child from Koinonia’s Kivuli Centre.
The KU Comedians from Kenyatta University use “mchongoano” – a game popular in local primary schools where boys jokingly deride each other – to chastise Kenyan politicians for allowing their political disagreements lead to violence and bloodshed. Shades Classic, Kayamba Africa and Zindua, amongst other groups, keep the crowd entertained. At one corner of the forum grounds, tens of youths are voluntarily donating blood in response to a Hope International initiative to mobilize reserves for the national blood bank.
As the day draws towards a close, every participant is given a small piece of paper to write any action, misdeed or thought they may have committed that could qualify as a threat to peace. All then assemble at the open field in the middle of the forum grounds, holding hands to symbolize unity and togetherness. Two big circles are formed, with children in the inner circle and the older attendees in the outer circle.
Everyone is asked to fold their piece of paper, and without disclosing what they have written down, throw it into a small bonfire that has been lit at the centre of the two circles. This symbolizes the total forgiveness of past ethnic hostilities to foster a new dawn of reconciliation. Still holding hands, all bow their heads in a prayer for peace in Kenya. The words of St Francis’ prayer sum up the message and spirit of the day:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love….