In a little town approximately 190 km northwest from Nairobi, Initiatives of Change (IofC) hosted a workshop on 6 June called “Women as Creators of Peace.” The goal of the workshop was to bring together women from various backgrounds and tribes and converse about what peace means and how violence can be avoided this election year.
In Kenya, there are 42 different tribes including the two main ones involved in the post-election violence of 2007/2008, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjins. The amount of animosity between the different tribes must change if violence is to be avoided for these upcoming elections in December. This workshop is helping women act as peace creators by demonstrating that their differences are not so great and to empower them to bring peace to their communities. This workshop uses tools such as dialogue and exercises to bring the women closer by drawing them out of their shells to discuss difficult subjects such as peace, conflict, violence, and even their personal stories of the post-election violence.
As an observer at this workshop, I even felt the change in mood as the day progressed, despite the workshop being conducted solely in Swahili. An IofC worker was kind enough to offer a translation that he painstakingly scribbled down as Ann was speaking as verbatim as possible. The workshop itself took place in a back room of a local restaurant. It’s amazing to me that a workshop in a room with only concrete walls and a curtain for a door can have the impact that it did. It is also validating that conflict resolution tools have a place at the grassroots level and are encouraged by the participants of the workshop as well. While the names of some of the tools are different and not as verbose as some conflict resolution theory can be, they are definitely there and valid.
Ann began the workshop with a question, “How can women be creators of peace.” She spoke for several minutes as to the importance of women in the peace process. She explained that one cannot bring about peace if one does not have peace within themselves; that if women want peace this election, they must take responsibility for it. She warned “they (women) were being challenged that a drop of poison [could] make the whole solution poisonous.”
After some time the women were given a few minutes for reflection and to think about what peace meant to them. Some of the answers were that peace was dialogue, avoiding incitement, love, free of fear, respect, provision of basic needs, and avoiding discriminatory speech. From this, Ann spoke of loving one another in the sense of a mutual respect and recognizing the importance and validity of each other. She used the phrase, “I am because you are.” She told them that the Kenya they wanted had to start with them. This started by not seeing each other as “the other” but rather a fellow Kenyan. Being one to lead by example, Ann shared her story of the post-election violence. Then it was the other women’s turn to share their stories and many of them did.
One woman remembered carrying her children away from the violence. Another shared her story that when she came to the workshop, she did not like another tribe at all. But, after hearing Ann speak, she realized that she couldn’t go living that way any longer and she would try to change and bring what she learned back to her home. This particular story was powerful as it demonstrated that workshops do not only attract those who are actively seeking peace or are already involved in the peacebuilding fields. Her story demonstrated that those who most need to be reached can be, it is not only the choir coming to hear the sermon.
The women broke into two groups to discuss “what creates peace,” and “what destroys peace.” Among their answers are some overarching themes of conflict resolution. In the “what creates peace” discussion, the idea of religion and acting faithful in yourself and in others to do what is right was brought up. This demonstrates the importance of religious figures and the role they can play in bringing peace and calming tensions rather than using inflationary rhetoric to incite violence and tribalism. Stopping hatred and tribalism were discussed as were instillation of forgiveness and respect. These ideas are very important in conflict resolution. This is a way of referring to the need of humanizing the other. The women also cited that provision of basic needs and avoiding idleness are necessary for creating peace. This points to the importance of a stable and legitimate economy to provide jobs as well as security.
The discussion of “what destroys peace” pointed to methods of dehumanizing the other. This included hatred, tribalism, lack of respect, humanity, and forgiveness. When dehumanizing occurs, it is easier to act violently against someone. The women discussed the idea of a lack of faith in themselves to do the right thing. This calls for empowerment, which is the goal of the workshop and many other programs related to the conflict resolution field. Crime, burglary, and theft were also mentioned as being a destroyer of peace. Again, this points to the necessity of a stable and legitimate government to ensure that there is a responsible judicial system and citizens can feel safe in their homes.
An exercise that was particularly useful in demonstrating the similarities rather than the differences in each of the women was “The Honesty Game.” The premise was that each woman was told to either stand-up or sit-back-down if the answer was “yes.” The types of questions asked were similar to, “have you ever been jealous of someone?” or “have you ever stolen?” The point of the exercise was to show that no one there, not even the reverend that was present, answered “no” to any question. While the exercise was light-hearted, the women began to see that they were neither better nor worse then the other women present.
After this session, one woman volunteered her story. She felt especially touched by the workshop so far. In the past, she had denied her daughter to marry a man, the father of her child, because he was from another tribe. The man went on to marry another woman, leaving her daughter alone with the child. Now, the woman at the workshop must care for her daughter and granddaughter. She now regrets denying her daughter the marriage and believes that she must change her ways.
The last session was “The power of forgiveness.” Ann explained that forgiveness was about an inner peace. The time for reflection asked the questions, “Who do I need to forgive?” and “Who do I need to ask for forgiveness?” The stories that came from this last session were especially moving. The women described the act of forgiving as “removing oneself from the mud,” and that there was immense power in forgiveness. One woman commented that this workshop could provide the least in terms of allowances given to the participants but it had provided the most in terms of content and was among the best she had attended. One woman said she would bring the lessons of forgiveness to her family, another said it was important to teach children of peace. One woman said that it did not seem as if it were the same day, so much transformation had happened. One woman told her story, that when she would see members of the Kikuyu tribe out in the street, she would say, “Oh God, the devils have come out, let me save my children.” She now realizes how wrong she had been.
One of the most moving and powerful interactions occurred when one woman stood up and explained that she had a long-term conflict with another woman also present at the workshop. She explained that years earlier, the two of them had been friends but had had a wedge driven between them by other members of their church. This division widened over the years and their friendship ended. However, that day during the discussion, she realized that forgiveness was necessary. She turned to her former friend and stated that they should reconcile that day, in that very room, and act as living examples of the power of forgiveness. It was touching to see a long-term conflict end in that incredible way. Because of the lessons in this workshop, she found the strength to forgive and now recognizes the way to peace is not through hatred and discrimination but through forgiveness and acceptance.