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Election violence and peacemaking in Kenya: The experience of one Kenyan Quaker
Introduction: Today we will peacefully elect (or re-elect) a president and many other national and local representatives. But peaceful elections can't necessarily be taken for granted. Kenya will likely have its next election in March of 2013. As they approach the election, tension and violence have started to take place in some parts of Kenya, especially the coastal and north eastern regions. Many organizations, Quaker and non-Quaker, are working to ease tensions and prevent violence as the election approaches. Silas Wanjala has experienced violence and its aftermath in several elections in Kenya and offers his reflections on those events and what may be needed in order to heal and make way for peace. – Lucy
By Silas Wanjala
I was born and brought up around Kitale, a small agricultural town in western Kenya. Kitale is a cosmopolitan area settled by people from various communities. Though the groups seem to live in harmony, there is always tension along tribal lines and this can boil up into violence during election cycles.
I have experienced clashes in Kenya throughout my life. These conflicts made me wonder if there were other ways to solve conflicts. In December 1991, there were rumors that we might have clashes in my village. There had been fighting in the neighboring areas and we thought that it was only a matter of days before the violence came to our village.
One evening I heard people screaming from the far western part of my village known as Botwa. I was only 14 and wanted to see how people fought. My cousin and I ran toward the screaming to have a firsthand look. We thought that the clashes would be an exciting adventure, considering the situation as children, not understanding how harsh the situation was.
When we reached the area of the fighting, the place was deserted except for the local shopkeeper who was alarmed to see us and told us to be watchful. He said he had heard people screaming from the direction of our home. We thought that we had missed the “action” and quickly ran back. Our home was totally deserted when we arrived. Everything had been abandoned in a hurry as people ran to hide from the violence.
It was around 7:00 p.m. and dusk was just setting in. We went into the house, armed ourselves with machetes, and went out to gather our cattle and sheep to bring them to the shed. We went into the house, where we tried to organize things and fix ourselves some dinner. Fearing the unknown, we left the house and waited anxiously for the attackers to come.
After some time my parents, who had visited relatives some distance from our village, came home. On their way, they had met people who informed them a lot of people had run to hide into the forest to escape attack. My parents were surprised to find me and my cousin at home. They immediately arranged for us to be taken to my grandparents’ home at Sinoko, a relatively safe village about four miles away.
Meanwhile, my father and some neighbors encouraged people to come out of hiding. Two police officers home for Christmas who had guns with them joined the effort.
People came out of hiding. My siblings informed us that they had run into a nearby forest. It was surprising that most of the villagers were all assembled together in this forest, irrespective of their tribes. The major tribes in my area are the Luhyas and the Kalenjins. Members of each tribe perceived members of the other tribe as enemies and aggressors, yet they hid together, wondering and asking who the supposed attacker was.
Other than this incident, our village did not erupt into violence that year, although our cows were later stolen. But in other regions of the Rift Valley in western Kenya, people were murdered and their property stolen or destroyed. Those who were lucky to escape the violence were displaced and became refugees. From that point, I was very aware of the effects of conflict.
In the preparation and campaign for the 1997 general elections, we had some tension in my village, but nothing major happened. However, in other regions in Kenya people were murdered or chased from their homes and their property destroyed. It was almost a repeat of 1991-1992 violence in some regions. A culture of violence was developing in some Kenyan communities.
Kenya had another general election in December 2002. It was very remarkable that during the campaigns, preparations, and the casting of votes in this election, no planned violence of a substantive nature occurred. The most likely reason for this was that incumbent president Daniel Moi was not running for re-election and therefore the people from his tribe, the Kalenjins, and state officials were not incited to participate in acts of violence. This was good for Kenyans.
Dealing with violence in nonviolent ways
In December 2007, Kenya had another general election. During the preparation and campaign for this election, some communities were incited and urged to be ready for violence by their political leaders; tension was high. As votes were counted and winners announced, violence erupted in most parts of Kenya. As a Quaker pastor, I was expected to provide counsel and prayers.
In my community we knew there were groups of people preparing to attack people from other tribes. On the evening of December 31, 2007, we heard screams and saw houses being set on fire. Most of us ran to seek refuge in the police station. The aggressors stole property, destroyed homes, and murdered innocent people. The excuse for the violence was that the elections had been rigged. However, many understood that the real reasons were tribal and political. Some of us later returned to our homes, nervous and worried, uncertain of our safety and what was to come.
Some of the people in the community and also members of the local Quaker church, which included members from various tribes, came to seek consolation and counsel from me.
Some people from the perceived aggressor tribe came to me seeking an endorsement for taking up arms. Instead, I suggested they had a choice. I told them not to be violent, and instead to love and let go of their anger.
Some people from the targeted tribes, including part of my own tribe, came asking for my blessings to arm themselves and retaliate. Again, I encouraged them to forgive and love their enemies.
While counseling them, I felt very inadequate in communicating to them about peace and reconciliation. I knew I had not been convincing enough to either group, since I had never been prepared to deal with violence in nonviolent ways, and I knew nothing of peace-building. I was sad that I couldn’t stem the tide of violence more effectively. I was aware that some of the people I counseled continued to be involved in violence. My biggest worry was the escalation of violence.
Healing through forgiveness, loving enemies
I was studying at Friends Theological College (FTC) in Kenya. After the election and the violence that followed in December and January, I was eager to learn peacemaking skills and how the Quaker church can help. At FTC I had three experiences that led to my believing that nonviolence can be taught and that Christians ought to teach it as part of their message.
First, I was given counseling by one of the lecturers that helped me to cope with the violence I had experienced. Jody Richmond, the lecturer, provided a listening session where she encouraged me to talk about what I had experienced. I was traumatized from the violence, and I was living in fear and anger. I had nightmares, and I knew many people were experiencing the same trauma.
Second, I took my first course in Peace and Conflict Transformation. In this class we were introduced to some basic skills for responding to conflict. We were taught the causes of conflict, the circle of violence, and the ways to resolve conflicts. It was in this class that I was introduced to nonviolence as a means of conflict transformation.
Third, as a student in that class, I became a member of the Friends Church Peace Team. Here I was able to put into practice what we were learning in class. We visited people in the internally displaced camps and in their homes. Most had suffered more trauma than I. We provided relief services and counseling sessions. By this time I was relatively healed and was able to help others.
One overriding message that was common to all three experiences was the element of forgiveness as a process of healing. I also was introduced to nonviolence as a conflict resolution tool and I was taught to understand the message of Jesus as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount. "“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."
Those teachings and my understanding of Jesus' teachings on nonviolence have convinced me that the Quaker church can contribute to resolving and reducing conflicts and violence in Kenya and in Africa as a whole. I want to be a part of that process.
About the Author: Silas Wanjala just finished six months as the Friends Relations intern at AFSC. He was born and raised in western Kenya in Kitale. After graduating from seminary in 2003, he worked as a pastor in Elgon East Yearly Meeting. Silas has been involved in community development and peace work. Silas was a member of the Friends Church Peace Team. He has a Masters of Arts in Religion with a focus on Peace and Justice Studies from the Earlham School of Religion. His time at Earlham helped him to further his understanding of conflict transformation. In June he completed a year of study at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat and training center.
With the assistance of a grant from the Pickett Endowment for Quaker Leadership, Silas has been speaking about unrest in Kenya and the efforts of Quakers and other organizations to promote peace there. He says, “Though Kenya has patterned herself as an island of peace in a volatile region, the truth is we have had a lot of violence and injustice there.”