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Young People Speak out for Peace

A Youth Open Day Forum organized by Africa Peace Point, Koinonia Community, Kutoka Network, RSCK, KCS, Comboni and Consolata Missionaries and MAFRI was held on Saturday, May 3rd, 2008 at the City Council Grounds in Dagoretti, Nairobi. This is an account of the event. By Phillip Emase

“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 after listening to a robust  discussion by the youthful participants, many of whom have come from  various Nairobi slums.

The date is Saturday, May 3, 2008. Fr. Stringer and the several hundred young people are attending a Youth Open Forum at Dagoretti Corner, Nairobi. Organized by various religious, civil society and grassroots organizations, the event seeks to get young Kenyans to speak out with regard to the country’s recent political crisis, where an electoral dispute fuelled ethnic bloodshed that was largely perpetrated by the country’s vulnerable youths.

The day begins early, with young men and women streaming into the venue from as early as 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 opening remarks. Popular radio presenter Titi Nagwalla then chirks them up, urging them to revel in the pounding music playing from the heavy duty public address system. The youths dance to the music and watch a few select performances to set 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 shuttle between the various tents makes it clear that Kenya’s young people are in fact acutely aware of the root factor behind ethnic tensions in the country. They desire for lasting peace and a chance to move from the sidelines into the mainstream, which would install them into their rightful position as the guardians of the nation’s future.

The participants at the “Ethnicity Tent” are by far the boldest. They point out that political instigation is to blame for the periodical escalation of ethnic tensions, citing Kenya’s 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 diverse identities melt into one proud “nation” under the country’s national flag.

At the “Active Non-Violence Tent”, participants are split into two groups: those who believe in total nonviolence versus those who view violence as a necessary intervention in certain situations. Each group is challenged to define and defend its standpoint, and after a spirited debate, the discussion bridges into a recognition of dialogue, justice and tolerance as fundamental ingredients for conflict resolution.

United Nations estimates indicate that over 1,500 Kenyan lives were lost and 300,000 became internal refugees during the country’s recent post election. A “Counselling Tent” at the forum seeks to confront the deep-seated human factors that may have helped fuel this unprecedented spate of violence; young men and women from various ethnic groups sit with their chairs arranged in a ringe, candidly sharing their experiences and tackling issues that local society often elects to sweep under the carpet.

The youngsters discuss derisive tribal stereotypes, ethnic discrimination and even cases of parental opposition to intertribal marriages. It emerges, from the candid exchanges, that the young people generally view ethnic profiling as a carryover burden from their parents’ cultural pasts, and that the young people’s perspectives are largely out of touch with those of their fore bearers.

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 up with 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 have 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, points at a handful of counselors seated separately behind the main tent. Each counselor is attending to one young man or woman.

“They are counseling perpetrators and direct victims of the violence who prefer to receive 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 people got to the point of persecuting neighbors and friends they have lived with for years, suddenly ruling that they are from the “wrong tribe”, burning their houses, shedding their blood and relegating them to a squalid life of uncertainty in makeshift displacement camps.

Young Kenyans in the “Youth as a pillar for Development Tent” focus their discussion on ways in which they can fight the hopelessness that so commonly afflicts the youth in Kenya, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. A pervasive inability to meet basic human needs often breeds crime, violence and even prostitution as these vulnerable youths seek to extricate themselves from the smothering web of desperation and self hatred. 

Joseph Thuo aptly defines the young people’s predicament. “It is not that we are bad people,” the young man from the Kibera slum says, “It is 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 difficult harden us, our desperation makes it easy for politicians to use us for their dirty work,” Otieno adds. It is interesting to note that Thuo and Otieno are from two tribes, Kikuyu and Luo, whose rivalry was 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 taunt each with stereotypical depictions of their respective tribes, one question comes to mind – will these tribal stereotypes they are laughing about one day obliterate their friendship and make them to hold machetes aloft “in defense of the tribe?”

The thematic sessions wind up and once again, entertainment takes centre stage. 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 gets onto its feet to dance to a ragga-flavoured rap song performed by 14-year-old Raphael Pizarro, a resident child under rehabilitation at Koinonia’s Kivuli Centre.

The KU Comedians duo from Kenyatta University- comedians duo use “mchongoano” – a common game in Kenya primary schools where boys jokingly deride each other for fun – to chastise Kenyan politicians for allowing their political disagreements to end up in violence between their supporters.

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 an initiative in which Hope International has mobilized blood donations for the Ministry of Health’s national blood bank.

The day’s crowning moment finally comes, and 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.  The whole crowd then assembles at the open field in the middle of the forum grounds, all holding hands to symbolize unity and togetherness. Two big circles are then formed, with children forming the inner circle while the older attendees make the outer circle.

Everyone is asked to fold their small piece of paper, and without disclosing the content to anyone else, throw it into a small bonfire lit at the centre of the double circle to symbolize total forgiveness of past ethnic hostilities and herald the beginning of a new dawn through healing and reconciliation.

The young people bow their heads together, still holding hands, 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….


One Comment

  1. Youth United for peace in Kenya
    I was so thrilled by the enthusiasm eminating from the great crowd of young people gathered at the Dagortti crner grounds to tell Kenya and the whole world that ” There is no development without peace”. As the young people were busy coming to terms with inhuman events of January/February 2008 on this day our Kenyans politicians were busy basking in fastidious home coming feasts for getting ministerial appointments. Lavish feasts have been going on since and i wonder who needs these lavicious home coming feasts?
    We have thousands of young people whose dreams of completing their education have been forever shuttered, thousands groaning in pain from unhealed arrows and machette wounds, children sleeping on empty stomachs in the cold wet IDP camps and thousands who have lost one of the most important valuables in life…..HOPE in the future.
    Kenyan politicians stop being ego centric and acting like the ostrich when faced with a shameful issue such as the ethnicity violence fuelled by you very same politicians. I left the youth rally convinced that true Kenyan leaders are not yet there……… until this monolithic animal called tribes is totally destroyed in the minds of all our young Kenyans who can now agree with me the words of the Jaramogi Odinga book “Not yet uhuru”!
    Youth for peace in Kenya is a first step to eradicating the myths of ethnicity is kenya. I would recoomend we have more organized annual events with great pomp and publicity.

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