While he was in Kenya for the World Conference of Friends, Jez Smith met Kenyans involved in QPSW’s nonviolence training work
On a grey day in Lugari, twenty people have gathered to refresh their skills in campaigning using nonviolent principles. When they learned last year about plans for a dam downstream they were outraged to discover that it would flood the land and homes of about 50,000 people.
They formed a committee and, with help from Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) and their local partner, Change Agents for Peace International (CAPI), planned a demonstration to submit a memorandum to various community representatives, including parliament, explaining their objections and setting a list of demands.
Just before they delivered their findings to local officials in September 2011, word spread that police were planning to set up roadblocks in anticipation of violence.
The group turned again to Quaker-trained resource people who helped them develop an alternative plan to avert violence but still deliver their message. Consequently, public representatives, including the local MP, stated that they had not been aware of local people’s concerns and declared their opposition to the dam.
In 2009, wanting to find alternatives to either submitting to poor governance or combating it with violence, Kenyan Quakers invited QPSW to collaborate with them on developing a programme to equip community mobilisers with skills in active nonviolence. Turning the Tide (TTT), a Britain-based programme of QPSW, takes inspiration and learning from effective nonviolent movements like those of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Greenham Women, environmental and economic justice movements, land rights nonviolent activists and more. It promotes the understanding and use of nonviolence to help us become more effective. It was decided through committee discernment and listening to partners that this could be adapted to the Kenyan context. CAPI is managing and delivering the Nonviolent Social Change project with support from QPSW and funding from Britain Yearly Meeting.
Eight months on from the initial success of the dam campaign, confidence has waned. The dam’s supporters are pushing their agenda in the national media and reports are circulating that the dam’s construction could begin within six months.
According to the government, the dam will generate energy, increase water supply, enable inland fish farming and conserve the environment.
Back in Lugari, the resource people, Ezra, Margaret and Michael are explaining how a nonviolent campaign could be successful and the Turning The Tide tools, used elsewhere, translate easily into Kenyan terms.
‘This programme is relevant for this context, for this nation called Kenya’, explains Agona, CAPI’s field coordinator for the programme in Kenya. ‘Kenya is a tender nation in many ways. I would say Kenya has enough resources but the problem is bad governance and the only way to deal with it, having been with this programme, is to empower grassroots communities to rise against bad governance.’
In the workshop, one man isn’t convinced and asks the others what they would do if a group came to their home threatening violence. One person says: ‘They came for me and I opened the door but they didn’t come in. You have to have courage and start talking to them.’ Many Kenyans have direct experience of sudden violence as it erupted after the elections there at the end of 2007. A simple voice speaking from experience wins the others around away from violence.
‘Training people to do it themselves is very important’, adds Agona. ‘Most organisations do it for the people and the politicians do it for the people but this one provides the ability for people to do it for themselves. If you do it for someone when you’re not there, they’re in the same state. So train them and then they can do it for themselves.’
The dam opposition group face a major struggle in this campaign but members of the group tell me that if they don’t do it, no one will.
In Eldoret I meet with Lillian and Wilson, two young adults training to become Turning the Tide resource people. ‘TTT allows me to speak for the voiceless’, says Wilson. ‘And when people are informed there will be transformation.’
Lillian, twenty-three, is a Kenyan Quaker and studied to be a nutritionist. Like many young people, finding employment has been tricky. Peace work has become her way of life. She says: ‘I came to realise that being a peace activist or ambassador doesn’t come easily, it should come from your inner heart and should be self-driven. I see the injustices people, the elderly, the poor are suffering.
‘I came to realise with TTT as well as being a peace activist, you are gaining, not just personally, but helping an entire community and the country benefits in the long run. With the TTT tools, I know how to plan a campaign and how to tackle these issues. We can change our whole country.’
In Kakamega I meet with Benson and Rogers. Benson, a member of Central Yearly Meeting (Kenya), has been a Turning the Tide resource person since 2010. Looking for campaigns to support, Benson and his colleagues met Rogers, another Quaker who was leading a cohort of boda-boda (motorbike taxi) riders.
‘I am twenty-nine years old’, Rogers says as we drink tea together. ‘I am in my fifth year of boda-boda riding. I started because I can’t get another way of getting a living.
‘I got the TTT tools and those tools really helped and I got the chance to educate my colleagues. The council was collecting revenue. We couldn’t account for where it went. So we organised for a peaceful demonstration. There were around 135 boda-boda riders there.
‘We expected to be knocked out from the council. But we shared our views with the chairman. He took our memorandum and suspended the revenue collection for six months. The council started providing us with services.
‘Nonviolence is fully working. It has changed for boda-boda riders. Many of the boda-boda riders are people who political leaders use during elections. They’re not supposed to be misused. If TTT can come up and tell those guys about nonviolence, when they share the knowledge it will be helpful. I’m in a position to tell another what is wrong and he will hear me because of the TTT tools and knowledge. If they’re not educated the elections can’t be peaceful. TTT should be spread over the country for nonviolence, especially among youth.’
‘When you educate the youths, there will be peace,’ agrees Vincent, a twenty-six year old boda-boda rider for around ten years, having started with bicycles before riding a motorbike. Since the TTT action he has suffered less harassment from officials, he says.
The riders have used the nonviolence principles in other actions and are currently running a campaign to get boda-boda riders in Kakamega to apply for identity papers. When the elections come they can then register to vote and will be engaged in the political process in a way that many haven’t before. ‘We have used TTT principles within our group when members are fighting over customers,’ adds Rogers.
After we’ve finished talking Rogers and Benson pose for photos with Vincent. Then they ride off. They’ve got a job to do and as they go I know that they won’t be changing a nation just yet, but they’ve made a firm start.
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