“In peace-building one has to be honest and unpack the rationality of the situation that may lead to violence,” says Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent the last several days in the slums of Nairobi supporting the peaceful efforts of the women and men at the community level who are trying to keep the fragile peace there intact.
In the overcrowded and improvised slums, politics is a combustible topic that is always in danger of igniting. If lit, it can lead to major fire that will kill many of those living in the slums. Until Friday’s monumental Supreme Court decision in which last month’s presidential election in Kenya was declared null and void and a new vote was ordered, tensions were high in a country that has been divided over the election outcome. Such divisions were leading some to engage in street violence — and the poor often pay the highest of prices from clashes in the street.
So Gbowee and filmmaker Abigail Disney made their way to Kenya to encourage the women of the slums not to lose sight and to keep peace intact no matter what. “A lot of people in the slums see their opposition leader as their hope out of poverty,” Gbowee expains. “But when hope is hedged on one person, it is very hard for people when their lives come down to that hope.” Gbowee is referring to Raila Odinga, who contested the results of last month’s election in Kenya after losing to the incumbent president, Uluru Kenyatta. Kenyatta was sworn in for a second term last month after he declared victory by a margin of 1.4 million votes. Odinga challenged the outcome, saying vote totals were tampered with by hackers.
Many call Friday’s Supreme Court resolution a proud moment in Kenya’s democracy that speaks to the legitimacy of the judiciary system, a step forward for the country by addressing such challenging tensions in the courts rather than in the streets. This also is suspected to deepen mistrust in the international community and foreign international observers such as former Secretary of State John Kerry, who endorsed the results of the election and called the process legitimate.
But as big politicians talk, the poor in the slums of the country continue to wait for someone to pay attention to their needs. “The development process of Kenya and building that nation must be an inclusive process. When people start thinking that nation-building targets one ethnic group and not the whole ethic groups, than you will always have this tension,” Gbewee explains. She adds, “People in the slums are not invested in the country’s new airport or new highway. They need to see investments in the slums to show that every Kenyan can benefit from democracy. Unless Kenya embraces reconciliatory democracy, this tension can occur every four years.”
Abigail Disney, in the meantime, spent the last few days showing Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary film about how women mobilized for peace efforts in Liberia after years of civil war that reckoned the country, killed its youth and brought everyone down to their knees with violence and poverty. When asked about the conversations she is having in the slums of Kibera, Disney says, “I tell them that I have known many ‘big men’ in my life. They are never as smart as they say they are. And they do not care about the poor.”
Disney shares what she had learned from documenting not only Gbowee’s efforts but those of many women who organized for peace in many parts of the world through her series of documentaries Women, War and Peace. “If there is violence Friday will there be justice Saturday? But if there is peace Friday will they have food and housing and the wherewithal on Saturday to fight for justice?” she wonders.
Mama Samaka understands that equation. “When you live in the slum, your life dreams become about making enough money to leave the slum.” She remembers the cost of the 2007 post-election violence on the slums of Kibera. It destroyed the local economy and with that the dreams that comes with it. Mama Samaka is one of the community organizers of Shining Hope for Communities, an organization founded by Kennedy Odede, who played a major role in ensuring the priority of the community stays on peace maintenance regardless of politics.
As Gbowee heads out of Kenya she says, “It is very difficult to find places where you can say this could be a model for peace or democracy in Africa. Kenya is one of the countries in East Africa that can represent that model.” It is everyone’s hope that no matter what the results of the new election, peace is maintained, the poor and their needs for a better life are honored, and the women and all their peace initiative is remembered.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
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