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One man helps moderates tackle the roots of Kenya's ethnic rifts

Hezron Masitsa of the Alternatives to Violence Program in Nairobi, Kenya, says the time has come to find common ground.

By Scott Baldauf / January 30, 2008

Let's talk: Hezron Masitsa, who heads the Alternatives to Violence Program in Nairobi, Kenya, says the time has come to find common ground.

Brendan Bannon – Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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nairobi, Kenya

Kenya appears to be a country at the brink of war. But from Hezron Masitsa's viewpoint, it could just as easily be on the brink of peace.

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As the head of a program that mediates conflicts between communities, Mr. Masitsa and his colleagues at the Alternatives to Violence Program say the time has come for moderates to put a halt to the ethnic violence that has killed more than 800 Kenyans since the disputed Dec. 27 presidential elections.

"The emotions are very high right now, so first we need to talk with people, find out what they are feeling, and create a space where people can speak freely," Masitsa says. "We can empower elders and encourage both adversaries to come together and share their stories and seek healing."

A practicing Quaker, a peacemaker by nature and profession, Masitsa is part of a small but significant group of Kenyans who are ready to heal the country's wounds, one person and one community at a time.

"I was born in the Rift Valley, and I can see how we can live together without prejudice," says Masitsa. "The question is how to be creative enough to respond to conflict without resorting to violence. If I am transformed personally, I can help someone else be transformed."

Using what he calls "silly games" and trust-building exercises, his program has succeeded in rebuilding ties between Muslim and Christian communities in the coastal region of Kenya. After 9/11, Muslims there saw Christians as a natural supporters of the US-led war on terror, and Christians saw Muslims as natural supporters of Islamist militants.

"Churches and mosques were being burnt down, so we took our workshop there and had our lay workers help us to establish contact with both sides," Masitsa recalls. "We didn't force anyone to do what they were not comfortable doing, but in time ... everyone began to relax."

While communities are still killing one another, it is too early to hold workshops that build trust. That's why Masitsa and his group are busy meeting with different communities, talking with them, and identifying moderate voices who might be willing to reach out to adversarial communities when tempers cool.

"It's not easy; you can't expect people to go back to normal when all this is going on," Masitsa sighs. "We need to build trust in one another again."

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