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How one young Kenyan helps heal her divided country

Stellamaris Mulaeh organizes dialogues and service projects as alternatives to violence.

By Jill CarrollStaff writer / April 16, 2008

Peace: Stellamaris Mualeh helps fellow Kenyans resolve conflict.

Courtesy of Religions for peace

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Kenya's political rivals announced a power-sharing government over the weekend, a move toward ending their battle for control that violently divided the country after a disputed Dec. 27 presidential election.

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But healing the divisions among average Kenyans, hardened by months of violence that killed more than 1,200 and displaced 500,000 since the vote, is a tougher challenge – one that has become the focus of young Stellamaris Mulaeh's life.

"While the leaders are singing reconciliation, at the grass-roots level ... if you ask people 'What tribe are you from?' people will not tell you," says Ms. Mulaeh, a Kenyan conflict resolution activist visiting the United States this week as part of a fundraising summit for the Women, Faith, and Development Alliance.

It is up to people like her, she says, to help ease ethnic tensions triggered after President Mwai Kibaki and opposition candidate Raila Odinga each claimed victory in the vote.

Unwittingly, she started laying groundwork to help heal Kenya's divisions in 2003, long before the current crisis began.

That's when she headed to Maseno University to study economics, but got an education in conflict resolution the hard way. To air grievances about school policies, students at her public university would smash cars, hijack public buses, and beat up people in passing vehicles.

The violence so disturbed her that when an international Roman Catholic group, Pax Romana, offered a conflict-resolution training course on campus, she signed up. The class motivated her to start a movement of student "peace builders."

What began as a group of five people mushroomed into the 65-member Peace Working Committee of Maseno University, which continues to train youths in conflict resolution. They hold round-table discussions with administrators and students to talk through complaints, an alternative to violence. They do public-service projects to regain the trust of local communities.

Mulaeh eventually became Pax Romana's national coordinator for peace-building in Kenya and then became a mentor to youths in Nairobi's infamous Kibera slum. Later, she would take on several positions with the World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP).

The positions connected her to a wide network of religious and youth leaders across Kenya, which would prove vital as the country began to come apart this year.

As violence from the contested election swept across the country after December's elections, "I cried because I couldn't believe this is my country," she says. "Youth were killing. Youth were raping. Youth were destroying property and I felt I needed to do something," she says.