Blissful are Kenya’s peacemakers
A history of election violence has led to grassroots efforts – sermons, prayers, caravans, and art – to calm people after the Aug. 9 election.
Journalists often focus on the conflict of elections, yet in a welcome change, a big story in Kenya before last week’s presidential election was a grassroots effort to keep the peace, both before and after the Aug. 9 vote.
One reason peacemaking in Kenya was news is that memories remain fresh about the hundreds of people killed after elections in 2007 and 2017 amid ethnic-driven violence over allegations of vote-rigging. “The first thing that matters the most to Kenyans,” said Amriya Issa, a member of Sisters Without Borders, “is maintaining peace during the electioneering period.”
It has taken a range of activists, from artists to religious leaders, to remind Kenyans where peace comes from. “Let us remember that peace starts with me and we have no other country to run to other than Kenya,” Jennifer Riria, chairperson of the Women Mediators Network, told the Daily Nation.
Political violence is still possible after last week’s election. On Monday, a few hundred people stormed the streets of Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, after the head of the election commission announced that candidate Raila Odinga had lost to rival William Ruto by a slim margin. Yet the next day, Mr. Odinga urged supporters to keep calm and not “take the law into their own hands” even as he made a legal challenge to the official count. The tightness of the final tally may lead to disruptions, the Eurasia Group consultancy said in a note, but “widespread unrest remains unlikely.”
To the credit of Kenya’s peacemakers, the European Union praised the “peaceful atmosphere” during the campaign. Efforts to prevent violence began in earnest last April during the Easter season. Clergy united to give sermons about peace as part of daily life.
“Let’s not use words to insult people, words that are going to discourage someone, but uplifting words. And let us be truthful and moderate in all we do,” said Anglican Church of Kenya Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit in one sermon.
Other actions included a campaign by artists in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum area, to display works that celebrate the country’s ethnic diversity. One group of activists organized a “peace caravan” across the country carrying messages about remaining calm during the heated election.
The Inter-Religious Council of Kenya trained young people on how not to be exploited by politicians and how to react wisely to falsehoods on social media. The National Youth Council held a prayer day to encourage peace promotion. The EU paid for a “hackathon” to develop ways on mobile phones to build peace.
Kenya’s expanding network of peace activists may be a model for other democracies – including the United States. For now at least, it is simply as newsworthy as the Kenyan election itself.