Walk. Listen. Care. Grassroots women’s groups help keep peace in Kenya

Paul Stremple
Beatrice Karore, a community leader involved in peace building during Kenya’s elections, stands outside a local vocational college in Mathare that served as a polling station. Though the opposition is challenging the vote count, Kenya has so far been spared the deadly violence that marred earlier elections.
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The Kenyan elections are over, but peace campaigner Beatrice Karore’s work is not done. 

Ms. Karore is one of dozens of grassroots activists who sprang into action in the months leading up to Kenya’s disputed Aug. 9 presidential elections. The Supreme Court will rule on the disputed results Sept. 5, after veteran politician Raila Odinga challenged official results that showed him losing to William Ruto. Mr. Odinga has blamed five previous presidential campaign losses on rigging, twice sparking deadly riots. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Peacemakers and political reforms are transforming Kenya’s political culture, setting an example for Africa’s other young democracies.

Ms. Karore’s organization, called Wanawake Mashinani – Swahili for Grassroots Women – has organized the kind of “holistic” electoral monitoring designed to prevent repeats of that violence. In the sprawling township of Mathare, the group has held community meetings where faith-based leaders encourage calm. It’s given election day safety tips. 

And in a deeply marginalized community, perhaps the group’s most important work is also the simplest: It checks in on residents and listens without judgment. 

An uneasy peace holds, but violence and intimidation remain. 

In Mathare, Reagan Victor Ondigo says a mob burned his house as he and his family slept. But as Ms. Karore listens, he also feels a sense of hope emerge.

“I hope that my daughter will know that freedom is there,” he says.

The Kenyan presidential elections are over, but peace campaigner Beatrice Karore’s work is not done.

One recent cloudy morning in Nairobi, the founder of Wanawake Mashinani – Swahili for Grassroots Women – walks to her office in Mathare, one of the most densely populated slum areas in the Kenyan capital. 

Sliding a heavy-duty padlock off a thick metal door, Ms. Karore and her team file into the tiny room that serves as their headquarters, and sit on blue plastic chairs. Over loud music blaring from a nearby shop, Ms. Karore begins with a prayer for a good “walk for the peace” ahead.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Peacemakers and political reforms are transforming Kenya’s political culture, setting an example for Africa’s other young democracies.

Ms. Karore is one of dozens of grassroots peace activists across the country who sprang into action in the months leading up to Kenya’s Aug. 9 presidential elections. Now, as the country waits for a final verdict on disputed results, that work has become increasingly important.

The Supreme Court is due to hand down a judgment on Sept. 5, after opposition candidate Raila Odinga challenged official results that showed him losing to William Ruto by a margin of 200,000 votes. A former prime minister, Mr. Odinga has blamed five previous presidential election losses on rigging – claims that have sparked deadly riots in the past. 

For now, an uneasy calm is holding. But some campaigners fear the Supreme Court verdict could yet unleash the violence that followed disputed polls in 2007, when more than 1,200 people were killed, and again in 2017, when more than 100 people died. 

As her team walk out of their modest office into narrow passageways crammed with shacks, Ms. Karore says she knows the current lull is far from guaranteed. “We [are still] doing peace campaigns to empower the community,” she says. “We realized that when there is no peace, everyone loses.”

Paul Stremple
Residents walk up Mau Mau Street in Mathare, a Nairobi slum area, after Kenya’s presidential election. The area has in the past been a hotbed of election-related violence.

Future precedent

What happens in Kenya ripples out to the wider region. East Africa’s wealthiest nation is a business and technological transport hub for the continent, and has often hosted talks for more volatile neighbors like South Sudan and Somalia. 

Some analysts believe that the relatively peaceful election campaign, in which the main candidates ran on social and economic issues, rather than demanding voters’ ethnic loyalty, points to a maturing democracy. 

Widely touted reforms to the electoral process, including the effective registration of voters in the diaspora, may have given more Kenyans a sense of greater transparency. And battered by two years of COVID-19 lockdowns and rising costs of living, most Kenyans would prefer to accept the Supreme Court verdict than go to an election rerun, analysts say. 

“It’s deja vu and people are tired. They want to get on with their lives,” says David Mkali, a Nairobi-based political analyst. 

But the manner in which Kenyans navigate the decision by the court will set a precedent for future disputes across Africa. Mr. Odinga’s lawyers allege that supporters of Mr. Ruto hacked into the electoral system and replaced genuine photos of polling station results with fake ones, bumping Mr. Ruto’s final vote tally to 7.1 million votes. Mr. Ruto denies the allegations, which have split the electoral commission.

As the Supreme Court ordered a recount of ballots in 15 polling stations this week, Mr. Odinga said he would “basically respect” the final verdict.

Even if the fragile peace holds, electoral watchers caution it will take more than one election cycle to show Kenya has left violence in the past. And other crucial reforms, such as the use of digitized voter registers and verification, will be put under the spotlight when the Supreme Court hands down its judgment.

Waiting for freedom

For the past two presidential elections, Ms. Karore’s team has organized the kind of “holistic” monitoring that Kenya’s human rights commission says will transform how communities like Mathare – which typically bear the brunt of any unrest – participate in the post-electoral process. Wanawake Mashinani has held several community meetings at which faith-based leaders have encouraged people to remain calm. It’s given safety tips to residents on election day. 

And in a neighborhood that’s neglected by officials, where violence, drug abuse, and crime are prevalent, perhaps the group’s most important work is also the simplest: It checks in on residents and listens without judgment. 

On this August morning “peace walk,” Ms. Karore stops first to talk to a group of women selling hair-care products outside a corrugated iron-roof shack. Speaking in Swahili, she asks them how they are and how things have been since the elections. The discussion is light and jovial; the women laugh at a joke about a fake flour scandal doing the rounds in Mathare. 

Paul Stremple
Reagan Victor Ondigo stands with his children on the small plot in Mathare where they have been staying during Kenya’s election. He says supporters of an opposition candidate burned his nearby home down in a bid to intimidate him.

One vendor, a young woman called Kim, says that things have been quiet and business has been slower. She tells the group they are glad major protests didn’t break out after the results were announced, because that would have meant they would have lost everything. 

“Anything small can trigger violence on the streets,” Ms. Karore says. “Many people leave their homes and go to rural areas at this time, or where people of their same tribe live.”

Research has shown that when marginalized communities feel that their favorite candidate loses an election due to irregularities, they are more likely to resort to violence. Human rights organizations say the unrest often breaks out along ethnic and identity lines; meanwhile, as neighborhoods become engulfed in riots, security officials who move in to quell the violence often fuel it further with extrajudicial killings.

As Ms. Karore and her team walk deeper into the township, checking in on neighbors and store owners, they are greeted by passersby who recognize them from previous door-to-door visits.

Buoyed by the work of peace campaigners across Kenya as a whole, the political atmosphere has been significantly calmer than in two previous elections. A range of activists, from artists to religious leaders, have been galvanized into action in recent months. A campaign by artists in Kibera, Kenya’s largest township, displays works that celebrate the country’s ethnic diversity. Another group of activists organized a “peace caravan” across the country, carrying messages urging voters to remain calm during the heated polls.

Still, violence and intimidation persist. At least one elections officer died in suspicious circumstances.

In Mathare, Reagan Victor Ondigo says he barely escaped with his life when a mob of men tried to burn down his home as he and his family slept. 

“[Those] people came to my place and told me that if I don’t vote for Raila, there will be no peace,” he says, as Ms. Karore stops to listen to him.

Mr. Ondigo, who used to run a cellphone repair shop from his home, now relies on handouts to feed himself and his two children. He blames politicians for whipping up ethnic grievances, but he’s cautiously hopeful that those perceptions are slowly changing.

“I hope that my daughter will know that freedom is there,” he says.

As dusk falls, Ms. Karore and the other peace campaigners hurry back to the main street in Mathare, worrying about the risk of crime on unlit backstreets. 

“The challenges are many here in Mathare, but I hope that peace will prevail,” Ms. Karore says.

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