Conflict Transformation in Kenya

Arts and Humanities
March 21, 2014

Wilson Guthungu uses faith to transform conflict in Kenya

The Academic Certificate in Conflict Transformation is a global classroom geared toward people working on the ground in conflict and post-conflict zones. It is marked by the same academic rigor of the University’s master-level courses, and its niche is in a two-week field study at Corrymeela, a Christian community in Northern Ireland that promotes reconciliation and healing of social, religious and political divisions.

The program’s creator, Aaron Tyler, Ph.D., led a community trip to Corrymeela during which he met Wilson Gathungu, a Kenya native and graduate from Central Seminary in Kansas City. Gathungu was already doing his own peace work back home when he learned of the certificate.

From Victimization to Understanding

Wilson Gathungu was born in Kenya during the Mau Mau Rebellion in the 1950s, a bloody and complex conflict between Kenyan tribal groups and the British army.

“My mother was among many women who lost their husbands and sons in the war that lasted for seven years,” said Gathungu. “Brought up by a widowed woman who was a victim of that violence, I learned about the horrors and the cruelty of war in narratives told in the evening around fireplaces as the meals were cooked.”

Gathungu’s mother avoided tough questions that would stir up emotions of revenge and hatred in the community. And her instincts were keen: All sides of the conflict were responsible for excessive brutality.

“In fear of rekindling revenge, my late mother made us believe that our grandfather’s grave was our father’s grave just to calm us,” said Gathungu.

He later learned that the location of his own father’s grave was unknown, and that his father was killed by rebels for refusing to support either side.

His mother’s deftness in handling their family’s history kindled his passion for achieving sustainable peace and justice, and he started a peace organization in Kenya called PRARI: Peace, Reconciliation and Rehabilitation Initiative. Gathungu invited Tyler in June 2013 to help lead one of PRARI’s conferences in the city of Kamwaura. PRARI hosts workshops and conferences to train peace agents, installs community-based peace forums, and finds homes for displaced families and orphaned children.

Much of Kenya’s conflict today is a consequence of decades-long political tensions and territory issues. The politics in Kamwaura are rooted in tribal identity: You stick close to your tribe, and, if you don’t, there is a fear of one group overtaking another. Elections have been known to escalate to the point of physical violence in Kamwaura.

“Politicians often come through these small villages and communities close to election time,” explained Tyler, “and they can stir up tribal identities, tribal animosities, narratives of victimization, resentment and even vendetta. These are issues that are not uncommon in other places, whether Northern Ireland or elsewhere.”

PRARI’s conference brought together Kamwaura’s chiefs, elders and leaders for three days of intensive training in mediation, community-building and social action.

“We talked about how to reframe narratives of understanding,” said Tyler.

The workshops also addressed how the participants could prepare their communities for election cycles when politicians would undoubtedly attempt to rekindle tribal tensions.

“We discussed how to react in a responsible and community-building way,” said Tyler. “Most conflicts are identity conflicts at some level, whether they’re between nations or between tribes, ethnicities or religions. When you get to some of those deeper conflicts that have religion or tribe involved, they are a lot harder to break as opposed to national conflicts, in which case elections, economics or politics can change things more quickly.”

Tyler noted that the struggles that people in Kamwaura experience are not so different from those that residents in the Central Texas town of Oglesby deal with. During one exercise in Kenya, Gathungu and Tyler asked, “What is conflict?”

“They said alcoholism, domestic abuse, idleism, unemployment,” recalled Tyler. “While it was a very different context and scenario, there were a lot of similarities.”

“I learned about the horrors and the cruelty of war in narratives told in the evening around fireplaces as the meals were cooked.” – Wilson Gathungu, a Kenyan student in the Conflict Transformation certificate program

Taking Off Your Shoes

To introduce difficult topics and issues surrounding peace and conflict, Tyler and Gathungu needed common ground. So, they used Bible stories like Moses in the Book of Exodus when God said, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Tyler proposed a similar course of action to the participants for when they encounter difficult situations.

“We set the stage with, ‘this can be a sacred opportunity,’ and they began to see this conflict as an opportunity to make positive change,” said Tyler. “There was an emphasis on seeing themselves as Kenyan and as children of God beyond their tribal identities.”

The workshops also used physical models to demonstrate how power was distributed in the participants’ communities. The attendees created a sculpture that they felt represented power dynamics, and then Tyler asked, “How would you rearrange it to better represent an equitable relationship in your community?”

“It started as a quiet atmosphere, tense, a little pensive as we began to work through these stories,” Tyler said. “By the end of it, there was music and celebration. It’s an evolution you could see in just 72 hours. These people are working on these things with or without us. I was there to frame the learning experience; I don’t come to bring them anything, but to partner and walk alongside them during it.”

A Global Network of Peacebuilders

Soon after, Gathungu enrolled in the Conflict Transformation certificate program, receiving a scholarship to participate. Now he is part of a global network of practitioners and professionals who are committed to the human work of conflict transformation, from faith-based peace builders in Pakistan to those working with juvenile delinquents and gang members in San Antonio.

“We are there to teach, but we’re also there to help create a community of activists committed to social action and constructive conflict transformation, not just locally but globally,” said Tyler. “You’ll study the theories, but you’ll also pay attention to what others are doing in the field and learn from one another. It’s a new framework of partnerships for peace building.”

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