A Discussion with Antony Sasaka, Chemichemi Ya Ukweli
With: Antony Jami Sasaka Berkley Center Profile
November 19, 2014
Background: As political violence increased in the 1990s, some religious leaders in Kenya reached out internationally to learn if and how nonviolence could offer an alternative. This grew into an interreligious movement and organization called Chemichemi Ya Ukweli (Wellspring of Truth). Rev. Antony Sasaka, program manager of interreligious dialogue at CYU, met with Crystal Corman on November 19, 2014 to discuss the organization’s peace work and interreligious approach. In this interview, Rev. Sasaka outlines the history of CYU and details current activities, as well as CYU’s attention to structural violence ranging from gender inequality to issues precipitating constitutional reform.
Could you tell me about how Chemichemi Ya Ukweli began?
Chemichemi Ya Ukweli (CYU) is an interfaith organization, which started in 1997 to respond to the growing culture of violence in Kenya. At that time there were political problems. There was one-party rule and the president was a dictator; he didn’t want any dissidence or any other voices to be heard. Kenyan civil society and religious leaders advocated for change, but sometimes they used the wrong methods. They went into the streets, but those who were protesting were looting shops and so on. The police also maimed and killed people. Domestic religious leaders thought that they needed to bring together a group of religious leaders who were interested in looking for alternatives. Therefore, they invited people from the United States and the Philippines who had utilized non-violent movements successfully, and that’s how CYU was born. We wanted to create a vehicle to carry the idea of nonviolence. Although our office is housed by the Catholic Church, we are independent and not a Catholic institution.
Can you please describe CYU’s programs and activities today?
We have five programs at the moment. First, we have a program in governance, in which we educate communities about the new constitution and the promises the new constitution makes. Second, we help communities to demand accountability from their elected leaders. Third, we have a program on religious dialogue. We offer a safe space for different religions to enter into dialogue on common problems and find common solutions. Fourth, we have nonviolence training, which is the mainstay of the organization, because we were created as a nonviolent movement. Fifth, we have a program on safety and security. In this program, we promote a positive relationship between the police and the community.
Could you tell me more about your non-violence training program?
Since 1997, CYU has trained over 5,000 people in non-violence through our active training program, which covers three levels. The first level is a non-violence orientation. Many people have never heard about non-violence before. We invite them and have one day just to ask them what they think nonviolence is from their own perspective. But then we begin to tell them what nonviolence requires. We ask them, "What would you need to do so that you’re considered nonviolent?" These are the basics.
Basic nonviolence training is a five-day intensive training where we talk about conflict, causes of conflict, and common responses. We define violence and then we talk about the common response to violence, which is counter-violence. If you’re confronted with a violent situation, the first thing you think about is to counter it. You’re abused and you abuse back. That’s counter-violence. The danger of counter-violence is that many other people will be involved. Violence begets violence. Another common response is to become passive. You say, "This one is more powerful, and I’m less powerful and there’s nothing I can do." If you’re a religious person, you say, "I’m not going to deal with it, God will deal with you." The problem is that passivity has a way of allowing the injustices to continue, leaving it to others and sort of escaping from taking responsibility.
Now, we begin to talk about active nonviolence and how it is an alternative. Nonviolence appreciates that both the oppressor and the oppressed share humanity. They are both human beings, and we believe that God is in everyone. Whether you see a drunken guy or a robber, there is something of God in that person. And each person has a conscience.
What we do in active nonviolence is try to bring about this awareness. When this happens, a person beings to say, "Okay, I had never thought about it like that. Is there something else I can do?" Then that person is on the road to healing, protection, and care for other people and God’s environment.
We do many things because of self-imposed ignorance and thinking that no one cares for me. Even among religious people, some are escaping from certain responsibilities and issues they’re supposed to deal with. If you do something wrong to me, I need to make it known to you that I am hurt because of what you did. And then it’s your responsibility to do something about my hurt or to just ignore it. But the most important thing is that you heard that I am hurt.
You say that CYU is not a Catholic organization, though this is part of its roots. How does interfaith fit within CYU?
We try to keep our religious composition diversified because we are an interfaith organization. The secretary is an Anglican, I am a Quaker, the boss is a Catholic, and the training officer in this office is also a Catholic.
We don’t go to people and impose something that we do not practice. People need to see the flavors of what we call interfaith. For our board structure, we have seven trustees. We have a Muslim, a Baha’i, a Christian, and a Hindu. On the advisory board we have the same composition. It has been working. In many places, such as the northern part of Kenya, we have seen communities beginning to appreciate the coming together of interfaith. In a town called Isiolo, for example, every time they have community discussions, they always consult the interfaith network.
Interfaith is also part of your work. Can you explain how this looks at the community level?
We are interfaith as an organization, and it is part of our policy to bring all faiths together when we mobilize people. We do not only target one faith. There are areas where there is no interfaith. When you get to a place like Molo, in Nakuru County, there are only Christians and no Muslims (or only a very small percentage). We always want to keep the numbers equal, so there is equal participation. It must be 50/50 if you are dealing with interfaith. There are communities where there are no Christians. If you go to Garissa, for example, sometimes the Christians are only one percent and feel the same as where the Muslims are one percent. There are communities where there are no Hindus, but there are Muslims and Christians. If there is a need in an area where they are only Christians, then we make a recommendation to involve Catholics, Protestants, and also indigenous religions, so they can benefit from one another.
With interfaith dialogues, we want to keep things at the leadership level. We’ve never tried it at the congregation level because we believe leaders are trusted. Followers respect that whatever leaders have received will benefit them also. In our training sessions, we also emphasize that because we are human beings, we are equal. In the church there are many titles like reverend doctor, reverend this, and reverend that. These titles are a limitation to others who do not have them. Thus, we ask people to write their title on a piece of paper, collect the papers, and tell people, “We are going to keep these titles in this basket, so after the training you can pick you title and go home. We will call you by your first name regardless of whether you are a reverend, an imam, or a sheikh.” We are trying to eliminate intimidation, so that people can freely participate. We also use participatory methodologies, so there are not a lot of lectures, and people can develop small programs and interact.
How does CYU decide where to work?
We work in specific counties based on needs; we do needs assessment. Other times communities invite us to work with them. They will tell us about an issue and together we analyze the situation with them and develop a program. In this way, they own part of the project. We also work with local institutions, particularly faith-based institutions. We are confident in working with the faith-based organizations because they are present in the community and understand its needs. We support what they do without necessarily trying to create something new.
How common is interfaith engagement in Kenya? How are you perceived as a religious leader in the Quaker church and also working on interfaith issues regularly?
I had problems with my own church when I first came to work here. They asked, "Why are you going to talk with Muslims?" I say, "I find nothing wrong to work with them." I had a lot of Muslim friends, and had been to some of their meetings. They had their own struggles. I told myself, with the help of God, I could help them and work with them in their struggles. There are things they also do not understand. For example, in the problems right now in Mombasa with radicalization, Muslims are equally affected, just like the Christians are. Terrorism is not a problem of Islam; Muslims are also killed. You cannot try to assign a problem that all of us have to deal with and call it a Muslim problem. When a grenade is thrown in a mosque, here in Nairobi, why was the grenade thrown in a mosque? One of the members of parliament of Nairobi is now in a wheelchair. He was going to pray in a mosque when a grenade was thrown there.
CYU engages on various forms of violence in Kenya. Can you explain these in greater detail?
Violence is the entry point to all the programs. Even if we are doing agriculture, for example, our training is dealing with structural violence. Structures have oppressed people for a very long time, and people are not willing to participate if you are not dealing with those structures.
When we are training people in a community, we are dealing with structural violence. For example, women’s participation is something that we deliberately want to deal with because you’ll find that most pastors, imams, and priests are men. If you are targeting leadership training for religious leaders, you have to be deliberate about women and young people being part of the process. We ask the priest, "Who else can come?" We want to find priests, but we also want to find ladies. Then the priest goes to the sisters and brings some of them. In some communities, you find that only the elderly can be leaders and not the young people. We deal with these dynamics in the training of nonviolence because we share humanity. Because we are human beings, we are supposed to access the facilities that are provided to human life.
Does CYU engage specifically on gender inequality within communities?
In communities, there’s a lot of oppression of women and children because of our cultures. So we also interrogate our culture and our relationship with women and children. Women are seen as nobody, so that is how they treat themselves. This is a cultural problem. There are many communities that think that women and children are the same thing. A husband and wife are partners in bringing about a family, so a wife cannot be equated to children.
We have to realize that even at that family level, it is violent to treat your wife as a child. It is violent when the husband is the only one who speaks in a family and makes all the decisions. There are many families in Kenya where, if a husband has a working wife, he will ask the wife to stop working because of the fear that the wife will dominate. We work to interrogate those structures. Even though it is sometimes difficult, people begin to appreciate it. We are bringing men and women together and to ask questions about relationships and decision-making at family level because the structure is about leadership and decision-making. Sometimes in communities, men are very strong leaders and dictators.
Many of the Muslims we have worked with have supported this. As an example, in Kakamega, we work with a Muslim lady as our local coordinator. If we want to invite people for a meeting, we talk to her to say, "We want to talk to Muslims." Then 10 Muslims arrive.
This type of work takes a long time. In the beginning, they are in shock because someone is discussing the things that they have done for many years and no one has ever questioned. Then they are in denial, saying things like, "This is what God says" or "this is what the Prophet says." I’ve been interested in reading the Qur’an, not because I’m a Muslim but because I’m working with them. So I ask them, "How come there is a whole chapter dedicated to Mary Mother of Jesus in the Qur’an? It is God who allowed the chapter to be in the Qur’an. Why don’t you believe that there are women here who can do certain things like Mary did?"
Can you speak a bit more about working with Muslim communities in Kenya?
I do not, as a Christian, go and impose myself on Muslims. We have developed a network of Muslim clerics that we work with and they are able to explain. For example, we had a program here funded by USAID, which involved discussing xenophobia against Somali Muslims, and we had Muslims coming in to speak and clarify. This is important because there are a lot of generalizations about what Muslims think, including how they perceive non-Muslims.
As an example, we at CYU were on the forefront during the constitution-making process to campaign in support of Muslims having the qadis courts in the constitution. While the rest of the church was saying it’s not possible, we looked back at the history and how it was allowed since independence. Qadis courts dealt with family law, but in the new constitution the concern came around the idea of expanding this to include economic and social laws.
You mention the constitution reform process. Was CYU involved in this?
When we think about alternatives to violence, I think Chemichemi played a big role from 1997 to 2002 because of our trainings, especially as constitutional reform began (which was meant to address structural problems). Chemichemi was pivotal in the Ufungamano initiative, though never mentioned because the politicians were part of the churches involved. We were proud because that we had created a process that brought together alternative voices. It’s because of that that even when then President Moi’s committee refused to take up their responsibility, they worked with Ufungamano. And it’s because of that process, that the constitutional review commission of Kenya was formed and the new constitution was discussed (though we did not succeed to have the constitution in 2005 because of the interests in political areas).
So when it continued, we were able to help many communities, for example, by distributing copies of the draft constitution to organizations in the countryside, which were not otherwise able to access them. This way, they can maybe have reading sessions in their communities. When it came to voting in 2010, there was overwhelming support for the new constitution because the people had participated in the process.
I’m very curious about CYU’s work with the police. Can you explain how this began?
The role of government is helping to maintain law and order; that’s where the police come in. This is part of what they do, but they also provide security for those in power. But police training is not good. They also don’t have proper housing, they are poorly equipped, and their welfare is not taken care. Corruption and bribery is a huge problem—and cyclical. When a person becomes a police officer, he wants to receive the bribe money.
While the kind of human rights work that has been going on in this country has been against police brutality, now the reverse is true. Police are dying in the same measure. Nobody seems to address it.
In the post-election violence in 2007 and 2008, 1,300 people were reported as dead, but there could be more. About a third of the people who died were killed by police. Therefore, in the reconciliation process, one of the top items was to reform the police. Before the new constitution, the police were called the police "force," and they used force in everything they did. In the reforms, we asked, "Why don’t we change it from a police force to a police service, so that they begin to give service and live with human beings?" In their training they are told, "When you become police, you denounce being a civilian." Thus, when you are dealing with people, you don’t have civility. You derive pleasure in exacting force, even when it’s not supposed to happen. The current arrangement is that the police work under the same command. The head of the police is the Inspector General. The police have a civilian oversight body that checks any excesses.
In one of the areas where we intervened, in Kakamega, during the post-election violence, CYU had been on the ground. We switched from training programs to respond to immediate humanitarian needs. Because of that, the communities came to us saying, "We need a forum where we can share how we feel about the police, and what we think the police need to do to support us."
One of the areas of concern raised in the forum was that women require a separate desk at the police stations. Previously, women who brought charges of sexual assault were asked rude questions when reporting their case to the police. Policemen would tell them, "Go and find the man and bring him here." So the community wanted policewomen to listen to the women, deal with their issues, and talk to them. Also when there is a search, the women ought to be searched by another woman [officer], not a man searching a woman.
The police were also able to voice their opinion. They said, "People are unwilling to give information to us. For you to prosecute a case, you need a threshold of evidence." Even if people who are involved in a problem, they are unwilling to come to court and testify. That guarantees that the case will be defeated because the police have no way to prove that a person was really involved in the crime of which they were accused. These people are released, and they become hardcore criminals. The public is not trained to arrest or prosecute. The public is supposed to provide information because the people who commit crimes are in the community. For us to deal with a case of crime, then the community needs to participate. But initially the police also used to say, "If you report a case, and the case does not go through, then we will come for you!" We made it clear to the police there is a need for confidentiality.
When the due process has been taken, the communities also need to rehabilitate the people who come home from prison. We bring religious people and community leaders together with the police. We have also worked on community policing efforts, such as a two-year program funded by USAID in Kakamega County. With the current threat of violent extremism, CYU is working with religious leaders, youth, and police to develop messages against this global vice.