Background: In this telephone discussion between Dekha Ibrahim and Katherine Marshall in May 2010, Ms. Ibrahim recounts how she first began to work on peace issues in northern Kenya and how her ideas and organizational base developed over time. As a teacher and educator, she focused her efforts on pastoral education, recognizing the limits of the traditional workday and traditional school day. She had to adapt and meet people when and where she could. At first, she and her colleagues went in blind, not knowing where their resources would come from or what the correct approach might be to combat gender-based violence. Over time, they gained support for their work, attracting attention from the NGO world. Ms. Ibrahim reflects on the nature of the conflicts that spurred her to action, on why women took the lead and what strengths they bring, and on her vision of how to build a peaceful community.
Can you outline how you became so interested in the issues of conflict and peace, and how you began your work?
I was born in Wajir, in the northern province of Kenya, and went to primary and secondary school there. It is far, far from Nairobi—1,000 or so kilometers! My family are pastoralists, as is the community overall. My father, however, was working in the urban areas. Most of the family wanted nothing at all to do with urban life. They thought my father strange because he chose to live in the city.
And then, we were a family of girls. My mother married twice, but from her marriage with my father I had five sisters and one brother. My father wanted us to go to school. Again, this defied the norms of the family: why invest in girls? The family was seen as a lost cause, lost to Western education and values, lost to Christianity (they feared the family would be converted in the city). They saw my father as a hothead. And when my father died when I was young, they felt that he had been forewarned. This family of just women was simply a hopeless cause.
We continued to pursue our education nonetheless, but also kept up our dialogue with the extended family in the bush.
I started my career as a teacher, an educator. I then began to focus on pastoral education, working with the problem of how to bring education to pastoralists who were moving constantly and did not come to the city or towns. That was my background and my passion.
As I was working with the pastoralists, though, I learned more and more about their culture and had to face the problem of violence; because violence was everywhere: animal raiding, conflicts and killing, fighting and tension.
Working with nomadic people, you do not work normal office hours; you start at 4:00 a.m. and work till 8:00 a.m., then work again in the evening. But the violence that was all around made it impossible to work then, especially with women. So that is where I began to want to work to address these problems of violence. I began working with women at first, but quickly realized that what we dealing with was not just about women. It was also the whole society. We began working with all the leaders in the community, business, religious, political, educators.
When did you begin?
Our movement for peace started in 1993. We were four women living in Wajir who took the first steps. We were all working then in other jobs, as community development workers, secretaries, and teachers.
Did anyone or any organization support you in the first efforts?
Not at all. At the start, everything we had came from ourselves, from our salaries and all sorts of contributions in kind: water, plates, tables...anything we needed, we found somewhere. I realized afterwards that that was part of the reason for our credibility. We had no idea how to organize, of what the NGO world represented. We worked from our homes. But this gave us an authentic base, and we gained both credibility and legitimacy for our mandate.
As you began, what problems were you trying to address? How did you see the nature of the conflicts that were tearing at the community?
I don’t think we really had much sense at the beginning of what we were trying to do. We just wanted to do something. We started a mediation process, along lines that were quite familiar to us, part of the culture and tradition. The process involved a lot of shuttling from group to group, talking and talking, trying to start a dialogue and to build confidence. Then, once we had established that trust, we would allow the group that was in the minority to take the lead in the dialogue. And we gave logistic support to the process.
What kinds of conflicts were you facing? Within an ethnic group, religious, political?
It was largely, at that time, within the ethnic group. The community was ethnic Somalis and Kenyan nationals. There were factions within the community, and they were one against the other. But about three years down the line, this mutated and changed. At first, there was not a religious dimension, but this did arise, because there was a Christian minority that was being attacked. The tensions did not arise because of historic religious problems within the community, but were sparked by a problem in a different part of the country. Again, we used the same kind of shuttle diplomacy. And we created through that process interfaith groups that took root and have lasted.
Why was it women who were the leaders on the process of peace?
We began in 1993 as a small group of rather naïve women, because we saw a need. But we found an important asset. In the community, there were some international women working as aid workers. We brought them into our process, and so we had a broader community of women who supported each other.
Susie Cohen was an English doctor from London. We invited her for one of our first meetings and asked her to talk to us about her perspectives, how she saw her role as an outsider, why she was doing humanitarian work, and what the conflicts in the community meant to her: how she saw the violence, the killing of women and children. When she talked to us and told us about her life and her feelings, it moved us all. She talked about what it was like to be away from home, how depressed she was about the situation. And how important she thought our initiative was. That gave us hope and courage. And she talked about her family and her life, saying that in the 1940s in Europe, it was women who took Jewish children and gave them safety. That was how her parents were saved, she said. She told us about the Holocaust. "What’s that?" we asked. This was our first education in international politics.
From Susie’s story, we came to see what we were doing not as something tiny but as something important and powerful.
Another woman working in the area (indeed I will have dinner with her tonight) is an Irish woman, Noreen Prendeville. She told us about the Irish experience and what caused conflict there and how it might end. And there was a German woman also. These women gave us their testimony and support. We are still in touch with them today.
What form did the violence and conflicts take?
It had many forms and many causes, but the most important (that led even to killing of children and women) was political rivalry. The 1990s were a period when there was active contestation. It was a transition period, from military to civilian and from one party to multiparty, and the process of transition did not go smoothly. There were political wars, stolen elections, and bitter recriminations. But in this political scene, rape became a tool of strategy, to rape, burn, and loot. It was an awful distortion of the old traditions of how conflicts were handled in the community.
For a time, the tensions were within the community and within Kenya. But over time they took on a regional dynamic. There were refugees streaming over the borders from Ethiopia and Somalia, as well as arms. We became keenly aware of the international dimensions of conflicts, including the Cold War. We could see signs everywhere around us. National and international politics played out in our community. Religious tensions were not at all obvious or pronounced in the early years, but they did emerge, within the Muslim community and beyond, as the broader world intruded more and more into our lives.
And religion? How did that factor in? And was religion more a problem or part of a solution?
I grew up as a Muslim and am still a Muslim. And we worked from the start with both cultural and religious leaders. We also worked with non-Muslim religious leaders, particularly Father Babone, a Catholic priest. We used all the resources that were available, men and women, all faiths—Muslim, Catholic, Anglican, and Jewish.
With the religious leaders, we found cooperation from the beginning. The religious leaders were prompt to respond, they took on tasks, kept appointments, even if they were at 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon. They were ready to support us as long as we showed them respect and did not insist on mixing men and women. We would open meetings with a Muslim prayer and close with a Christian blessing. The religious leaders were disciplined, and we enjoyed working with them, once we had built trust. They observed us and bought into the process that we were following.
We also had good working relations with the military.
The trust and cooperation were less true for the cultural leaders (the elders and traditional authorities), though I note that there were many different reactions and approaches. Some leaders, for example, were both religious and cultural. The non-religious cultural leaders were often the most difficult, for example questioning why they should deal at all with women or young people.
If you had been asked then what you hoped to achieve, what your vision was, what would you have answered?
Our vision? It was truly day by day. That is how we were living then.
But above all, what I wanted was a different life. I wanted life for my daughter to be different from the life I had lived when I was young, and the kind of life my mother had lived. We both (my mother and I) were born into a violent, unstable society. I wanted peace in the most basic sense of safety. I wanted my child to be able to count on civilian law to protect her.
Can you tell me more about your teaching and training guide, AFRICA: Analysis, Flexibility, Responsiveness, Innovation, Context, Action? What is the approach you have evolved and that you now teach in many parts of the world?
It is based above all on using context-specific approaches, on increasing and enhancing awareness, and on action learning.
In intervening in active violent conflict, there are several different elements that are critical. They can be summarized as follows:
- Analysis of the context and conflict: conflict analysis is an intervention. It it is done with the party affected by the violence; it helps them to make sense of their context. This can be a transformative experience.
- Analysis of the conflict can also be used to support specific strategies of intervention.
- Flexibility in doing peace programming; the context is dynamic and change is constant. It has to be flexible and responsive if it is to remain relevant to the context.
- Responsiveness in contexts that have both direct and structural violence is key. Organizations and individuals working in these contexts have to be attuned and responsive to what is happening. One cannot close the eyes and ears and hope it will go away.
- Innovation and thinking out of the box, to create what does not exists, and to stretch the boundaries of the systems. That is crucial for transforming violence and building peace.
- Context specific action: there simply is no blueprint of action. One has to design context-specific action that is informed by the analysis, but that is also linked to the wider conflict system.
- Action and learning. That means reflecting on one’s work, creating the physical and mental space to think and observe. Being in constant action, it sometimes does not help to go slow. But finding ways to step and reflect will help in seeing the patterns and appreciating what one has woven.
What kinds of violence do you see ahead? What worries you most today?
Drought is one of the major contributors to poverty, and poverty is also one of the contributors to the escalation of conflict to violence. Anticipating the drought and early intervention has saved lives and also livelihoods of the people affected.
Can you tell me more about your analogy of peace as an egg, fragile and needing care?
An egg is life, delicate and fragile but if given the right conditions, it gives life. Nurturing the fragile potential for peace is crucial. During the negotiation phase and in the signing of peace agreements, people think it is the end. Our lesson is that it is just the beginning. So it is just like the chicken producing her eggs: one has to nurture to bring to life the chicks, and then continue to support and sustain them over their lives.
Can you give any more insight into your fundamental approach that entails building on traditions (cultural and religious) of conflict resolution?
We have from the beginning been guided and inspired in building on existing systems, the systems that people know and use, for conflict transformation. To have lasting conflict resolution, traditional systems are crucial. When violence is most intense, people retreat from the civic sphere and they tend to go back to the traditional sphere. That is why it is especially important to have the two operating system that are complementary, one that is truly inspired and driven by what people understand from their heritage and traditions, and one which has more modern and outside elements.