A Discussion with Elizabeth Zimba Kisiigha, Executive Director of FECCLAHA
November 20, 2014
Background: As head of a regional secretariat, Elizabeth Kisiigha is constantly on the move, monitoring the situation in 10 countries. The Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa (FECCLAHA)works to build peace where conflict so often spills over borders. Mrs. Kisiigha met with Crystal Corman on November 20, 2014 at the FECCLAHA office in Nairobi. In this interview, she describes their efforts to increase the participation of youth and women in peace processes, highlighting youth peace clubs and a contextual Bible study focusing on the fight against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). She also points to strategic efforts for faith actors to influence policy on small arms and light weapons (SALW) in the region.
Please describe FECCLAHA and how it started.
FECCLAHA is faith-based ecumenical organization that covers the Great Lakes and the Horn of Africa, spanning 10 countries. It was started in 1999 but was officially registered in Kenya in 2001. The major motivation for starting FECCLAHA was conflicts in the region that are cyclic in nature. The church leaders decided to create FECCLAHA as a forum or platform that can always bring churches from the region together to handle issues, especially those which cut across borders. Peacebuilding and conflict transformation is the key area of focus.
How do you work with member churches?
We mobilize church leaders, facilitate them to engage with the peace processes—such as being part of mediation, negotiation, or observer missions, and to talk with protagonists. We also provide capacity enhancement for church leaders so that they have the skills and knowledge to be able to participate in such peace processes. We want church leaders to be able to effectively engage in and contribute to peaceful communities.
We also conduct solidarity visits, a form of ecumenical accompaniment to a particular country or situation within the region. It is good to show solidarity and love, mobilizing church leaders from the rest of the countries to be able to go and visit. Just being together and praying with church leaders in a particular country that is in conflict is helpful.
Do you work on topics beyond peacebuilding in the region?
The church leaders realized that we cannot only focus on peace. We also need to focus on root causes of these violent conflicts. We started a youth peacebuilding program to mobilize the youth. It works to empower the youth to become peace ambassadors. We facilitate them to form what we call youth peace clubs. We now have a very strong youth peacebuilding program that we started in Mukuru slum in Nairobi. There we have over 400 youth that are part of youth peace clubs. We continue to enhance their capacity. We provide the space for them to share their ideas and when they agree on particular initiatives they think will contribute to peace and enhance cohesion among the communities, we support such initiatives. Their ideas have included a football match or a meeting or seminar on drug abuse.
We support their ideas because we have given them the space to do an analysis of their situation. They mobilize themselves and we do just a bit of facilitation. As an example, they are also able to clean up the informal settlement areas as part of a sanitation project.
Why did you target the youth?
Youth are the majority of the population in our region. They are the ones being recruited into militia groups. In most circumstances, they are being used; they are being manipulated. Our programming offers them an alternative and a change of mindset. They can move from a culture of violence to more of a peaceful culture and become peace ambassadors.
We’ve taken this approach as we see an increase in violence. Too often we see that people choose to respond using violence because conflict has become a part of life. We’ve started this youth peace programming in Nairobi, Kenya and expanded to eastern DRC—both north and south Kivu, Burundi, and most recently South Sudan and in Uganda the program will be launched in 2015. We are rolling it out in phases country by country as resources allow us to mobilize.
It is very interesting to see that, after a few interactions and workshops, there is a drive among the young people in this program. We have very good success stories, especially in North Kivu, where youth who are Congolese are able to go and reconcile with youth who are originally Rwandese. Younger people have owned the program. They are innovative and see what can work within their contexts.
How are you able to transfer lessons from one success story to another?
For instance, we have learned much from the Kenya youth peacebuilding program experience. We’ve also learned much from the Goma peace club in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So when we are launching youth peace clubs in other countries, we invite the chairperson of the youth peace clubs in Goma (a young lady) to share her experience. She explains how she learned to manage, even with minimal resources. Sometimes we send them with only $500 or $300. But their self-drive and home-grown initiatives have become a reality, sometimes without our presence there. I would like to do lot of more to create the space for members to showcase their success stories.
You mentioned a documentary. That sounds like one way of celebrating success.
We are doing a documentary for youth peacebuilding, which should be complete by 2015. It has taught us that we can begin documenting the implementation of a program from the beginning—not only at the end. This way we can compare how you found the situation and how they are now. You have the documentary when you first met them, and maybe their thinking at that time, and then later after maybe one year or two, when you are seeing different people with different testimonies. Their testimonies along the way are important, but it is expensive. After one year or two, you pull the video together, and it is costly. But it’s wiser than waiting until the end if you have run out of funds to get proper documentation of the program.
Besides youth and peacebuilding, what other initiatives does FECCLAHA engage with?
We are also looking at issues of governance because with bad governance, you cannot guarantee peace. In our current strategic plan 2014 to 2018, we are looking at issues of constitutionalism and rule of law. We are also looking at issues of election support; we call it the Ecumenical Election Assistance Program, where FECCLAHA accompanies a particular country during its election cycle. So we span issues of capacity enhancement, civic education, and election observation.
Still under governance, in this new strategic plan, we are looking at the issue of management of natural resources and the resulting financial outcomes. We came to the realization that most of our countries are discovering more and more natural resources. We have oil and gas. We have gold. We have quite a number of minerals. We are mainly focusing on the extractive industries. Should these natural resources be a curse or a blessing? We see that in some African countries, conflicts are resource-based. We would like the church leaders to engage on these issues and if possible participate at the policy-making level in the various countries. Extractives also include issues of creating awareness to communities that are going to be displaced, issues of human rights, issues of compensation, and issues of legislation. Where is the voice of the church in all this? Our program aims at empowering church leaders to be able to engage with the process and ensure that the management of the resources is transparent and accountable to the people.
How will you prepare or engage church leaders to participate in policymaking around extractives?
The church leaders are not yet there because you cannot engage on this issue unless you have a bit of technical knowledge on how to engage. FECCLAHA is working to provide successful case studies for how a particular country has engaged—how Norway has been able to manage the oil, how Botswana has been able to handle the diamonds. Like a regional body, we should be able to link up and provide information and provide successful case studies so that the church leaders are empowered to engage their respective governments.
It’s a new area for FECCLAHA, but it is a need. We began last year 2013 by having some people speak on this matter at our general assembly. We had somebody from Norwegian Embassy in Kampala and a church leader from Botswana to share their experiences. Beyond that, we have not yet secured funding to have a follow up capacity building workshop and to domesticate these issues in each country so that local church leaders are able to take it on. It is an area that we still have gaps in terms of funding.
Do you work with women specifically in any of your activities?
We are engaged on the issues of women in peacebuilding and governance. We are looking at issues of empowering women to be able to participate. We are using the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 as a tool by putting emphasis on the three Ps—participation, protection, and prevention. What we mainly do is empowerment and training with women. These women then go back to their communities and use the knowledge to preach peace. They also mobilize their communities for peace, organizing events around peace. In some countries, they organize peace prayers for the country.
We also looked at sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), especially in conflict situations where sex is used as a weapon of war. We wrote a contextual Bible study manual and started the Tamar Campaign in order to break the silence within the church with regard to sexual gender-based violence.
How did the Tamar Campaign mobilize church leaders?
After producing the materials in 2005, there was a launch that took place in Kenya with representatives from the different member councils. We held a capacity building and orientation workshop with program officers from all the members and this was in Nairobi. From here, members took the resources home to launch the Tamar Campaign in their own communities. Again, the goal is to break the silence and to speak about this and to create awareness that this is a vice in society.
How was the campaign received? Do you feel it’s been effective?
We are actually planning to review–and update–the Tamar Campaign and contextual Bible study manual. After using the materials for a number of years, we now want to tap into the experiences to learn how to revise the manual or understand its gaps. That is one of the things we want to do in the future in terms of having theologians look at.
What other topics are important in the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa?
In the area of human security, we are focusing on proliferation of small arms and light weapons, which is a major problem in our region. Conflicts quickly become violent because people have arms. We have so many illegal arms in the hands of civilians and we need to understand how this is being managed by the respective countries. We know that Africa has over 100 million arms in the hands of civilians. So how do we manage this? We know that some governments and regional intergovernmental bodies have protocols, policies, and other legal instruments. We engage on this and do advocacy. We may not be able to get rid of the arms completely, but at least we need clear policies and legislation and their domestication and implementation to ensure reduction of illicit arms. As an example, what policies can be used for pastoralist communities who are armed but use the guns beyond cattle rustling—maybe for robbery?
The last thematic area under human security is the issue of human trafficking. So, in brief, those are our areas of engagement, which all contribute to peaceful existence of our people.
At what levels does FECCLAHA engage? Do you also work at the grassroots level?
We work at all levels. As a secretariat, we engage with the regional and international bodies. For instance, on small arms, we have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Regional Center on Small Arms. This is an intergovernmental body with fifteen countries in the region with its headquarters in Nairobi. We engage with such regional bodies there, and then we carry this knowledge, skills, and information to our member councils and churches. The member councils then work in their respective countries. They both work within communities to create awareness and also wherever possible work with their governments to try to understand the disarmament processes. If possible, we encourage members to be part of the committees that governments set up to work on small arms so as to represent the faith-based communities. You can see, we work at all levels.
From the secretariat, we may be able to engage with regional governments or mobilize bishops. But, at the end, it is the membership that now has to go and domesticate all these programs in their respective countries, as well as communities.
What does your involvement or membership look like in Kenya?
Kenya has a national council of churches, the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), so we work with them. It is only in Ethiopia and Eritrea where we don’t have councils, but we have churches that we work with. Our engagement in Kenya is jointly with NCCK because a secretariat has no ability to reach everywhere. We engage with NCCK, and NCCK carries on the programs to the communities.
In general, do you find that faith voices are valued in policy meetings?
All in all, there is an appreciation because we bring value. We work at the grassroots level where sometimes government cannot reach. Generally, there is an appreciation, and that is why it took us about six months to sign a memorandum of understanding with RECSA, the Regional Center on Small Arms. There was appreciation of the role of the faith-based, especially in terms of outreach to the people. As an example, if there is a disarmament exercise in a particular community, church leaders or faith leaders are key in mobilizing and convincing the communities. They also play a role in providing alternative livelihoods once people give away their guns. The important role of faith leaders, of faith-based communities, is highly appreciated.
As faith voices, we also have the role of undertaking advocacy. Here, the governments will feel a little bit uncomfortable–depending on your issue and your approach. If it is confrontational, then you may not be received well. If it is cordial, they do appreciate us.
Why work at a regional level, especially on peace?
The strength of being a regional entity is our ability to bring different church leaders together. For instance, it is easy for FECCLAHA to request NCCK (Kenya) and UJCC (Uganda) to come in for a joint meeting if say communities on the Ugandan side are in conflict with communities on the Kenyan side. There are churches in these areas and the church leaders can come together to handle such a cross-border conflict. We also see that political leaders more easily work together to address cross-border issues.
You mentioned your engagement in South Sudan. I imagine that conflict has regional impacts.
Exactly, and that’s the reality. South Sudan refugees are being handled by the council in Uganda, the council in Kenya (NCCK), as well as in Ethiopia. As FECCLAHA, we have a forum that can coordinate this. We also work with ACT Alliance; we are a member. There is certainly value in working together because conflicts spill across borders.
Another strength is our ecumenical accompaniment, supporting those who feel disempowered for various reasons. We can mobilize church leaders from neighboring countries and join church leaders in a particular country to heighten the level of advocacy. This action also takes an issue beyond a national level, so it becomes a regional issue.
The regional dimension of international development organizations doesn’t seem to be very clear in terms of partnership. And yet, we know that there are issues that are cutting across borders. We have a Kenyan issue; we have a Ugandan issue, and then this one is handling Kenya; this one is handling Uganda. Who handles regional initiatives, cross-border initiatives? So the entry point becomes a challenge. That one is also a challenge to regional faith-based organizations.
Do you do any work on post-conflict trauma healing, even for survivors of sexual violence?
We are very interested to work in this area but have not received much funding support. But it’s a very, very key area of need. We see the need for trauma healing in eastern DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and now South Sudan. We currently don’t have financial support and also, you know it requires technical skills. Not all of us know how to handle this so we would need resources in order to have a critical mass of church leaders that are able to provide that healing and counseling. Yes, people have gone through various traumatic situations, but we did some work this year in Rwanda. There is great need currently in South Sudan, but I have no money to mobilize to bring experts to do training of trainers to the church leaders to take on this role. It remains a very big gap. Not forgetting that even the church leaders need healing; this is what we normally refer to as Healing of Healers.
You said that conflict is cyclical in this region. Is this what preoccupies your organization most?
Yes, conflicts do come back. It’s a key challenge with peacebuilding. Sometimes even when you have tried your level best, there are certain things may not have been addressed. There is much work to be done to build sustainable peace because some of these conflicts are motivated by lack of justice–people feel marginalized. There is unfairness in terms of distribution of resources. In other conflicts, things are too complex! Democratic Republic of Congo is very complex. Sometimes we can only address the symptoms, because of the complexity of the players. It’s frustrating and at times discouraging. Thankfully, we are seeing success in our youth peace program. It’s exciting because of the immediate impact and effect you see among these young people.
What do you see as major issues of importance in Kenya currently?
Some of our countries are putting up legislative measures that are making the work of civil society very limited and very stressful, and that’s the situation we are having in Kenya. We see similar legislation in Uganda and of course Ethiopia is already in this situation. We have been discussing the shrinking space of the civil society. I think, it is also important for the government to realize that it is not the role of civil society or faith-based organizations to deliver services. The church should not be viewed as providers of services who fill the gap of governments. Instead, we are partners in development who should be part and parcel of policy-making. We are on the ground with the people, so we have the information from the people. We can make value addition in terms of developing our countries and in terms of mobilizing communities. Faith-based actors have assets that we can use to contribute and to compliment what the government is doing. But we should not be seen as only delivering services. We should be able to engage and advocate. We should be listened to. We should be part of policymaking as well as implementation.
But we should not be seen as a threat to governments. Governments should realize that we should be at the decision-making table. We need to participate and raise the voice of the voiceless.
What else do you notice changing in your work as a faith-based organization?
Our major partners are church-based organizations primarily from Europe and even some from the U.S. I think these northern organizations historically were getting funds from their churches and therefore it was easier to partner with church-based organizations in the south. At that time, the bond was strong between these church development organizations from the north and the church development organizations in the south. As time went on, these north-based church organizations started receiving money from the government for development, and I think over time, they started abandoning the church-based organizations in the south. It seems they are now partnering with more secular organizations than faith-based. Is it the in-flow of government funding to northern faith-based organizations that is the driving force to abandoning the faith-based partners in the south?
This change in flows of money—less to church organizations—has an impact on the capacity of faith-based organizations in the south. As a result, the secular may be better now, and maybe there are gaps in the church-based, but how can we bridge those gaps so that we continue in [faith-based] partnership? We as church-based organizations see them as “the church” and natural partners. We have similar values in our work, however we see this change. Some food for thought and something that should be looked into and the need to redefine the meaning of “partnership.”