A Discussion with Fred Bobo, Eastleigh Fellowship Centre, Kenya
November 17, 2014
Background: Located in one of Nairobi’s most diverse and tumultuous neighborhoods, the Eastleigh Fellowship Center has worked for almost 30 years to encourage peaceful relations between the Muslim and Christian communities of Eastleigh. Fred Bobo, program officer of the Center’s peace program, met with Elisabeth Stoddard on November 17, 2014 in Nairobi to discuss why there is so much violence in Eastleigh and the center’s approach to peacebuilding. He focuses on the center’s most popular programs—the basketball and soccer teams. Girls and boys, both Muslim and Christian, can have fun while building relationships across religious divides. Reflecting on the challenges he faces in engaging Muslims and Christians on issues like peace, faith, and healthy relationships, he also speaks to plans to improve the Center’s programs in the future.
How did the Eastleigh Fellowship Center come to be?
The center was founded by Mennonite missionaries in 1978. They wished to create a safe space where Christian and Muslims could come together to dialogue about the issues affecting their communities. They also thought there should be a Christian center where youth around Eastleigh could come in their free time to avoid being drawn into drugs or dangerous behavior.
The neighborhood of Eastleigh is the main Somali area in Nairobi. In fact, it is often called Little Mogadishu. This area is a business hub, but it can also be very unstable because of tensions between the Somali Muslims and Kenyan Christians. For this reason, all of our programs have peace components.
Today, the center has basketball teams that bring both Muslim and Christian youth together. We also offer halls for social events like weddings, community meetings, dialogue groups, or prayer groups. Muslims, actually, prefer to have their weddings in this place because it is centrally located and known to be an inclusive, safe space.
What programs do you have for youth?
The sports programs are our largest and most popular among the youth. Basketball is the primary, but we also have soccer. Our main basketball team actually plays in the national basketball league in Kenya. That gives our center a good name. Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, the Mennonites. This is the team that trains at Eastleigh. I need to go there and see where they train!’ The team definitely helps attract local youth to participate in our sports programs.
The goal of the program is to bring both Christian and Muslim youth together on sports teams so they can interact and form relationships. Sometime during every practice, we stop playing and talk about peace and faith. We do not speak from only a Christian perspective; we invite Muslim scholars and clerics to come and engage in the conversations. Overall, we encourage the youth to talk about what faith means to them in hopes that they can share their differences and celebrate the similarities.
Many times the youth become so concerned with their differences that they look past their similarities. Generally, they have a lot of misinformation about each other. Rumors about the Muslims or the Christians grow so large that they are believed as the truth. We try to bring the youth from both sides together so they can interact and dispel these rumors.
Are there any girls’ sports teams? Are there any challenges that arise with the girls?
We have girls’ basketball and yes, there are challenges. Sometimes girls, especially in Muslim communities, are not really encouraged to play sports. They cover their bodies with burqas or hijabs, which can make playing sports difficult. Some of the girls are comfortable removing their veils when they are playing on the court, but others shy away from coming to practice because of societal pressures. They don’t want to get into arguments with the boys or their families about their veils. Some people think playing sports is not following the values of the Muslim faith, especially for girls.
The drug industry is pretty prevalent in Eastleigh. Have you had problems with the youth in your programs getting into drugs?
Yes, it happens. In Nairobi, this area is known as a drug den. The youth get drawn in very easily. One guy was playing very well on our national team. Now, I hear he is taking drugs and sleeping outside. He used to have a job and pay rent but he started taking heavy drugs and chewing qat (a flowering plant with stimulant effects). This is not uncommon, unfortunately. Some sports societies here are in danger of dying off because the youth are falling into drug use.
We don’t yet have an anti-drug community outreach program, but I am encouraging our board to start a program. We need to do something. We can’t just sit by and watch them. I think we could begin counseling sessions, trauma healing workshops, or maybe even rehabilitation services. It will be hard, but we need to try.
What kind of other peace programs does the center have?
We have held peacebuilding and conflict resolution training workshops for youth, both Christian and Muslim over the past three years. We hold the trainings here in Eastleigh as well as in some neighboring slums. During the workshop we encourage the youth to come together, share about the differences between their lives and celebrate their similarities. We are very happy because lots of youth from both sides want to participate. For the last training we were aiming for 50 participants but we got 66!
We also plan to bring the youth on extended visits to the opposite community. So, if you’re a Christian you spend time with a Muslim community. There are a lot of stereotypes and rumors on both sides which perpetuate the tensions. Some Christians see a Muslim youth and think, ‘That’s a terrorist!’ But, this is not true. These visits will help to dispel the misconceptions the youth have about each other. After two or three days, the youth start to realize that these people are not so different from themselves.
What drives the tensions between the Muslims and Christians in Eastleigh?
War sometimes breaks out between the Muslim and Christian youth here in Eastleigh. There are simmering tensions that are not visible, but you can feel them. The Christians can sometimes feel that they are being dominated by the Somalis in this neighborhood. They think, ‘This is our land.’ This is especially a problem because a lot of the Somalis in Eastleigh are not Kenyans, they are refugees. Probably 60 percent of Eastleigh, are actually refugees. They come here and build businesses and lives for their families. Some Kenyans feel that the Somalis are taking their business opportunities. They say, ‘Why don’t you go back to your country?’
The tension is constantly brewing. Even though the Christians and Muslims live in close proximity to each other, they don’t really interact that much, except while buying and selling. It becomes an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario. That’s why our programs are focused on bringing together youth from both sides to play together, talk, and become friends. They need to understand that the success of this neighborhood, including all their businesses, depend on working together to keep the peace.
Most of the Muslim business’ customers are Christian. And the Christians cannot buy their food and supplies without the Muslims. They depend on each other. We are trying to engage the youth in order to eliminate the tensions before a bigger conflict ignites.
Some people from the West fear Eastleigh. They think, 'Eastleigh, oh no.' A lot of embassies have warnings about Eastleigh. But when you have courage to come and visit us and see what's happening in Eastleigh, and talk to us, we really appreciate it.
Since you are Christian-based, do you have trouble engaging the Somali community?
Not so much, but this is one of our challenges. The Somali community is very tight knit and can be hard to penetrate as an outsider. A lot of things happen in secrecy. They have remained deeply entrenched in their cultures and traditions including the illegal practice of female genital mutilation. It is a very complex issue to talk about with the girls.
One way to better reach the Somali community is to go through the local provincial administration—chiefs. Though it’s to be restructured in the current constitution, the chiefs still have a lot of authority in the Somali community. Luckily, we have established good relationships with the local chiefs which helps us more effectively engage the Somali community.
Are the youth ever afraid of speaking their minds in front of the religious leaders?
Some boys, especially in the Muslim community, have the courage, but the girls are a bit shy. They sometimes will not even want to come to the hall where the clerics are talking. So sometimes we hold discussions without the clerics. That way, both the girls and the boys can ask questions and voice their opinions.
What causes the clashes between the Christian and Muslim youth?
Many times it is just misunderstandings because of perceptions and stereotypes. But twice, a clash arose when a Muslim child riding a bicycle hit a Christian child by accident. Fights break out between the children and then the adults become involved. The Muslims thought that the Christians were organizing to fight. It just spirals from there.
And sometimes a Christian calls a Muslim a terrorist. I have seen that such fights. If you come to visit us here for one week, it's highly possible to see a fight. Tensions are very high in this neighborhood. I think it is due to trauma. The Somalis are traumatized by their war background and the Kenyans are still affected by the attacks here in Kenya like at Westgate Mall. Al-Shabaab is definitely a concern for both groups. I pray that Kenya does not go towards the extreme divides between Christians and Muslims like in Nigeria.
Can you tell me about the center's public school peace programs?
That's another big component of our peace programs. We go to the local schools once per week and talk to them about what peace means. Right now we visit eight different schools and talk to children in grades four through seven. There is a small manual we use with the children to discuss peace at a personal level: peace with each other, peace with the environment, and peace within ourselves. We try to choose schools that serve both Christian and Muslim communities.
Because we engage both communities, it is important to frame peace in a neutral way, with no ties to Christianity. We do not want to offend anyone. So, we talk to them about being nice to one another and how to have good relationships with your friends, parents, neighbors, and larger communities. A lot of it is about being sensitive to one another’s feelings and respecting each other.
What do you mean by peace with the environment?
We are generally trying to encourage the concept of planetary peace through stewardship, care, and appreciation of the natural environment, at a young age. It is very important, especially here in Kenya. So, we talk to them about simple things like keeping the school grounds clean and we teach them to plant trees. Public primary schools in Nairobi generally have large compounds. We encourage the children to set aside some space to plant trees or grow flower beds for the school.
Why is it important to teach the children about being at peace with the environment?
The conflict that you experience, be it at a personal level or a community level, spills over onto nature. If you go to the communities where there's a lot of violence and you see that nature is destroyed. Wangari Maathai said that nature is very much unforgiving, and that's what we tell the children. We tell them, do you hear about the droughts in Kenya? The Turkanas have no food. The Samburus have no food. The animals are dying. Do you know why they are dying? It is because we have destroyed our environment. So we teach them that environment is connected to animals, it is connected to food that we eat, and it is connected to all our lives.
And the children understand. Most of them come from nomadic communities. Their way of life is keeping animals, and that makes them understand.
When during the school day do you meet with the children?
Currently, the government only allows us to talk to them after lessons. The children are often very restless from being in class all day. They want to go play! So, we are working on a new curriculum that integrates skits and games. Hopefully, that will help keep their attention more.
How do you speak to them about peaceful relationships?
We talk of increased understanding of empathy, respectful communication, conflict resolution, cooperation and reconciliation that have been proven to enhance peaceful daily relationships. We start from what they do understand; first of all, their relationships with parents, their teachers, and their fellow pupils. One example we normally give is, if a teacher gives you homework, they expect you to complete it. If you come to school the next day and you have not done your homework then you will have conflict with your teacher. Some schools here in Kenya still cane children as a punishment. So, we tell the children to avoid being punished by finishing their homework.
In the slums, sometimes parents have a lot of difficulties handling the children. There are so many hardships. Most children would like to leave school early or not go to school at all because they want to collect metals and sell them to earn money. Even as early as fourth or fifth grade, the children skip school to begin working and they do not tell their parents.
What kind of values do you teach them?
Respect, kindness, helpfulness. We do a lot about respect. Respect for parents, respect for teachers, respect for neighbors and self-respect. This calls for the children to increase inner peace through self-awareness, self-acceptance, and positive personal choices. When I grew up, a neighbor could see you were doing something wrong and discipline you. Maybe that was in the African context. But now, if you discipline a neighbor's child, you will be taken to court. So contexts are changing. Communities used to all look out for each other’s children. It was kind of like community parenting. But, it is harder now because the parents are busy working and the children are left by themselves. It is up to the children to stay in school, do their homework, and be responsible. This will only happen if the children respect their parents’ rules and instructions.
We also talk to them about sex in school. You would be surprised at what we find. Some research shows that as early as grade six or grade seven, children get into sex. So it's good to talk about sex. And in that area we talk about peer pressure because that is what influences them most. We talk about dangers and some good things you can get from peers. Stories friends tell have large influence.
Do you also talk to the children about healthy intimate relationships?
Yes, you would be surprised how much they already know. Some research shows that as early as grade six or seven, children in Kenya start having sex. So, it is fine to talk to them openly about sex. We talk a lot about peer pressure because it already influences them so much, both positively and negatively.
We also discuss HIV. These days, the children are generally quite informed about HIV because of all the campaigns out there. But, it is still good to remind them and talk openly about sex. This can be particularly difficult with the Muslim community because the Muslim children are a bit more conservative and can be very shy about discussing these issues. Sometimes they just stand up and leave the room.
In order to have more of an impact, we are trying to develop programs for the parents and teachers too. Just talking to the children is good, but it can be greatly reinforced by the adults in their lives. This is especially true for the Muslim community.
Would Muslim parents listen to someone from outside their faith background?
Yes they would, and more so if the issue is related to faith. However, that's another thing that maybe we need to think about, because maybe if one of you is struggling about something, you may need to open up about that and listen to them. So as we go on, we may need to welcome or hire somebody from a Muslim background—maybe a Kenyan Muslim or a Somali Muslim, just to make sure we are good with the context. They may wonder where you are from, why are you talking to us? Sometimes we do not understand them because we are outsiders. So that's one area we may need to think about.
Is early marriage prevalent in Eastleigh?
There are indicators that show it is practiced in Eastleigh, but I know it happens outside Nairobi, specifically with the Maasai, the Samburus, and the Somalis. It is common for girls to be marred in grade six or seven. Sometimes the father wants to take the dowry even before the child goes to primary school. The girls often end up marrying men that are much older than them, even elderly. That’s why some organizations focus on starting rescue centers for the girls that run away from early marriages. It is a big problem.
We get lots of reports from teachers that tell us the girls have disappeared. They are no longer going to school. Sometimes we hear they have left Nairobi, or even left the country. Some are refugees and we assume they return to Dadaab refugee camp. But the truth is some of them could be getting married off. It is very unclear where they actually go.
The population of Eastleigh is constantly in flux. It is probably because of the high refugee population. People leave unexpectedly. Sometimes they come back, sometimes they don’t. It brings some challenges to our peace programs, because we could be making progress with a youth group and then half of them will disappear. It is hard to do community peacebuilding when the community is constantly changing. New people arrive and, with them, come new dynamics that could raise the underlying tensions and possibly spur conflict. On the other hand, they can bring new opportunities for peace.