A Discussion with Stephen Anyenda, Chief Executive Officer of Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics
With: Stephen Anyenda Berkley Center Profile
November 13, 2014
Background: Based in Kenya’s coastal region, Rev. Stephen Anyenda knows the benefit of interfaith understanding and collaboration. In this interview with Crystal Corman held in Nairobi on November 13, 2014, Rev. Anyenda describes the motivation and process of forming Coast Inter-Faith Council of Clerics (CICC). The group is comprised of clerics working on issues of peace, development, security, and vulnerable children in their region. Rev. Anyenda also talks in depth about causes of vulnerability of girls and boys, as well as ideas for engaging with youth to build resilience against religious radicalization.
What is your history with the Coast Inter-Faith Council of Clerics?
I’m a full-time church minister with the Nyali Baptist church in Mombasa, and a founding member of Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics-Trust (CICC-Trust). In 1997 we had problems in Kenya; we had resource-based conflict with land at the center of it. A few NGOs on the coast came together under the umbrella name Coast Peace Initiative (CPI). Our purpose was to join hands together in managing emerging conflicts and to avoid duplicating work. People were fighting over land in other parts of the country, and now this conflict was being experienced in Mombasa.
CPI decided that a safe voice was the voice of clerics. The clerics were mobilized to form an initiative that could identify the causes of conflict. Apart from land, what else could be ailing the people? We formed a group of religious leaders to lead this initiative.
The National Council of Churches of Kenya invited us for a meeting. At first I was invited as an individual but I went to speak with a German friend to ask him, “What is this about interfaith? I’ve heard it works in other parts of the world. How does it work?”
In the 1990s, we had contacts with various Christian faith leaders but realized that you can’t meet only with the churches. In our areas of Kenya, we have a large Muslim population, as well as minority faith groups and indigenous communities. So we said to ourselves, let us look into interfaith. I approached my German friend who gave us the technical assistance that we needed.
The September 11, 2001 attack in America crystalized our moving together. When U.S. President Bush said he was going to look for those who initiated the attack, we knew that we were very close to the Middle East where Americans were searching. We worried this would be seen as a Muslim issue. That’s why we said we must foster dialogue and distinguish between global issues, regional issues, national issues, and local issues. As religious leaders, we knew that this went far beyond ourselves.
We would meet and talk—religious leaders from mainstream churches, Muslims, and also Hindus. We met like this, over breakfast, just to get to know each other. Eventually we identified areas where we could cooperate. From 2001 to 2005 we were doing casual forums and developing trust in each other. It took around five years to build trust. Eventually we knew each other and what we believed in. At the end of the day, we realized that for us to be able to continue doing what we are doing, we need to form ourselves into a legal entity. This way we could get funding.
What were some of the challenges of beginning an interfaith group?
At first, our church could not understand what was meant by interfaith dialogues. They asked me, “What do you mean? Why are you meeting with Muslims? With Hindus? You’re supposed to be spending your time leading our church and spreading the gospel of Christ and not using your time to discuss issues of peace with non-Christians!”
The name for the new organization was also a challenge. We came up with Coast Inter-Faith Council of Clerics because we are clerics first. It’s a bit like a council of elders, but we’re clerics, not elders. Then, how do we register ourselves? This was a problem also since all of us come from registered organizations—so we decided to found a trust. With trusts, you aren’t contradicting yourselves. We formed a board, asking all the organizations joining us to give us their top leaders. This way we could avoid needing to present our ideas to the leaders later; let us ask them to be involved from the start. We became a trust in 2005.
How do you organize leadership in CICC?
Our first chairman was a Muslim, and I was his vice chairman. Muslims were 50 percent of the council at that time, and we wanted a Muslim to chair to make the organization more acceptable to the community. When this man went on to pursue more education, I was asked to chair.
What types of activities did the organization decide to do? What topics converged for you all?
Originally we decided we would concentrate on conflict management. That’s our major area, because we say that all religions accept peacebuilding. It’s a convergence issue. Other topics are too, like health or water, but we said for ourselves we would concentrate on peace. Since then, we’ve also been involved in a lot of things, from election education and conflict mitigation to rights for children.
As CICC brings together leaders from various faith backgrounds, do you see that example improving intercommunal relations in the coast?
We have diversity and the local tribes have problems among themselves; it’s historical. To address this, we’ve reached out to local opinion leaders and community leaders to encourage them to teach their communities the value of living with “other” people. The coast is cosmopolitan in nature; it’s a tourist destination. We said to local tribes, “There is no way you can say nobody is coming. People come for various reasons.” It appears that we have no problems with mzungus (Europeans or the white people), but really it’s with Kenyans who come from other parts of the country. We asked, “Why do you have problems with your neighbor?” And it is all about land and jobs.
How do you work with religious leaders to address social exclusion?
We talk to the leaders, and the leadership includes the clergy from the same ethnic group. We also look at the issues a the conflict. And we ask them if there is anything good about “those people.” Is there anything “they” do that your tribe does not do? You’d be surprised; all of them know what the other person is good for. We start magnifying the good so that it can overshadow the bad. Second, we try to bring connector projects like water points, football, and improving market places. Sometimes we have cultural days where we bring food and sing songs. We do friendly competitions. We’re also strategic with the leaders. There are those close to the “borders” where the differing groups begin to overlap. There are also leaders who have intermarried from other tribes. We bring them to speak to their communities. “See my wife who is from this community? She is very good.” “See the husband I got from this other tribe? He is very good.” This demystifies the notion those people are always bad.
You also do work with children. What does that look like?
We try to identify needy children from clashing communities, and find potential sponsors from other communities. The mind of the young person changes as he or she discovers that benevolence can come from other communities. It speaks volumes if there are 10 or 20 of them being helped by other communities, but you also ensure that children of our community who are needy are helped by other people around.
Since CICC is interfaith, do you see that orphans and vulnerable children are cared for differently across religions?
There are different techniques depending on tradition. For the “traditional” culture, the girl child is sometimes married off by 9 years old. Sometimes in Islam, we have seen 12- or 13-year-old girls married off. Some Christians also have this approach. They become vulnerable in the sense that they become mothers while still children; adolescent mothers. We ensure that both religious and cultural or community elders understand the importance of taking the girl child to school until completion.
What are the causes of vulnerability in your region?
Boys do a lot of work rather than go to school. They work on salt farms or as pastoralists tending animals. We find that much of the vulnerability comes because the majority of the children in the coast don’t go to school, whereas children in the rest of the country do.
It is a blessing and a curse, because a person who is not going to school can earn more money than those in school. A school teacher could be earning 15,000 to 20,000 shillings a month but a beach boy makes so much more by prostitution or selling drugs, for example.
In this case, when you tell them to go to school, they ask you why. The ones living closer to the beach and the urban centers are getting themselves into unhealthy lifestyles because of the lure of quick cash.
This is exacerbated because we have a lot of tourists coming with much money. They come for two weeks and find a young girl. So a girl can bring in enough money by age 15 to construct a house for her family, and in this way she is seen as a role model. Other mothers ask their daughter what they’re doing. They ask them, “Why don’t you get a white man also?”
So it sounds like poverty is the main driver. Can you expand on that?
Poverty is driving girls and boys to choose prostitution over school. If you go through formal education, and get a job with a salary, you won’t have a lot of money. And the coast was marginalized by the government for a long time. There are not enough schools and those you find are often ill-equipped. The infrastructure and roads are not there. We see marginalized people living unhealthy lives for survival. They become vulnerable, especially children.
In poverty, women in particular become vulnerable. Youth also become vulnerable, because they are targeted for drug trafficking. It’s not because the young people want to be violent but they must get bread on their table.
Because of poverty, we find that there is high absence of fathers and mothers, because they need to go looking for food. They mostly do small-scale jobs with the mother out working, and the father must go and do some kind of building or manual labor. The parents come home tired and don’t have a lot of time to bring up their children. The children also have a lot of free time. And this is often where they become influenced by their peers and others, and become vulnerable. Also, there are often large families. There is a high birth rate.
Under systemic marginalization, without the government investing much, people have become poor and take any income option they see. So when we try to speak to the young girls, asking why they don’t go to school, you notice that the girls don’t have enough role models to see what is good. Children need to have models. And parents need to know what their children are doing.
How are you trying to promote role models for girls? For parents?
Part of our work is to go in and encourage the communities to see that there are benefits in not marrying off a young girl. We do this by bringing role models for the girls to see. These role models say to the community, I went to school, I built my father a house. And I’m able to give my father the money that would otherwise be given as dowry. So my father gets more money from me than the dowry would have given. And he was looking for a house, and I was able to build him a house.
When you have enough reasons like that, it speaks volumes. And these role models are able to speak from the heart language, telling people if you’re resilient enough, patient enough, you can become like me. You don’t need to wait for another season. Also, this gives an example of what the girls can do as long-term income.
How do you find these role models? And is the effort interfaith?
They’re just in the community. Some of them are teachers. We talk to them and explain what we’re doing, asking them to come back to give a positive message to their people. We choose people from a variety of backgrounds.
We choose Christians and Muslims, just to show them girls who went through school. When the young girls see them, they say, “Her mother is Muslim and her father is Muslim, how come she went to school?” The role model replies, “My mother was Muslim. My father was Muslim. I went through school, came back, and still got married. So you can still get married at the age of 21 or 23, and can still keep your purity until then.”
It’s so vital that someone from the same community comes and speaks to them, not some foreigner. She can say that my home is your home. When talking about poverty, they know that her father was not a rich man, he lived in that community. There is the same kind of poverty, the same effects, but she still went to that school. And then she went to university. She had the same problems, but in the long term she is better off.
How do you bring these speakers into the communities? At schools?
We talk to communities and try to find role models for them. The schools are mainly government schools, so we don’t need to buy anything for the children to stay in school. We just need to talk to the school to make sure they are friendlier. Make school a good place. Because back home, the children are working and toiling. Most children don’t prefer to work; they would prefer to go to school, so put an incentive to it.
We set up peace clubs where we educate children about their rights. As young as 9 year olds, we need to teach kids it is their right to go to school. And if you hear that your family is planning to force you to marry, tell the teacher or leader. If they come for you, just run to the chief, or sub chief, or headman. We have been building the capacity of the headman to understand that it’s their duty to protect the children in their area.
Can you explain some instances where CICC has intervened on child marriages?
We aren’t always popular because we’ve taken a few people to court. You’d be surprised, some clergymen still marry children even though we built their capacity. Even some government officers still encourage this activity, but you must always start somewhere.
In some instances, a neighbor will notice that a daughter seems to be missing. They will ask the neighbor about her or tell us or the chief. The chief goes [to the house] and says, “Where is your daughter? Show her to me.” They pressure the parents, threatening to hold the family breadwinner in prison until they show the girl. Sometimes we take both parents if we know that the neighbor can take care of the children. If we find the daughter married underage, we arrest the parents. We take the parents, but we also take the child or older person to court. Word has spread around the community that local leaders will follow you and take you to court if needed. You will be jailed.
What local partners do the religious leaders work with on this issue of child marriage?
Many times we work with courts, children’s homes, and the police. Sometimes the community elder tips us that something has happened, but we don’t identify that person. We don’t want them to be unpopular and it’s a way of us receiving information and being confidential. So these are the types of things we do.
Now we’re also looking at the marginalization of the boy child. Some are sodomized, beaten badly, or other things that contradict the rights of the child. We defend them, and try to enhance the peace clubs at the school about the rights of the children. We educate the children themselves and at the same time the parents and the entire community. That’s the only way you can empower people.
Where are you doing such peace clubs and child rights work?
We work now in three counties, but we want to see if we can expand the program. If you start somewhere and are successful you can expand it. It depends on how much funding there is. We hope in 10 years that we can cover the areas where these problems are rampant and move to the others.
How do you build the capacity of your team? How do you get a wider reach?
We work with clerics, and there is a cleric everywhere! We build the capacity of clerics since clerics are free volunteers; they’re already working in the communities and it’s their duty. The staff we have, plus myself, are just facilitators. We realize this has to be done, so we call clerics to workshops to build capacity. The clerics have committees at the grassroots level so that even with little money, we can send one of our staff, or an outside person, to go and hold a workshop. They can stay in that community up to a month, having meetings with various people and enhancing the capacity of the clerics. And the clerics then fulfill their obligations in their preaching; if he is Muslim, he must show what it says in the Qur’an, if it’s a Christian, from the Bible.
So you do peacebuilding and work with children. What other activities is CICC involved in?
The other thing we do is work with government, especially on devolution. We’ve held several workshops because people must understand devolution first. We also map it, in every given area. As an example, we ask people to look at schools and notice if people have access to schools. If an area doesn’t have a school, we go back to the local representative (MCA) to talk with them. We say, “Your area is lacking schools and hospitals. When you go to your parliament, why don’t you ask them for resources?” That way they can go through the facts, and can show that their people are marginalized.
We also look at roads and infrastructure. One area might have a lot while another does not. So we try and identify the differences, and go back to the MCA and say, “Your area does not have roads. What can be produced in that area and how can people access it to buy or sell? No investor will come without a road; it needs an all-weather road. Today if there is an insecurity problem, there is no way the police can come here if there is no road.”
So we work with community leaders to identify their issues, then encourage them to meet with their representative. We may even arrange that meeting.
It seems much of your work is with civil society.
We engage the government and political leaders, but our power is grassroots and mobilizing the people to be a mass body that can demand development in their area.
We’ve also worked a lot with security forces. In many places, the police are condemned. Some of these jobs are thankless. But many security officers, in their heart, have done their best and been loyal. Sometimes we recommend them for promotion by explaining to their leaders that we’ve been working with this officer, and this is what they’ve done. And when they get the promotion, sometimes they tell other people that this organization [CCIC] really helped me to get this promotion. So that helps other people to work with you positively for the community.
We also provide safe space when people need to run somewhere. We tell people that their mosque, their church, or even their shrine, should be open for people to run to for refuge. We also have early warning mechanisms and request help. We respond with help or refer it if there another CSO that can do it better. We try to partner and collaborate with other CSOs so we’re not doing everything.
Are most CSOs interested in collaborating with clergy?
Competition comes only if you are competing; we want to look for organizations that complement our work. If I’m calling you for various things, even referring you when a donor comes and wants something, if you’re stronger at that, I will recommend you. This builds respect and collaboration.
Religious radicalization is increasing in Kenya and you see it on the coast. In what ways are you engaging on or hoping to engage on this?
The funding that comes under religious radicalization calls for actively moving in. On issues of radicalization, however, you need to work with people for a long time. Let’s think from the child’s perspective. If parents and teachers teach the children true religion, you know the children trust those sources.
So when a person comes in with another teaching, the child will go talk to the parent or teacher if they have a trusting relationship. The child will ask, “Is this true?” And if the teacher says, “No that’s bad; that guy is evil,” this is enough for the kid. If teenagers have been taught something for a long time, they can refuse an idea if someone comes by during their youth with radical ideas.
At the same time, what are the causes for youth to fall in with radicals? If it is joblessness, is there a way we can encourage the county government? Can we have specialized schools like polytechnics so if someone drops out of school they can learn a skill that ensures that they get some employment? Instead of sitting as a group doing nothing, they have a job.
It’s so important to offer alternatives for youth who have dropped out of school. Maybe someone is not good at academics but has other talents, let’s say music, drama, or sports. We’re trying to work together with the county government to see how we can enhance talents apart from academics. We want the many young people who drop out of school to ask what they can still do to make money; they are not a failure. There are other ways of surviving.
I don’t see radicalism ending soon, because it’s just entering into East Africa now. It’s mostly faith-driven, and people are taking advantage of the poverty gaps and other vulnerable groups. We have to decide how we treat the process instead of just dwelling on the symptoms. I’m looking for others interested in working on these issues in the long-term and also from a faith base.
We’re trying to mix three things now—faith-based approaches, human rights-based approaches, and also indigenous methods or alternative methods that we have not yet explored. There are things we can do to reduce radicalization of the youth. And that should help us. You must improve the masses, you cannot talk alone, and you must have the local people talking too.