A Discussion with William Kiptoo, Peace Building Coordinator at Mennonite Central Committee
November 11, 2014
How long have you been working on peace building?
I’ve been in peacebuilding now for 17 years. My first engagement was implementing community peacebuilding and development programs for National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) based in Eldoret. Our work was spread out—the entire North Rift Valley region, Nyanza, parts of Western Province, and also parts of Central Kenya. We were responding to the crisis of 1992. It was more like ethnic clashes by that time and tensions rose again in 1997. Initially, our work focused on emergency relief work for displaced communities in camps. As the project evolved, we began to address peace and reconciliation issues in the conflict-affected areas. We encouraged communities to return back to their farms, but it became difficult for them to gain acceptance from their counterparts because of the broken relationship. So, we created peace committees out of the relief committees to help set up local mechanisms for conflict resolution and to encourage reconciliation. That became our starting point. With reduced violence by 2002, NCCK restructured its programs to focus regionally, sending me to the Coast region where I worked in the areas of Tana River, Kwale, and Mombasa. Then I was transferred to Nairobi region a year later. This covered Nairobi City, Kiambu, Thika and what used to be North Eastern province (Garissa, Wajir, and Mandera).
I coordinated the peacebuilding programs of NCCK within that region, linking up our work with the member churches, implementing community-based peace projects, doing advocacy work on issues of peace, and doing a lot of conflict mapping. We had a very huge program called the Tana River Basin Peace Project; there we brought together pastoralists and farmers who were clashing over water resources along the Tana delta. There were a lot of conflicts between these communities, so we were trying to build the capacity of the local peace committees to manage and resolve these conflicts amicably. We trained them and helped them to negotiate the use of resources in that area.
Can you describe these peace committees? How were they formed?
Peace committees were important infrastructure that we created to intervene in interethnic conflicts. The structure integrated traditional and contemporary mechanisms to prevent, manage, or transform conflicts at the local level. By 2000, we had created nearly 200 peace committees in 11 areas in western Kenya where NCCK worked. Initially, the Moi government was especially suspicious of these committees, and became hostile towards both NCCK and members of the peace committees, but they embraced them with time.
Basically, churches that were members of NCCK formed the peace committees. We met with the representatives of local communities, analyzed issues, planned, and implemented activities at the community level. The churches also acted as a link between us, NCCK, and the local communities. They cooperated with local government structures; the chiefs and local community leaders were included. In this sense, the church (NCCK) was an implementing agency in that region. NCCK also had other regional committees composed of representatives of churches in that region. So when you go to a location that is affected by conflict, you involve churches that are in that place. We engaged pastors, religious leaders, and members of the District Coordinating Committee (DCC) to help coordinate. DCCs have now been restructured to County Coordinating Committees (CCCs) in line with the new constitution. We trained them, gave them skills, and let them implement programs on our behalf through that structure. The challenge was that the process was sometimes uncoordinated, leading in some cases to the establishment of several peace committees in one district.
What lessons did you learn from working with local communities on peace?
We often operated in locations where government structures had no or little capacity to fulfill its conflict prevention and resolution mandate. The peace committee represented a broad range of actors—political, security, government officials, and civil society—so our relationship with the government was always frosty. But the trust that we had earned from the communities that we worked with was what kept us going. They believed in our work because we were always present in the community.
We also learned that other organizations working on peace in the same region used similar methods as ours. So there was a lot of competition and, occasionally, misunderstanding. We also found it easy to work with the peace committees because we formed them and gave them money, and they implemented our programs. We trained them and knew them. The government later took notice of them in 2001, and established the National Steering Committee (NSC) on Peace Building and Conflict Management. NSC went on to formulate the national policy on conflict management, and coordinated various peacebuilding initiatives, including peace committees.
Do you think the training had long-lasting peace effects?
It is hard to tell, but they learned the skills, adopted conflict management and resolution methods, and applied them in their context. And if you go back to those areas today, you would still find the same people working with us or some other organizations. Those who were trained are still active in the community, even if they are not organized in the way we organized them. For example, when I moved to Catholic Relief Services, I returned to Tana River and found some of the same people were still part of peace building. That was really nice to see. I also read in a separate report that those districts with peace committees reported much less violence during the 2007/8 post-elections violence. So they may not be in the same form, but at least they’re active.
Some of them learned peace ideas and concepts from us. You can see they were able to carry these forward. Now they know how to negotiate, and they know what to do when a crisis happens. They can respond to their local situations based on the skills and knowledge they received from us. I think, overall, peace committees have been successful; their ability to manage inter-community conflict and to contain or prevent violence has been enhanced. In addition, they have facilitated engagement between communities and the government, and have enhanced government’s responsiveness towards marginalized communities.
How did you build your own peacebuilding capacity?
When I started work with NCCK, I had no formal training in peacebuilding, and so I had a lot of doubts in my own ability to effectively implement peace strategies. In 2002, I enrolled for a nine month diploma course in peacebuilding and conflict transformation at Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation, Kitwe, Zambia. There I got to intern at the Center for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Uganda and International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania as part of the course. I also attended other trainings in Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
When I left NCCK in 1995, I pursued a career in international development through Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), where I got placed at the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Mindanao, Southern Philippines. CRS had a huge peacebuilding program in Mindanao, and they needed someone to help in their advocacy and research work. Through that engagement, I received additional trainings at Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute and taught at the same institute.
How did peacebuilding in the Philippines compare to Kenya?
It was an eye opener, as it gave me a completely new perspective regarding how peacebuilding is done. I worked and interacted with Christian and Muslims, and implemented programs that advocated for the rights of the indigenous people. Yes, it was a different context, but some of the issues that CRS was addressing were similar to those in Kenya. I learned the strategies they were using, and also challenges in addressing violence, transforming conflict, and rebuilding communities from the perspective of religious and secular perspectives; I was always comparing what they were doing and what we had done in Kenya.
I was also able to visit communities that experienced sectarian violence and were involved in community-based peacebuilding efforts. I also engaged with key leaders and local people, and learned about initiatives in interreligious dialogue, zones of peace, peace education, peace advocacy, conflict resolution, and peace governance.
I found out that the Philippine government was more open to working with CSOs than the Kenyan government, which was often hostile towards CSOs, especially during the KANU regime. I found CSOs in the Philippines were more coordinated, and understood their context well. For example, there were many networks of peacebuilding organizations operating in Mindanao, meeting regularly to share experience and strategies.
Religious leaders—especially the Catholic Church—were so influential, and their voices added value in the national discourse. I interacted a lot with internally displaced people, and focused my efforts on empowering and working with indigenous communities. The latter were trying to find their voice in the formal peace process, but they didn’t have a unified voice and a forum to articulate that. I helped them come up with and write press releases, and organize their ideas into something they could present when they were organizing workshops and conferences.
I became interested in peace education in school, and the peace building institute itself. And then I found a training program called Grassroots Peacebuilding. I felt these were really the programs that I could easily bring back to Kenya. The challenge was how to build peace in the midst of ongoing violence. Building relationships among people and communities was central in the work of CRS, but relationships alone weren’t enough. That’s why CRS began to engage different sectors such as academe, media, religious leaders, the military, political leaders, and government at different levels. I was excited to see military officer interested in peacebuilding (see General Ferer’s story).
How did religion figure into your work in Mindanao?
I was involved in the inter-religious dialogue between the Christians and the Muslims. They had Christian and Muslim scholars and religious leaders come together and engage in dialogue. This was led and funded by CRS. Religion always surfaced as the cause of conflict, but looking closely, it seemed religion was only used for political or economic reasons. Still, religious leaders played a key role in bringing together different groups and facilitating dialogue between them. For example, through CRS the Catholic Bishops and Muslim Ulamas came together to form a Bishops-Ulama Conference. This became instrumental in spearheading reconciliation efforts in Mindanao. Both faiths celebrated the Mindanao week of peace, and supported each other during religious festivities such as Ramadan and Christmas as a show of solidarity.
So when did you return to Kenya?
When I completed my assignment after two years, CRS Kenya absorbed me into their peacebuilding program. That was in 2007, and immediately after there was post-election violence in December 2007 and January 2008.
How did CRS adapt to the post-election violence?
CRS began to respond to the aftermath of the violence by providing emergency relief to those in the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps, and supported livelihoods, protection, and peacebuilding programs in the conflict affected areas. In 2009, I implemented a project called Rift Valley Amani Peace Project, which focused on reducing the impact of post-elections violence in Nakuru, Kericho, and Eldoret, and documented their experiences (see also this video).
There was a lot of hatred, and many people were still in camps. People needed to talk first about all of their issues. Given all the anger toward each other, you first need to facilitate that process and see if they can come together to dialogue over issues. It was such a long process because there was hostility. There were also ongoing investigations, so people were not willing to talk to each other.
How long did you engage people in dialogue?
It was a process that went on for nearly two years. But interestingly, some places took longer and others shorter. It depended on the impact of the violence and the sensitivity of the issues. For example, in Kericho it took a pretty short time because the violence was not as intense; it was easy for them to talk to each other. But other areas took longer. Burnt Forest, for instance, took a long time because it had been affected since 1992, and the hatred ran deep. As a facilitator, you see the trust is not there because the cycle repeats every five years.
When the timing was right, we did connector projects. For example, we engaged with a school because we wanted it to be a connector where communities would come and work together. In the border areas of Kapteldon and Yamumbi in Eldoret, we worked with 70 local youth from both sides to construct a 7 kilometer road that connected the two villages that were inhabited by the warring communities. In the process of working together, they would be able to dialogue and to begin to engage in activities.
Where else have you seen peace mixed with other goals?
I also worked in Baragoi, Samburu where CRS partnered with the Diocese of Maralal, helping to design a livelihood project integrated with peacebuilding. That area suffers from insecurity because of cattle rustling, and some retrogressive cultural practices. There is also persistent drought and banditry. CRS was interested in supporting agricultural livelihood projects for the youth in that area, but they also recognized the insecurity was a challenge.
Our strategy was to build the resilience of the community to be able to cope with the recurring disaster. The drivers of insecurity were actually undermining livelihoods. It’s interrelated because the livelihood issues also exacerbate the insecurity and violence.
We encouraged dialogue among communities and targeted youth and women, for these groups are often caught in the web of violence. We were targeting the youth who are violent to be part of the process. We created mixed groups of rivals (Turkana and Samburu), and hoped this model would promote dialogue as they worked side by side. Since leaving CRS, I hear the project is really doing well.
Back to your own capacity building, when did study at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies?
I went to the Kroc Institute in 2012 to pursue a master’s in peace studies. There I learned theories of peace and engaged in research. I also participated in exchange programs, and interacted with some of the best and most renowned scholars from around the world. This was a rare opportunity for me to step back from my routine work to reflect. I did my internship in Uganda with the Refugee Law Project, a community outreach program of the School of Law, Makerere University. I was based in their Gulu office in northern Uganda, a region that has been affected by the war for 20 years. My research focused on transitional justice processes; specifically reparation of the war victims, because it has been six years since the violence ended. There are many people whose rights were violated, and the process of justice has been a major challenge. And part of it is reparations—how do victims get compensated and feel like justice has been done? There were violations on the part of the government forces and rebels, and it raised the question of how this process would help bring a lasting peace in northern Uganda. So my research was focusing on that.
How did you find and begin at the Mennonite Central Committee in Kenya?
I knew MCC before, but also knew someone who worked in their Kenyan office. She is the one who informed me about an existing job opening. I showed interest, and when I submitted my application I was invited for an interview and got accepted. I started in June 2014.
How would you describe the peacebuilding work that MCC is doing now in Kenya?
We currently support small projects. Some of the partners we work with are new and small organizations. We work closely with Daima Initiatives for Peace and Development (DiPaD), an organization led by Doreen Ruto, who is also the executive director. She has been in peacebuilding for a while. She has so much experience and skills. Their focus is in peace education, trauma healing, restorative justice, and they do a lot of training. Currently, MCC is funding the Justice that Heals Project, which is more or less a replica of Strategies of Trauma and Resilience (STAR) program, a Summer Peacebuilding Institute program of the Eastern Mennonite University. The training looks at how trauma affects society, and explores ways to bring healing to individuals, communities, and society. Right now, they are on the second phase of the project, and they are working with the judiciary and the legal system to understand how they delivering justice in the courtrooms. They are interested in answering the question of whether there is an element of trauma that is affecting the way the legal system conducts business. Another partner is Local Capacity for Peace International (LCPI). They worked for a long time training organizations on “Do No Harm.” They now call it Conflict Sensitivity. They are doing more consultancy work, but they’re beginning to engage in community peacebuilding. MCC supports their community-based peacebuilding project along the border areas of Kisumu, Nandi, and Kericho counties, where they engage communities in reconciliation through the local peace committees.
Grassroots Development Initiative (GDI) is another partner; they are doing peace education and peace clubs. They work with 30 schools in Kisumu to run peace clubs. But they hope to expand it to become a more comprehensive peace education program. When you implement a peace club, usually partners get excited. But as work begins, you realize the need to bring on board other stakeholders such as teachers, school administrators, and the community. The goal is to use the school as a methodology to reach out to the community. So that focus of looking at the community through the school also changes your approach. Through schools you promote values to kids so they will not fight or be violent towards other people or communities.
Another partner is the Lari Peace Museum. There was a massacre in 1952 in Lari in which a lot of people were killed. The Mau Mau killed collaborators, and then the British turned their wrath against Mau Mau sympathizers. They killed so many people. Over time, the community includes descendants of the Mau Mau and descendants of the collaborators. The collaborators are the ones whose children had access to school; they benefited from British ties and are wealthy today. This has resulted in silent hatred among the Kikuyus themselves. The museum is trying to document the massacre, and provide healing through that. They go out to the communities and schools to look back in history to understand what happened—and bring healing through the process. So those are the projects we are supporting.
What is new in your peace work with MCC?
Part of our work is to help our partners learn from other civil society organizations (CSOs) in the same field. This involves organizing forums for other CSOs centered around a common theme that allows for reflections and learning. It is like a capacity building process—they learn from others, and then they are able to become effective in their own programs.
It is an idea I’m passionate about as an individual. I like working with civil society and working with groups. I think we have greater impact when we work as a group as opposed to working alone. We complement each other’s work, but also have a greater impact. If you work divided you may say, “Oh, it is very difficult to work with the Ministry of Education to push these ideas.” But when you work as a team, you are able to identify issues and engage policymakers more easily. If you’re just an organization working alone in Lari, for example, you may not be able to succeed.
We also don’t want to lose the value of working locally. We still have local partners on particular issues who are working on concrete programs. So I see the value of that. But working together increases our ability to be effective, and builds momentum for action. You also avoid duplication of work, understand what others are doing, and learn from their successes and failures as you collaborate in joint initiatives.
How would you describe civil society in Kenya?
CSOs in Kenya today are less vibrant than yesteryears. For many years, the civil society has been the driving force behind the changes we see today. But CSOs are fragmented in strategies and vision; they are uncoordinated and compete for attention and resources from donors. This makes the government suspicious of civil society operations. One of the issues is the International Criminal Court (ICC). Civil society was on the forefront of providing information to investigators of ICC. And civil society really supported the process. In terms of real engagement, I think the government recognizes the contribution of civil society. But their relationship becomes frosty immediately, as CSOs expose injustices in the government
Another issue is that there is a lot of corruption within the civil society that needs to be checked. Some CSOs dread accountability and do not want to be checked. Assessing their motivations is a challenge. Recently, the government has accused some NGOs of funding terrorist activities or having links with them. This raises the question of whether all of us in this sector have a genuine interest in peace. Others may be involved as peace mercenaries or spoilers, or in it for personal gains. Making that distinction is a challenge.
How important is religion in the peacebuilding work you are engaged in, and where does it come in?
In my early days working for NCCK, I saw people getting interested in our work because we were a religious organization. They trusted us and valued our work because they believed we were pursuing genuine peace that was motivated by our Christian convictions and values. It was also easy to bring people together because of our common Christian beliefs. But more recently I see people trusting religious leaders less and less because of the bad examples that they see in Christians. For example, there was an exposé of a pastor recently who was involved in some kind of money making business using religion.
If you look at organizations actively involved in peacebuilding in Kenya, many are religious organizations promoting values found in their sacred texts. These are also the peacebuilding values—forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. Secular organizations use a rights-based approach, which promotes universal values. This is fine too, but there is clearly a place for religion in peace building.
In the past, I’d say most of the violence we have experienced in Kenya was political or ethnic. Now we are beginning to see religious. Right now, there is tension between Muslims and Christians, and several actors are working a lot on interfaith dialogue. But honestly, people in Kenya identify with tribe first. Even if you are a Christian, you may not identify with that as your first identity. Religion may play a role at the political level, but for the average Kenya, ethnicity comes first.