Blessed Be the Peacemakers: Mourning Dekha Ibrahim Abdi

By: Katherine Marshall

July 21, 2011

A remarkable Kenyan woman died on July 14, after a car accident that also killed her husband. She was much beloved and admired, in Kenya and around the world, because she fought fearlessly for peace. Her hallmarks were her skill in bringing the core values of her Muslim faith into her peacebuilding work and her belief in the potential of community spirit to transcend even brutal histories and deep divisions.
A year ago Dekha was at Georgetown University helping to highlight the peace work of women inspired by their faith. The following is drawn from an interview before that consultation. Her final fears are prescient of the tragedy unfolding today in the horn of Africa.

Why do you compare peacebuilding to an egg?

An egg is delicate and fragile, but given the right conditions, it gives life. You have to nurture the fragile potential for peace. Negotiations and peace agreements are just the beginning. Like a newly laid egg, we must nurture glimmers of peace and support and sustain them.

How did you become involved in peace-building?

I was born in Wajir, in northern Kenya, far, far from Nairobi, 1,000 or so kilometers! My family are pastoralists who wanted nothing to do with urban life, but my father worked in the city. A family of girls, my father insisted that we go to school, defying family norms. So our family was seen as a lost cause and my father as a hothead, lost to western education and values, lost to Christianity (they feared the family would be converted in the city).

I started my career as a teacher, working to bring education to pastoralists who were moving constantly. As I learned more about their culture, I had to face the fact that violence was everywhere: animal raiding, conflicts and killing, fighting and tension. The violence 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, but the whole society. So we began working with all the community leaders: business, religious, political, educators. Four women, living in Wajir, began our peace movement in 1993.

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 why we were credible. We had no idea how to organize or 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.

How did you understand 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.

At the beginning conflict was within the ethnic Somali group, all Kenyan nationals, with factions within the community fighting one another. But about three years down the line, this changed. There was no religious dimension at first but it arose because a Christian minority came under attack, sparked by tensions in a different part of Kenya. Using the same kind of shuttle diplomacy, we created interfaith groups that took root and have lasted.

Why were women the leaders on the process of peace?

We began as a small group of rather naive women who saw a need. We found important assets in our traditions and also with the inspiration of some international women working in the area. A community of women supported each other and gave each other courage. Susie Cohen, an English doctor, pointed to European women in the 1940s who took in Jewish children and gave them safety. This was our first education in international politics and helped us to see what we were doing not as something tiny but as something important and powerful.

What form did the violence and conflicts take?

They had many forms and many causes, but the most important (leading even to killing of children and women) was political rivalry. The 1990s were a period with active contestation, a transition period, from military to civilian and from one party to multi-party. The transition process did not go smoothly, with political wars, stolen elections and bitter recriminations. In this political scene, rape, burning and looting became strategic tools. It was an awful distortion of old community traditions for handling conflicts.

For a time, the tensions stayed within the community and within Kenya. But then they took on a regional dynamic. Refugees and arms streamed over the borders from Ethiopia and Somalia. We became keenly aware of the international dimensions of conflicts, including the Cold War. We could see signs everywhere around us as national and international politics played out in our community. In the early years religious tensions were not at all obvious or pronounced, but they emerged, within the Muslim community and beyond, as the broader world intruded more and more into our lives.

Is religion a part of any solution?

I am a Muslim and we worked from the start with both cultural and religious leaders, including non-Muslim religious leaders like Father Babone, a Catholic priest. We used all the resources that were available, men and women, all faiths and Muslim, Catholic, Anglican and Jewish.

Religious leaders cooperated with us from the beginning, prompt to respond, disciplined and ready to take on tasks. They kept appointments, no matter what the time. They were ready to support us as long as we showed them respect, and did not insist on mixing men and women. Meetings opened with a Muslim prayer and closed with a Christian blessing. We enjoyed working with them once we had built trust. They bought into the process that we were following. We also had good working relations with the military.

That was less true for the elders and traditional authorities, though there were many different reactions and approaches. 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 truly emerged day by day. But above all, what I wanted was a different life. I wanted life for my daughter to be different from the life I, and my mother, had lived when I was young. 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.

How do you work for peace?

Context -- specific approaches and action learning are what counts. You start with analysis of the context and conflict with those involved. That can be a transformative experience and can help to define specific intervention strategies. Flexibility and responsiveness in peace programming are vital, as the context is dynamic and change is constant. Organizations and individuals have to be attuned to what is happening. One cannot close the eyes and ears and hope it will go away. Innovative thinking, to create what does not exist, and to stretch the boundaries of the systems is crucial for transforming violence and building peace. 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. And you need to reflect and learn constantly, and create the physical and mental space to think and observe. Being in constant action, it does not help to go slow. But finding ways to step back and reflect helps in seeing the patterns and appreciating what one has woven.

For lasting conflict resolution, traditional systems are crucial. When violence is most intense, people retreat from the civic sphere; they tend to go back to the traditional sphere. That is why you need two complementary systems, one that is truly inspired and driven by what people understand from their heritage and traditions, and one with more modern and outside elements.

What worries you most today as you look ahead?

Drought is a major contributor to poverty, and poverty contributes to the escalation of conflict to violence. Anticipating the drought and early intervention can save lives and the livelihoods of the people.

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