The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups

by: Nzubechi Pantaleon Uwaleme

How does one move from living “with” the people to living “among” the people without having one’s  “otherness” or “foreignness” amplified in everyday life? This and many other questions continued to occupy my mind the moment I began my field experience in Kenya.

I had learned in my Ethnographic Methods for Peace Research class various ways of navigating the field, taking conscious note of one’s positionality and reflexivity in research contexts. My experience in Kenya has been full of opportunities for reflections and making observations that help to understand how my identity in a particular context shapes events around me. I’m interning with the Life and Peace Institute’s Kenya Program in Nairobi. LPI is an international center for conflict transformation that works  in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region.

How Sustained Dialogue Prepares Youth For Change

As a non-Kiswahili speaker, I have struggled to interact  with young people, the constituents of my field engagement, given their preference for sheng or Kiswahili slang. This is one point where my identity becomes an opportunity for building relationships and friendships, as many of the youth participants at the Sustained Dialogue (SD) sessions (LPI’s pilot program for the youth as drivers of peace) are fascinated by the uniqueness of my name, opening space  for interaction and mutual exchanges. Most of my time at LPI is  spent listening  to young people’s  stories, issues, and challenges, and their hopes for a better future. The youth participants at the SD sessions get to spend seven months experiencing the five stages of Sustained Dialogue: The Who, The What, The Why, The How, and The Now! The SD session is designed to enable youth participants to become more aware of their issues, understand each other, and utilize the process of dialogue to transform tense relationships while acquiring skills that will help them shape their future.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
Meeting and discussing with youth moderators during a Sustained Dialogue session.

In spending quality time with these youth, I have been exposed to the realities of being a struggling young person in Kenya. Many young people in Kenya are facing strained relationships with security forces, especially the police. Some of them emphasized the lack of trust between security actors and young people, which results in profiling, indifference, and extra-judicial killings. There is a high rate of crime involving or suspecting youths. As a result, it has become a norm to categorize the youth population as “unsafe” and “harmful” thereby creating prejudices and biases on the capacity of youth to be agents of change. However, it has become unpopular to look beyond these stereotypes and focus and assess whether every youth is unsafe or harmful as described.

When I look at the long process of SD, the seven months of activities, and how committed these youth have been so far, I wonder  why we can’t see the hope in them for a better future. These youth have learned the physical, social, and psychological dimensions of supporting one another. They’ve learned to cope with their peers’ stories of trauma and tackle challenges together. They have learned the process of dialogue and how to be accommodating, tolerant, and supportive of one another. I have realized that when you confront reality, abstract concepts become difficult to talk about but easy to understand.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
Participating in exchange, learning and reflection sessions in Nakuru with SD youth moderators.

Transforming Themselves To Transform Others

During this transformative process, I have come to know these youth as “hopeful”. The resilience they have shown through peace actions and community service is one that is born out of a conscious desire for constructive social change. Many of these youth have used the SD sessions to transform themselves from passive observers to active peacebuilders in their communities. They’ve transformed themselves to transform others. Given the diversity of participants, the process has led to changes in attitudes—between Muslims and Christians, different tribes, and the majority-minority divides—thus, building trust and relationships that transcend prejudice and generational biases.

I have participated in many of the activities organized by these youth. They have used graffiti messages to demonstrate  hope and encourage their peers to avoid crime; they have provided bins in public places that are targets for waste accumulation; they have planted trees to support climate action and to remind themselves that they are on a journey of growth; they have raised awareness and campaigned against electoral violence in various counties; they have coordinated dialogues for youth in the streets;  they have used theatre and other arts to make peace less remote to the local people; and they have equally been involved in resolving conflicts among youth from different communities.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
Taking the “change is in your hands” placard from a fellow youth during an awareness campaign in Eastleigh alongside International Day of Peace.

These are various ways the hope-filled  youth are driving the wheel of change, bringing their peers together and addressing the local dynamics of youth issues using a local response that propels others into action. Many reformed youth attribute their change of action to the very inspiration they got from the SD participants during their peace actions in communities. Many are expressing how they’ve been lured into the good life by their peers who are hopeful for a better future for them.

The Centrality of Hopeful Youth in Building Trust Across Diverse Groups
An overlook of the Westlands neighborhood from my apartment in Nairobi.

Journeying in While Journeying Out: Cultivating a Reflective Practice

by: Parusha Naidoo

Photo at top: My classmate and I attending peace rallies in Nairobi, Kenya, on the International Day of Peace. 

I have spent the past six months navigating through the streets, people, and places of Nairobi. To assure you (and my professors), this navigating did not entail abandoning my internship and research to become a matatu driver (although that may have made for more interesting blog material).

Instead, I say “navigate” because my daily journeys between my place of work, the grocery store, and my home necessitated the skillful maneuvering of my limbs between cars, boda bodas, and uneven or non-existent sidewalks. I also say “navigate” because I have been required to continuously reorient my personal and professional truths, often performing mental gymnastics as I stretched myself to see, feel, and think in ways that I had never been required to before.

So how does one make sense of these navigations?

Reflective practice

What I thought would simply be a supplementary aspect of my semester living in Nairobi and interning at the Life and Peace Institute gradually became the central component to how I made sense of the many worlds I found myself needing to traverse.

I spent my first few months in Nairobi largely frustrated that I could not follow a blueprint to aid me in my physical and mental voyages. I soon realized that not only did this blueprint not exist, but it was also impossible to pen down for the inherent reason that there was no one single version of the Nairobi I was experiencing. First unconsciously and then consciously, I found myself turning to the internal process of reflection as a way to name and make sense of my surroundings.

Reflective practice can be understood as a sustained and indefinite process of holding an awareness of both what happens around you, as well as within you. With no clear end and beginning, this practice allows us to untangle our observations, sit in contemplation of these observations, and potentially move towards action in response to the many things we see, feel, and think. In its simplest form, it is a two-way commitment: one to continued learning through a deliberate decision to be vulnerable and another to uncovering a kind of visceral knowledge we hold through mindful presence.

Mindful mobility

Nairobi is anything but one-dimensional or static. Rather, it is a place textured by multiple worlds that overlap, contradict, and co-exist. The most tangible example of this description can be observed in the spatial layout of the city, where Kibera – one of the largest slums on the African continent – is surrounded by Lavington, Kilimani, and Kileleshwa – some of the wealthiest suburbs of Nairobi.

Through my internship at the Life and Peace Institute, I was able to enter spaces of Nairobi that someone like me, the mzungu, would otherwise not have been expected to be found. Whether it was attending town hall meetings with community leaders in Mathare or Sustained Dialogue sessions with youth in Eastleigh, these experiences cultivated a sort of internalizing, which left me always “switched on.” By engaging with reflective practice, I was able to discern what my presence meant in these spaces, as well as the privilege of my mobility to traverse between the worlds of Nairobi’s slums and suburbs.

Eastleigh Nairobi Kenya
Participating in a peace action march in Eastleigh with Life and Peace Institute’s board members and community members to raise awareness of the need for better schooling support.

There is an immediacy of physical and mental presence that you cannot escape when you walk through the streets of Kibera or share a meal of sukuma wiki and ugali with youth leaders, or have someone you barely know invite you to their humble home in Kawangware to make chapatis on a Saturday afternoon. Through the sharing of meals and laughter, the stark realities of structural violence demanded an intimate solidarity that pushed me closer to the worlds I would otherwise never be exposed to, even if only for a few hours.

Mathare Nairobi Kenya
Mathare at dusk. This photo was taken on a visit to my colleague and friend’s home.
Closing the distance

Despite the close physical proximity of unequal worlds, Nairobi, like many cities, allows for distance and disconnect. This is because so much of the worlds we have created employ distance from the “other” so that we are not required to actively engage with the injustices we see. The distance allows us to not stop and see our role in both the atrocities and achievements of humanity. This distance dehumanizes us. Choosing to reflect means closing that distance and going beyond the dualistic thinking of victim and perpetrator, rich and poor, or peaceful and violent.

Reflection demands we see our agency and the structures surrounding us as a struggle against a world that would otherwise tell you to not feel, think, and see. The daily practice of capturing my observations and thoughts through writing prompted me to find the language for experiences I would otherwise not have been able to articulate. In some instances, it also forced me to step away from the sometimes clinical and technical phrases we can throw around when operating from the stance of a peacebuilding practitioner or academic.

But the power of reflection is not so much in the act of writing down words, but in the recognition that we cannot accept what we see in front of us and rather that we must journey internally and address the very questions we would rather not grapple with on a daily basis.

Nairobi Westlands
The daily commute: a short walk at the end of the day for me, but for many of my fellow pedestrians this was the first part of their long journey home.
Reflection as resistance

I have come to embrace reflective practice as liberatory and an act of resistance: going beyond the binaries, refusing to be detached, and humanizing the experiences of the worlds we traverse. It is an active decision to sit in the uncomfortable and difficult space of untangling an encounter that we would prefer to normalize and not acknowledge. Reflection is a practice of daily resistance that is demanded of everyone, regardless of professional inclination or geographical location.

It is the realization that things are not simply the way we see them to be at first sight. It is a practice that requires us to recognize we don’t in fact know it all or have a full grip on what it means to be a peacebuilder. Instead we must recognize that we are constantly learning and unlearning our ways of being in the worlds we traverse.

Reflective practice provided with me something. It was more than a map. It provided me with an internal compass to make sense of the many things I was seeing, feeling, and thinking as I developed within my vocation as a peacebuilder.

The Beauty of Diversity

by: Dorcas Omowole

Dorcas Omowole interns at the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank based in Nairobi, Kenya. With Master of Global Affairs teammates, she assesses the implementation of devolution in Kenya, gathering data and interviewing county officials, civil society organizations, independent commissions and other devolution stakeholders.

A RICHNESS OF FLORA, FAUNA, FOOD, AND GEOGRAPHY

A variety of gourds at the Nairobi National Museum
A variety of gourds at the Nairobi National Museum.

Not only is Kenya home to more than 42 communities, with an estimated 6,506 higher plant species, 359 mammals, 1,079 birds, 61 reptiles, 63 amphibians, and 34 fish species, it has the second highest population of bird and animal species in Africa (Survey of Kenya 2003, World Resources Institute 2003). It’s been interesting and awe-inspiring to experience this diversity, filled with the richness that Kenya represents.

From the community of Somali traders in Eastleigh, Nairobi to the Asian community, most cities in Kenya can be rightly defined as cosmopolitan.  Our taste buds were not left out of this interesting experience as they savored Italian, Indian, Somalian cuisines in Nairobi. Of course, our tongues did not escape Ugali, a staple food made with maize and eaten with vegetables, respected in word and in deed by Kenyans.

Our eyes were also not left out, especially on meandering roads as we climbed the mountains on our way to Kabarinet, Baringo County headquarters and Iten. Iten is the headquarters of Elgeyo Marakwet County. It has very high altitudes and is a training ground for many national and international athletes. Iten is also tagged “home of champions” because many of the medal winning sprinters from Kenya are from Iten.

Keough on the mountain of Iten,Kenya
Keough on the mountains of Iten.

Virtually every curve met my awe as we faced the deep valleys on either side of the road. I was transformed to that experience where your whole life flashes before you and you wonder what if it all ended now. I had to close my eyes and hum some soothing lyrics to get my mind off the road. It was a relief that the journey from Nairobi to Kisumu was through relative lowlands and straight roads – or, maybe my eyes and heart had become immune.

A BUSINESS LESSON FROM A HIPPO

Our visit to the Masai Mara Game Reserve is in the offing, most likely post fieldwork in July when we may also get to experience the great wildebeest migration described by maasaimara.com as the “The World Cup of Wildlife.” However, we have experienced snippets of the variety of wildlife in Kenya through the monkeys and birds on our street, pictures and carvings in the museum, elephants at national parks, and zebras, baboons, camels sighted during our inter-county field travels, and the near sighting of a hippopotamus on Lake Victoria.

The ambivalence that accompanied the desire to sight the hippopotami by those who had seen them before was at first confusing. Hippopotami are herbivores but, in an effort, to protect their territory can overturn boats and provide food for crocodiles—intrinsic division of labour in nature. On hearing this story, although I still verbalized interest in seeing the hippos, I silently prayed that they do not show up or show up at a far distance.

It is this diversity of wildlife and landscapes that makes Kenya a beautiful sight to behold and compels tourists who bring with them 60 percent of government revenues. It is this diversity that people travel from far to experience. It is this diversity that has made Kenya famous. It is this diversity that Kenya cherishes and protects. It is this diversity that Kenya keeps seeking opportunities to maximize.

BRANCHING OUT TO DO GOOD AND BE MORE

Our discussions in Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet counties had been along similar lines. Having both highlands and lowlands within the county, these counties plan putting in mind the unique needs of and benefits from both terrains.

The great wildebeest migration
The great wildebeest migration.

Nature is full of images that aim to instruct us that branching out is a means to be and do much more. A river that branches out does more good compared with a river with one branch, which tends to become a deluge that drowns some and starves others. It is the same reason that we use a comb with multiple teeth to comb our hair. It is the same reason that we prefer a rake to a stick when clearing our garden and prefer a watering can or sprinkler to a bucket. Not only would a bucket be of no help, it would be cumbersome to use and there is the risk of hurting or killing the plants. For this same reason, Kenya wisely branched out into 42 counties with a decentralized system of government in 2010.

Training and retraining the next generation
Training and retraining the next generation.

As we cherish and protect the varieties of wildlife, we should cherish and protect even more the variety of peoples that make our country what it is. Our common history and future binds us. Every tentacle or part of the body has a role to play especially in providing support to the other parts, helping it play its part better. The beauty of diversity is the multiple blessings that diversity offers when the benefits from all parts are acknowledged and maximized.

TRULY AFRICAN

I am proudly Nigerian and have lived the most part of my adult life in Lagos. In my opinion, Nairobi is a milder version of Lagos. I get more frustrated by the complaints about traffic or mosquitoes in Nairobi than by the traffic or mosquitoes. So far, I am loving Nairobi. I am also loving Kenya. Kenya is calm.

At Kisumu, the owner of the venue we had rented for our Focus Group Discussion—an ArchBishop—thought I was Luhya. When I told him I was Nigerian, he said, “Nigeria!” with an accent, saying, “that was how Nigerians say Nigeria.” I smiled. He was indirectly saying Nigerians are sassy, and was referring to our country with some sophistication and class by stressing the “er.” The ArchBishop even had a pose and accompanying head movements as he said, “Nigeria.”

Back in Nigeria, I get comments that I must be Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and it’s hard to place the tribe I am from. I just tell people I am Nigerian and I am pleased with any tribe I am placed in. Nowadays, my conviction (that God created the earth) override and I see myself as a global citizen—although, I have only travelled the world in my dreams. By close of day I was christened “Nanjala,” confirmed in the mouth of three female witnesses (participants at the Focus Group Discussion) and no male protesting. It is interesting that these women were not there in the morning when the Archbishop said I was Luhya but thought a Luhya name was best.

Nanjala means rainfall, and is the Luhya name for a girl born during a time of hunger/famine, as a prayer for the rains to come. Although my given ancestors are of the Luhya tribe, I would rather also just be proudly Kenyan.

Nanjala, –

as the rain falls,

may it wash away every filth and pain, make us see and know the things that really matter,

may the rains become a river that branches out and feeds all,

may the words of the Kenyan national anthem resound in sonorous unity and supplication.

“O God of all creation

Bless this our land and nation

Justice be our shield and defender

May we dwell in unity

Peace and liberty

Plenty be found within our borders.

Let one and all arise

With hearts both strong and true

Service be our earnest endeavour

And our homeland of Kenya

Heritage of splendour

Firm may we stand to defend.

Let all with one accord

In common bond united

Build this our nation together

And the glory of Kenya

The fruit of our labour

Fill every heart with thanksgiving.”

A pose with past presidents of Kenya
A pose with past presidents of Kenya.

Karibu to Kenya! Reflections on Nairobi

by: Asmaa el Messnaoui

Today, it has been two weeks already for me here in Nairobi, Kenya. Time flies so fast but my feeling is one of familiarity as if I have seen or lived in this place before. Actually, this is my first extended visit to East Africa, two years after a short visit to neighboring Tanzania.

Nairobi is also called “the green city in the sun,” as I was told by a Kenyan Somali lady I met. She tells diverse stories, some are glorious and some are worrisome.

I DISCOVER A CITY OF RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY

Here, respect for diversity and religious freedom are not slogans for an election campaign. Indians and Somalis specifically found a home here. They became Kenyans and built flourishing communities thriving through business and culture. My Somali friend, whom I met when I visited the local mosque, told me that Kenyan Somalis are proud of their country and feel free to practice their religion and wear religious garments according to their beliefs.

Asmaa in Nairobi

 

I am an eyewitness to this fact as well. While strolling through the busy areas of the city, I saw splendid mosques, beautiful churches, and magnificent Hindu temples scattered all around for all the believers to worship and connect with their faith.

We even found a small China town for the Chinese community that has grown throughout the years with the rise in Chinese investments in the country.

WE SEE OUR i-LAB CHALLENGE UP CLOSE

Those were some facts from the bright side of Nairobi. The gloomy side to the city is instantly noticeable through the deteriorated road network and the crazy traffic. A researcher from our partner organization, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), told us that the number of cars circulating Nairobi alone is equivalent to all the cars circulating the entire country of Ethiopia. The bad road conditions are an issue rooted in poor urban planning on the surface, but they are also symptomatic of the widespread corruption that is draining the country’s resources.

Traffic in Nairobi

Our project with the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is to assess devolution—transferring power to local levels—in Kenya. It is a chance to have an inside look into Kenya’s ambitious devolution system, established with the constitutional reform of 2010. In addition to our general observations of Nairobi, we will conduct intensive interviews with the city officials, 9 independent commissioners particularly. We will use this information and insight to dig deeper into the political economy of devolution.

BONUS: OUR CHANCE TO VISIT RURAL AREAS

We are also traveling to 2 rural areas, Baringo and Elgeyo Marakwet counties, next week for more interviews with stakeholders from different sectors to complement the picture. This was a deviation from the initial plan, which was centered on the 6 urban areas of Kenya. But I see this addition as necessary to get a holistic view on the focal question of the project.

All in all, everything seems more promising and enlightening to me with time as I get to immerse myself in the local culture and think more about the various challenges Kenya is facing on the way towards a better future.

Hakuna Matata, Keough School of Global Affairs, the Kenya team will carry out our mission!