Laura Shipler Chico,
Program Manager for Quaker Peace and Social Witness’s East Africa
has collaborated closely with Change Agents for Peace International,
African Great Lakes Initiative, Friends Church Peace Teams, and Friends
United Meeting to support a coordinated elections violence prevention
effort involving civic education, inter-ethnic dialogue, citizen reporters
and watch dog groups.
speech!” someone in the audience called out. At this, twenty hands
shot up, waiting to be called on to add their thoughts on hate speech’s
contribution to Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007/2008. The
room was a large one, but even so it was crammed. Trained community
resource people involved in a collaborative project between Change Agents
for Peace International (CAPI), based in Kenya, and London-based Quaker
Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) had planned to mobilize no more than
50 people for an Inter-ethnic Dialogue Forum in Lugari, Kenya. This
was one dialogue in a series, a part of a larger coordinated Quaker
effort to prevent election violence during the March 4th general elections.
of efforts to keep the group small, word of the forum had spread like
wild-fire, and soon over 100 people were in attendance, including the
District Commissioner, the Officer Commanding Police in the District
(OCPD), local administrators, chiefs, assistant chiefs, and the media.
These are key conflict actors, often used by politicians to fuel violence
and impunity. In a context where it is customary for politicians to
pay people to attend their political rallies, and international development
organizations to pay “sitting allowances” to participants,
attracting these numbers when there was nothing on offer but a soft
drink, some bread, and some honest conversation was the first indication
to me, a visitor, that these Forums were hitting a nerve.
“What were the root causes of the post-election violence in 2007/8?”
asked one of the facilitators. The facilitators had been trained in
Turning the Tide, a QPSW active nonviolence program, and were applying
the interactive methodology here. The crowd moved through corruption,
unemployment, and poor leadership, but when someone mentioned hate speech
the conversation stayed there.
before, I had been doing some work while sitting with colleagues and
half listening to an Uhuru Kenyatta supporter being interviewed on television.
Uhuru Kenyatta is one of the leading presidential candidates, a Kikuyu,
and one of four Kenyans indicted by the International Criminal Court
for instigating and organizing post-election violence the last time
around. Now, his supporter was strongly advocating for him and in everything
she said she indicated a clear unwillingness for compromise. I was vaguely
aware of my colleagues reacting, and yet there were no words there that
I, in my ignorance, would understand as hate speech.
day, the crowd was incensed. Clearly, this woman had said things that
were profoundly offensive. In fact, I found out later that she had been
investigated for incitement as a result of what she had said. As the
crowd swirled in reaction to her comments, an old man walked slowly
to the front of the room. “There are many Kikuyus here in this
room,” he said. “Let one of them come and say you do not
agree with what that woman said. Then we will know that what she said
is not what Kikuyus believe.”
it a kind invitation and I waited for someone to respond. But instead
all the speakers who spoke immediately after continued with what I interpreted
as an escalating anti-Kikuyu sentiment. The facilitators intervened,
of course, effectively making space for Kikuyu voices and creating enough
of an open environment for people to admit to that there were enough
conflicts within tribes as well as between them. But not one Kikuyu
could speak out against the woman on TV, and when Luhyas began talking
of the conflicts within their tribe, they were laughed and shouted down.
remember,” pleaded one speaker. “We are neighbors. We are
living side by side for years. We help each other. These politicians
only come to our community once every five years and say these things.
We cannot let what they say come between us.”
dialogue caused harm? I wondered this out loud to my colleagues as we
sat together to debrief the day. I wondered, because though hateful
messages on television had gone right over my head, I worried that the
anti-Kikuyu sentiments expressed in the Forum had been quite harsh.
Oh no, not at all, they assured me. It was an honest conversation, nothing
had been personal, and people were very pleased with how it had gone.
take me years of living in Kenya to understand the dynamics in that
room – I was there only as a visitor with whispered translation
in my ear. But I was struck by several raw impressions. The first was
the startling power of the spoken word in this place of long, oral tradition.
The second impression was the deep gravitational forces that seemed
to keep people’s very core selves attached to their group identity
and with that, the impossibility of speaking out against your own representatives
in such a public setting. And the notion of representation itself seemed
to have more force behind it than I had realized. Is it any wonder,
then, that politicians, who have so much to personally gain from a corrupt
system, are able to manipulate and use these forces to mobilize their
constituencies? Is it any wonder that politics has not been based on
issues or ideology but on false promises of material prosperity to the
ethnic group that is represented at the top? We are contending with
powerful forces. And they are more powerful than I had quite appreciated
before that warm afternoon, where the sunlight filtered in, gently nudging
people toward each other and away from what had been.