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Hate Speech
Laura Shipler Chico,
Program Manager for Quaker Peace and Social Witness’s East Africa Program

QPSW 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.

“Hate 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.

In spite 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.

The night 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.

The next 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.”

I thought 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.

“Please 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.”

Had the 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.

It would 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.