Bringing Up the Child: Local Conflict Prevention Mechanisms in Kenya

Alice Wairimu Nderitu is a Commissioner of Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission,, the Joan. B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice (IPJ) Woman Peace Maker of the year 2012, and co-chair of the Uwiano Platform for Peace. 2

The Elder Community

Growing up in Kenya’s beautiful rural areas, I was fascinated by the power of the elders, a group of old wise men sitting under a tree delivering judgment on matters concerning the community. Everyone respected the decisions they made. Curious children would sneak up the tree under which the elders sat and observe them mete out justice to adults in their communities. When I turned eight, my older brother gave me a unique present—only after warning me not to tell anyone. He took me up with him into the branches of a tree one day just before the elders sat under it. We eavesdropped on this and several occasions afterwards, hiding among the leaves during school holidays. Day in and day out, adults we knew appeared before the elders.  We learned that Waigwa the cobbler was a wife beater, and that Baba Kim, the church elder, had taken away his brother’s land. Each elder had to make an individual decision on what to do with the wrongdoers. To vote in favor of a verdict, he would lay down his staff, hewn from the branches of the very tree we were hiding in. I grew up in a place where crime hardly existed, thanks to these elders. What fascinated me most, as I clung to a branch, were the discussions on peaceful coexistence that underlined each decision and the respect for the elder community. There were no women elders, however. Women appeared only to give evidence, like my grandmother, who unlike many of the elders could read. My brother told me sternly that there were no women elders because making peace was not women’s business. I wanted to be an elder, but I was a girl.

Electoral Violence in Kenya

When I left home for other, more turbulent parts of Kenya, I was constantly uneasy about the inability of Kenyans to peacefully coexist. Violence marred Kenya’s electoral process in 1992, when multiparty politics were reintroduced. The Rift Valley was particularly hit. At that time, studying at the University of Nairobi, I was very conscious of the changes taking place in the country and participated in demonstrations against state action. The violence recurred in the next election year, 1997. But election year 2002 witnessed the peaceful transition from an authoritarian president to the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government. Hope abounded. Kenyans were polled as the most optimistic people on earth.

However, tensions continued to simmer below the surface as the NARC government failed to deliver on the promise of a new constitution, as well as other promises, as fast as expected. Kenya had gotten away with the illusion of being a country at peace surrounded by countries that had experienced conflict—Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Kenya’s peace masked issues that successive governments had not been able to solve, resulting in ethnic animosities and differences between communities. These issues included forced alienation and appropriation of land by the colonial and postcolonial governments and the unequal distribution of resources. The country had become a nation of ethnic communities drawn apart by their differences and that saw little in common with each other.

Join the Conversation