In Kenya, Will the Peace Hold?

A supporter of the opposition leader Raila Odinga in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. It is often said, “When Kibera burns, so does Kenya.” Credit Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Peace means so much more after you’ve experienced violence. Less than a month ago, my country, Kenya, held a hotly contested presidential election. On the morning the polls opened, my heart raced — I come from and work in the Kibera slums, and it is often said, “When Kibera burns, so does Kenya.” But not this time.

During my childhood, campaign season was the only time we ate rice. My mother would come home with a small portion of rice, a handout from a politician. “Where did the rice come from?” I would ask her, and she would say from someone campaigning, the name unimportant, her vote equally unassured. As she served the rice to my siblings and our neighbors, she would repeat an old refrain: “Empty containers make a lot of noise.”

My mother understood who the real winners and losers are in Kenyan politics. Her allegiance was never to the politicians but to the people, from many tribes, with whom we lived. In Kibera, neighbors are often the only safety nets. They offer a cup of maize meal on hungry nights. They watch over children as they walk to school. Without my neighbors — Luos, Kikuyus, Nubians — I wouldn’t be where I am today. And I am not alone.

Yet barely 10 years ago, we forgot this simple truth: Our communities are more fundamental to our survival than the oft-broken promises of politicians. The violence surrounding our 2007 elections left more than 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. Politicians driven by self-interest turned tribes against one another — neighbor against neighbor.

On the night of the election, Kibera, normally filled with the sounds of life, was filled with the noise of gunfire. I cowered under my bed, the walls of my shack made from discarded milk cartons the only barrier between the bullets outside and me. Neighbors from different tribes who had lived together for years turned against one another in an instant. One night, I planned to stay with friends in another part of Kibera. By chance, I didn’t make it to their house. All four of my friends were killed that night, murdered in the cold blood of tribal hatred. The next day, I fled for my safety.

As I left Kenya, I passed checkpoints where vigilantes asked at random to see ID cards, to establish ethnic identity. I saw a man being beheaded for being from the “wrong” tribe. I resolved that never again would we be misled to believe that there are more than two tribes in Kenya: the rich and the poor. And though I ended up attending college in the United States, I returned to Kenya, to Kibera, to help my neighbors so that they will never again turn on one another. Today I am building a movement for community-led change to transform urban slums through services like health care and education.

We’ve made progress since 2007, but the names of those we lost are still fresh in our minds. I asked a friend whom I had known since childhood what might happen after this year’s elections. He told me, “It will be peaceful, unless we lose.” I asked, “What then?” He replied simply, “We are ready for war.”

This desperation comes with a life in extreme poverty. This desperation is the barrier to lasting peace. In Kenya, there are millions of angry young people. Elections give them a cause. Politicians exploit this vulnerability.

I realized that if a call to violence could provide people an opportunity to contribute, so could a call to peace. So months ago I met with a childhood friend, Milar, one of Kibera’s most influential residents. Over beers, I asked him if he might consider becoming a peace ambassador, bridging divides in the run-up to the election. He said yes, and over many weeks we met with hundreds of leaders across Kibera to preach an allegiance to our community instead of to the will of the political class.

On the night the results of the election were announced, policemen in Kibera opened fire on angry opposition protesters. Milar stepped in between the protesters and the police — his boldness shocked both sides. Milar told the police commander that if the officers would retreat, he would in turn persuade the protesters to go home. After a tense moment, the police agreed, and both sides pulled back.

A few days later, Milar saw a young woman wearing a T-shirt from the Jubilee party, a coalition led by President Uhuru Kenyatta, being beaten by a group of young men in Kibera, an opposition stronghold. Milar, though himself an opponent of Jubilee, jumped into the fray and saved her life.

Despite the provocations of the police and the calls for violence, peace has held on in Kibera. Last month my friend Leymah Gbowee, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Liberia, and Abigail Disney, an American filmmaker, joined me at several town hall meetings that I had organized before the Supreme Court was set to rule on the validity of the election. Although Mr. Kenyatta’s party declared victory, a petition from the opposition leader Raila Odinga claimed that there were voting irregularities and that the election should be annulled. There was a real chance of violence however the court ruled.

Leymah asked, “If you burn down your community, where will your child go to the hospital?” The audience answered, “Nowhere.”

“Where will the children of your politicians go?”

They replied, “London, South Africa, India.”

Afterward, Milar came to me, his face streaked with tears. “We have to stop fighting the rich man’s wars,” he said. In that room, surrounded by women and men, many of whom have fought on the streets before, a realization dawned: We must fight poverty, not one another.

On Sept. 1, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the opposition’s petition and annulled the election. And the peace held.

It will be only through the experience of hope and community-led progress that this peace might last. Together, we can build something that our politicians promise but cannot deliver: lasting hope. But we cannot wait; we must follow my mother’s example and share our rice.

Kennedy Odede is a co-founder and the chief executive of Shofco and a co-author of Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss and Hope in an African Slum.

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