Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Friends Gather to Discuss Peace Testimony in Nairobi - 12/13/2008



A meeting was held in the main hall of the New Building at FIC on 13 January 2008 to consider the basis of Friends Peace Testimony and our response in the current political and humanitarian crisis in Kenya. The meeting was attended by more than 40 Friends.

The meeting was addressed by Mary Lord, who retired recently from heading the peace division of American Friends Service Committee. Previously she had worked on demilitarization with Friends Committee on National Legislation.

She pointed out that...

...Peace making is not a submissive activity but involves finding new and creative ways of dealing with conflict.

In the time of George Fox it was assumed that most people were on one side of the conflict, either for or against and ruling authorities. But Fox said he was fighting for a kingdom that was not of this world. He said he lived “by virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all war.” The testimonies of early Friends grew out of their understanding of the Sermon on the Mount.

Mary Lord said that she discovered during a visit to N. Ireland that Quakers occupied a middle ground between Catholics and Protestants and were therefore able to reach out to both sides.

Quaker meeting houses [in Northern Ireland] were places were both sides could meet in a neutral space. She hoped that FIC would also be able to fill that role in facilitating dialogue between conflicting parties.

She recalled the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Quakers in 1948 for humanitarian work after the Second World War and asked what we are doing today to validate that recognition.

She referred to the concept of a conflict cycle and the stages when tension increases to the point where it is no longer possible for the opposing parties to talk without the help of a mediator. It is very difficult to do peace building if the threshold of war has been crossed. Even if there is a cease fire there may still be a great deal of tension and a real need for trauma healing and reconciliation.

[Mary Lord] spoke of the power of God to transform situations...

...and the sharing of faith between US and Russian military officers when they came together during a post cold-war visit to an anti-ballistic missile site in USA.

Hizkias Assefa shared his thoughts on the current situation with respect to the political crisis and the humanitarian issues. On the political crisis he noted that there were both short term and long term issues. In the short term, the election had been very peaceful and Kenya had been thought of as a model for others (even the USA) on how to conduct free and fair elections....

...But due to the post election failure to tally and report the results correctly, there [is] now a major need to find out the truth. If the truth does not come out, one side will leave the other feeling oppressed.

The model of democracy that has been adopted in many African countries has a major weakness because it is based on one group winning and the other losing. The “winner takes all” model leaves others feeling alienated.

What is needed is a power sharing approach with a search for “win-win” solutions. In a situation where power is grabbed illegally by one side there is no option but non-violent, Gandhian type, action to redress the injustice.

Truth on its own may not be adequate to bring about peace. Multiparty politics, which has been promoted by the West since the end of the cold-war, tends to polarize society. In countries with a longer history of democracy, such as USA, there is greater agreement on major social issues and elections are often fought on peripheral issues.

In countries with a shorter history of democracy, there may be no general consensus on fundamental issues and elections are likely to have more important consequences. A different system of choosing leaders is needed so that those who are elected will play a cohesive role in bringing society together.

In Kenya some of the fundamental long-term issues have been covered up but need to be addressed. One is the issue of land and the rights of the individual to own land anywhere in the republic versus the traditional rights of the community. Another issue is that of devolution or “majimboism.” If devolution leads to ethnic federalism the problems can be exacerbated. But decentralization can play a very important role in democracy.

On the humanitarian issue he pointed out that when a crime is committed by some members of one ethnic group, the whole group becomes the enemy. And if people think of the problem as tribalism it can become tribalism.

But the problem is not fundamentally ethnic. The problems are related to class and the tensions between the haves and have-nots. Ethnicity is a symptom of a problem and not the root cause.

What unites people is greater than what divides them. We become one through the crucifixion of Jesus. The danger is that we can be manipulated by those with power and wealth.

If we tackle the economic and political problems facing the country the issue of ethnicity will fade away.

In the lengthy discussions that followed many points were raised. One Friend whose shop had been destroyed in Kibera noted that the slums were not destroyed. The shops burned down were mainly those of the more prosperous, and this was irrespective of political affiliation.

It was noted that rumours keep spreading and creating a climate of fear. The troubles that had erupted have a long history and the basic issues have been swept under the carpet for too long.

Friends have focussed more on evangelism and education than on social and political issues.

Many of the problems could have been avoided if the revised constitution had been adopted.

We need to hear examples of how Quakers have responded in similar difficult situations elsewhere. We also need to plan for specific activities now, such as AVP workshops.

One speaker mentioned the need for those who had grabbed power to acknowledge their mistake. He recalled a statement by Barry Goldwater during the civil rights struggle in the USA,

“You can’t legislate for love but you can legislate for justice.”

Our leaders need to ask forgiveness for bringing the country to the brink of civil war.

Another member recalled the saying: “Let there be peace but let it begin with me.” She said that she had come to realize that

"You experience peace by helping others." We need to talk and share with those who are suffering.

Her house was nearly burned down but she is finding a way to rebuild a sense of community among neighbours who had become polarized by recent events. She emphasised that when we talk we must be truthful as "the truth will set us free.”

One point made was that there is a great deal of ignorance among some of the communities that are in conflict.

Friends should encourage people to tell their stories and dialogue.

We should fight injustice not each other.

The stories of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others should be used in trainings for non-violent action.

The meeting was informed about some of the activities with which Friends had been involved such as the making a statement to the media on behalf of Friends Church in Kenya and programmes such as Alternatives to Violence, Quaker Peace Network, etc.

There was a request to work with people in other churches who share our concerns.

Quakers should try to address the problems of youth who are jobless, hopeless and angry as well as those in positions of leadership.

The issues of ethnicity was raised again when one Friend pointed out that there had been an inequitable distribution of national resources but Quakers had kept quiet in order to avoid criticism.

We can not overlook the ethnic issues in the current crisis. But we were reminded that ethnicity is a symptom of a problem rather than the underlying cause.

In the winding up it was agreed that we should continue to talk and share among ourselves and with others. Sharing can help in finding solutions. After 9/11, churches in USA went silent while preparations were being made for war on Iraq. Friends did however take some initiative in inviting the World Council of Churches to convene a meeting where their concerns could be presented.

As Quakers in Kenya we should reach out and work with others in order to promote peace, justice and reconciliation.

Draft report prepared by Donald Thomas, Nairobi
15 January 2008

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