Building Locally Driven Movements – a case of Turning the Tide in Kenya


Laura Shipler Chico

When violence erupted after Kenya’s last elections in 2007, Kenyan Quakers were quick to respond – first with humanitarian aid, then moving house-to-house listening to people’s experiences and worries. Eventually they began to help people process their trauma and knit their communities back together. But as they did this, people told them, “You are here telling us not to be violent. But if we hadn’t been violent you wouldn’t be here to begin with.” Some who heard that message promised to come back with a strategy to speak out strongly and loudly against social injustice but without resorting to violent methods.

Kenya was pulled back from the brink of civil war in 2007/2008 by a superficial power sharing agreement that did not guarantee that the structural root causes of the election violence would be addressed. The root causes are complex, but they all point to inadequate and self-interested governance that is propped up by endemic corruption and impunity. There are such riches to be personally gained by the victors, that political aspirants are motivated by greed to do everything in their power to win. This includes manipulating ethnic politics and leading the electorate to believe that if someone from their own group is in power those riches will trickle down to them. Thus, in Kenya, politics has been not so much about ideology as it has been about ethnic affiliation, loyalty, bribery, poverty, inequality and intimidation.

From a desire to challenge this broken system came an invitation in 2009 to Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW), an arm of Quakers in Britain, to collaborate with Kenyan organisation, Change Agents for Peace International (CAPI). Plans were made to draw from and adapt the Turning the Tide model, a holistic QPSW approach to active nonviolence. The hope was to work toward building the momentum for a mass nonviolent witness for peaceful, transparent, free and fair elections. The vision of this joint work was to transform the angry, active and destructive energy that is so easily manipulated by political elites into a positive, nonviolent force to fight for people’s rights and to stand up for a just peace in Kenya. QPSW and CAPI believed that if people had nonviolent strategies for challenging injustice (i.e. structural violence) they would be less likely to resort to direct violence, and more likely to change the structural conditions that lead to that violence in the first place.

Several strategies have been central in the early years of this effort. The work, first and foremost, has been built on authentic partnership which springs from the Quaker understanding of equality. The idea that none of us is better or worse than anyone else extends in this context to the relationship between an outsider organisation (QPSW) and a local organisation (CAPI). This means that we are clear in our partnership that we are accomplishing something that we would not be able to do separately. We are greater than the sum of our parts, and we each bring essential expertise and resources to the table that are equally valued.

Secondly, we learned that we needed responsive flexible and context-appropriate training. While we began with the Turning the Tide methodology as it has been used in Britain and South Asia, we discovered – sometimes the hard way – that some of the examples and methodologies did not resonate in Kenya, while some new things were needed. The strength of Turning the Tide is in its enormous range of possibilities – it is not an off-the-shelf programme – and that core characteristic ultimately helped the training to be adapted, effective and locally owned. While the training is important, it is ongoing accompaniment that is essential to ensuring that the training takes root.

Nurturing community ownership is another key component of our approach. In Kenya, and indeed in many parts of Africa, it is common practice for international organisations to pay people a generous “sitting allowance” to attend workshops, and it is equally common for politicians to bribe people to attend their political rallies and buy their votes. Determined not to replicate this system, we never pay people to participate in this movement, in spite of strong pressure to do so. In this way, people who are not deeply committed drop away, and we are left with a strong and determined core. Now, communities are fundraising themselves for campaigns and to host workshops, and we never have trouble filling a room.

One reason for this is that each campaign is locally driven. This means that the resource people we recruit need to be influential active community mobilisers. We have found that who we invite to work alongside us is as important as the content of any training we deliver. Participants need to be people who have credibility in their communities and are inclined to analyse the social injustices hiding beneath commonly cited social problems such as unemployment, crime and lack of good infrastructure. Activists in this field need to be able to go where the energy is and start small. The approach helps people to move from the big issues (corruption, for example) to a discrete concrete problem around which a campaign can be organized. This work has had a surprising level of success. In just two years, students successfully exposed corrupt bursary disbursement practices at a University, motorcycle taxi drivers put a stop to fraudulent registration scams, community members mobilised against the construction of a dam that would displace 50,000, local farmers mobilised successfully against a bank that had changed the terms of their loans...and the examples go on.

Building on these small local successes, we believe that nonviolence is contagious. Each small success shows people the power of active nonviolence - and it is starting to spread. Building on the credibility that has come from these local campaigns, we were able to mobilise over 25,000 people in a mass civic education and watchdog campaign in preparation for the Kenyan elections on 4 March.

Will this work stop the violence this time round? Probably not entirely. But this movement is intended to affect long term cultural and structural change, and it is growing. So far it is showing every hopeful sign of being in it for the long haul.

Laura Shipler Chico is Programme Manager for Peacebuilding in East Africa, Quaker Peace & Social Witness.


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