Ethnic group mediation stories from Kenya

a year ago by Madhu

The contact to the members of this group came about through Elisabeth, who took part in GFK trainings in Nairobi. Elisabeth had got to know the groups through internships during her social work studies. I do not mention the names of the two ethnic groups here to protect the people concerned. They could be branded as traitors by other members and thus be endangered.

The two ethnic groups live mainly from cattle breeding in an area that is very dry. There has been war between them for over 20 years. The background is very complex. What was important for my work was that the young men (warriors) of one group in particular stole cattle from the other ethnic group, which wanted to get their cattle back and stole cattle in return. People were often killed in the process. Elisabeth suggested inviting the participants to Nairobi in order to facilitate greater openness in the encounter by keeping them at a physical distance from the conflict zone. She organised preparatory meetings on site and the joint journey of almost two days. Despite the difficulties, this proved to be conducive to getting to know each other.

Elisabeth left the selection of participants to the elders of the two communities. Most of them only speak the language of their ethnic group, a few speak Kiswahili, the national language, in addition to English. So we needed two translations each: From the language of the ethnic group into Kiswahili and then into English and back again. The translations were consecutive and thus slowed down the process, which I found helpful: there was more time for all of us to digest what we had heard.

"You are different" I heard this sentence from the elders of the two ethnic groups we had invited as the first group, because without them "nothing works" in their cultures. There had already been several unsuccessful attempts by various organisations to mediate. Beforehand, I heard from Elisabeth that they could no longer hear the word "peace" because of this.

One participant described the difference between these efforts and ours like this: " The others have said what we should do. You listen to us and ask us what we want to do. That's how we come up with solutions that suit us. You do not come and lecture us. You ask us about our needs, what we need."


This story was collected by Joachim from one of the mediators of the project.

Story updates

Meeting with the elders in Nairobi
a year ago by Madhu

At the beginning of the meeting, the elders wanted to clarify with each other the causes of this long-standing conflict. They came to the conclusion that for both sides the needs for security, food (also for the cattle) and to be perceived as human beings are in the foreground. They were surprised to find that they have the same unmet needs. From there, we worked out possible solutions, such as learning Kiswahili to be able to speak to each other, and meeting together. The elders also had the revolutionary idea of including women and the young warriors in the peace talks. Revolutionary because their elders' meetings had hitherto been an all-male affair. They justified their intention to widen the circle by saying that young women in particular admire the warriors for their "heroic deeds" and thus contribute to the continuation of the spiral of violence. Older women incite young warriors to take revenge when their husbands are killed or cattle are driven away. And young men are the ones who enact the physical violence. To end this spiral of violence, it is necessary to bring all those directly and indirectly involved on board.
After the meeting, the participants passed on what they had worked out together in their communities and developed joint projects from it, e.g. 50 people from each of the two ethnic groups restored a deteriorated spring together.

Meeting with young warriors
a year ago by Madhu

Imagine sitting in a room with eleven people we usually call killers. One of the translators tells us that each of them had killed at least four people. Some had openly reported it, even though it is taboo in their culture to talk about having killed someone. The oldest had chosen those who were particularly known for their use of violence.
During the preparatory meeting with Elisabeth, two of them recognised each other who had shot at each other last year. The atmosphere was tense. Then there was something to eat, however there were not enough plates for everyone. In the culture of both groups, it is not customary to eat together from one plate. Elisabeth saw them eating from one plate and laughing together. She asked what they were laughing about and got the answer: "We are thinking about what is more fun: killing each other or eating from one plate?"
They had decided that eating from a plate was much more enjoyable.

The meeting with me was about finding out how the young warriors present envisioned their future and what needs they wanted to fulfil.
Both sides came up with security, food (also for the cattle), esteem / fame, community (also in the form of a family) and education. Many of them are illiterate or could only attend school for a short time due to financial reasons. In this phase of life, they culturally live largely isolated from women, have to feed themselves autonomously in a community of men and are responsible for the protection of the entire village community. One said in a speech that he could only do three things: sing, kill people and look after his herd of cattle. Another of about 40 years old started drawing letters in his notebook during the meeting to learn how to write. I experienced them as very inquisitive and willing to learn new things, besides the skills required by their lifestyle at that age.
When asked about the causes of the violence, they said it was the older women's fault, that they were encouraging them. And the young women wanted to marry the bravest and most successful warrior.
In the course of getting to know each other and exchanging ideas, one of them said on the third day that he would stop killing and stealing cattle. For in doing so, he would risk being killed himself. The possible fame was not worth it and the young woman he wanted to impress would then simply marry someone else.
Another said he did not understand why they let themselves be incited by the women. In their culture, they don't usually listen to women. One said that stealing cattle was not useful because the others would take it back and take their own cattle as well.
I suspect that these insights and the implementation later became possible at home because they wanted to get out of violence and did not know how to do it before. One said that he could no longer stand the sight of blood and was glad when the elders came home with the peace plan. That was when he had stopped.
It was important for me to find ways with them to meet their need for appreciation in a different way. They said that the invitation to Nairobi for this meeting already made them "famous", that they were now peace ambassadors, that this fulfilled their need for appreciation and fame. They were very proud of the certificates of participation.
As a result of the meeting, the participants formulated the resolution to stop taking cattle from each other and killing people in the process. They wanted to keep in touch with each other and involve other young warriors in the peace process: three days after their return, one ethnic group invited the members of the other to stay overnight with them. They did so, and ten other young men from each side took part. The situation was so dangerous that the participants from the foreign ethnic group could not come in their traditional dress and had to be escorted from the border. The following meeting was attended by about 70 people, although the situation remained dangerous. In the meantime, other meetings have taken place.

Meeting with women
a year ago by Madhu

All the women present, aged around 20-50 years, had lost either their husband or a son, sometimes their only son, to the violent clashes. The women involved told how grateful they were for Elisabeth's and my work with the elders and the young warriors. They told of the well construction after the return of the elders and that peace had returned since the young warriors had returned. The young warriors had recently even driven away Ethiopian members of their own ethnic group when they tried to drive away cattle belonging to the other ethnic group. This was to prevent them from stealing from their neighbours, and in this way they could protect themselves from their revenge. The women expressed their gratitude for this. In the past, members of one's own ethnic group were hidden and protected after acts of violence.

My approach was to let the members of the two ethnic groups tell their stories and experiences of violence in turn, so that they could experience each other as people with the same experiences, such as grief and pain, and the same needs: for security for themselves and their families, for food and for support, and nothing as enemies.

Here is an exemplary story: a woman's adult children, a son and a daughter, had been at a church youth camp with children from the community. It had rained so much that they could not be taken home in one of the trucks usually used there. Since the children wanted to go home, the two older ones set off with them on foot. In a hollow way, members of the other ethnic group ambushed them and shot at them. Three children and the woman's son were killed. The daughter was still in high school. She was so traumatised and confused that she did not arrive at school after the funeral. The daughter had expressed to her mother several times that she would rather have died than the only son. On enquiry, the mother confirmed that she had heard similar comments from others present during the funeral. The parents looked for the daughter, but she remained missing. Later they heard that she had gone away with a man who lived far away and married him.

Last year, the woman visited her daughter and wanted to take her back home, but she refused. The daughter asked her to take the granddaughter instead, which she did. She could not understand why her daughter wanted to stay there and was alternately angry and depressed because she would have liked to have her back, especially since the husband refused to pay the bride money. (The bride money is a kind of pension insurance for the parents). We looked at the situation from the daughter's possible point of view. Then she could understand that it would be very difficult for her daughter to return home. She would be reminded again and again that she survived as a daughter/woman whose life culturally mattered less there, while her brother died. She would also hear this from other people. The mother could now understand that her daughter wanted to protect herself from new pain and therefore preferred to live far away. At the same time, the daughter wanted to take care of her and in turn gave her her own daughter. The mother could now appreciate this.
Finally, the women agreed to support each other in the harvest. This was not common before and will hopefully be a gain for all that can reach beyond the group. Shared practical experiences can also inspire other women to want to join and participate in the changes.
I am aware that there is still a lot to do to support further changes towards less violence (for example, intra-ethnic violence, violence against women, land theft), and at the same time I am happy to have contributed to fewer people dying from violence.