Powerful Rural Women in Turkana, Kenya
Author: DeEtte Wald Beghtol
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 10/19/2004
Category: Special Report
Rural Women’s Peace Link:
a Study of Powerful Rural Women
by DeEtte Wald
On a hot weekday morning about 100 people were meeting in a church in Kainuk, Kenya, a remote rural town on the border between the areas of Turkana and Pokot. Suddenly all the children sitting on the porch of the church took off like a startled flock of birds, running at breakneck speed away from the church. When their parents sitting inside the church saw their children in flight, they dashed after them. The meeting dissolved into chaos until we learned what had happened. The children had heard what sounded like a gun shot. In Turkana district of Eastern Kenya children have been taught to run for the safety of home at any hint the community might be under attack. The parents knew their children would be terrified and ran to catch them and calm them down. The sound the children heard was not the beginning of an attack, but emotions and fear are on hair-triggers in this region.
As the bewildered crowd inside the church heard what was really going on, we began to understand the level of fear and anxiety of our hosts. The possibility of being under attack is the daily reality of the residents of Turkana and Pokot. In spite of programs to reduce violence and build peace, guns and small arms are easily available from neighboring Uganda and Sudan. Residents of the area never know whether a sound from a car backfiring is the signal they are under attack.
Inside the church after children and parents had returned, the visitors from Rural Women’s Peace Link and USAID evaluators settled down to resume watching a small play showing how the people of Turkana had begun to build peace with their Pokot neighbors. We clapped along with a song about the problem of small arms and the need for government to help maintain peace, sung by the peace choir composed of youth from previously warring ethnic groups. But the memory of the startled children remained as a backdrop.
Rural Women’s Peace Link is a department of the National Council of Churches of Kenya’s Eldoret office. It has established 14 area networks of women working for peace in their local communities. NCCK established the program under the direction of Selline Korir in recognition of the important part women play in peacebuilding in rural Kenya. RWPL has trained women of all ages and many tribes all over the Great Rift Valley, including Turkana, Pokot, West Pokot, Mt. Elgon and Chepsiria Toror, to use and expand their traditional roles for peace. Through the rich history of RWPL, the program has developed and influenced many different areas in society including elders, youth, men, police, government officials and other peace-keeping groups.
At the beginning of the program RWPL had difficulty even meeting with the women in some areas. Traditionally women were not allowed to leave their villages. They feared beatings by their husbands if they talked to strangers. Selline Korir from the NCCK staff went to the village elders and asked permission to talk to their wives. Some agreed; some didn’t. Korir was willing to start small, with the women who could safely come to the meeting. They started income- generating projects. The elders were asked to join. Gradually the success of the program was its own best advertisement. Because of past violence and mistrust, the government prevented cross-border meetings in the area. So Korir went directly to the government officials and explained the goals of the program, establishing trust. The government changed the rules so that only women could work across ethnic borders.
Next the program expanded to the youth and elders. Traditionally it is the youth, under direction of the elders, who go out to raid or attack. When the youth were included in the peace committees, the attacks reduced. Youth have now formed peace choirs and peace drama groups. These groups accomplish 2 aims: they help spread the word to other youth, and they also serve as an example of youth forming friendships and working together across ethnic lines. Now most areas are calm; children are able to go to school. Now the government comes to RWPL to ask for help in resolving conflicts.
Rural Women’s Peace Link is a network of networks. Each group joins with other groups in their area. They put peacebuilding on the agenda of other women’s groups, to strengthen and expand their work to as many people in the community as possible. Women have discovered that wives can be allowed to join the group if their husbands are also involved. So the group expands in numbers and scope by including both men and women.
The women use traditional women’s roles to begin the dialogue. Inter-ethnic groups of women share ideas about decorating houses, planting or cultural practices. Then, when a level of trust has been established, the women begin to introduce more controversial subjects. Women’s needs remain high on the agenda. The groups train midwives and form midwife groups, badly needed in remote rural areas where medical care is many kilometers away in town. Midwives also promote peace by serving all ethnic groups without prejudice.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) or female cutting, the term preferred in these rural communities is a difficult issue that the women are addressing. It is connected to cattle raiding because after young girls are cut, then they are considered ready for marriage. So young men must steal cows for the bride price. It is the cattle raiding that in the past has escalated to violence and destruction of lives and property. Rural Women’s Peace Link members work in their local communities to educate people about the dangers of FGM and help families find alternative rituals to replace cutting. They provide sanctuary for girls fleeing FGM and help resolve conflicts between parents and girls so the girls can safely return home.
RWPL has also introduced reflective conferences throughout the region. Women come together from many ethnic groups across the region to address issues of governance. In 2002 prior to national elections, they trained women as election monitors. The women in each district asked officials, candidates and police to sign a pledge not to use violence during elections. They also held marches and rallies to encourage women to vote, and all people to vote peacefully and to support women candidates. Their efforts significantly reduced the violence which had marred previous national elections.
RWPL promotes cross-cultural peace exchanges, not only between ethnic groups in the region but also internationally. Women from areas bordering with Uganda met with Ugandan rural women to promote friendships and share strategies. Kenyan women toured rural areas on the Ugandan side of the border to develop friendships and begin to see each other as allies instead of enemies. A group of Muslim women from northern Kenya met with (primarily Christian) Rift Valley women to teach them peacebuilding skills they had used in their area. In the process inter-religious bridges were built. When local rural women meet with women from other areas, their desire for literacy is increased. They see role models of women with education and begin to believe they also can become educated.
Women have found that they can even negotiate with cattle raiders. Once women discover their own abilities, they can approach the young men who promote the violence and talk to them more easily than men can because of the traditional respect given to women.
Each group, each network contextualizes peacebuilding to fit the needs of the local area. All come together to share strength and encouragement for peacebuilding in their region.
Turkana and Pokot
The women of Turkana and Pokot areas address a number of issues including community development, nonviolence, conflict transformation, health education, gender roles and micro-enterprise possibilities for their communities.
There is a long history of violence and revenge between Turkana people and Pokots. But RWPL is uniting people on both sides of the line to work together for community development. Groups are co-operating to lobby the government to modify a hydro-electric project so that it no longer cuts off the supply of clean water to both communities.
Youth groups are active as peace choirs and dramatists to spread the message of peace. They realize their audience knows the realities of conflicts in their communities. In a drama sketch characters playing 2 members of parliament 1 from Turkana and and 1 from Pokot said “peace” in the national language (Kiswahili) but at the same time said “fight” in local languages.
Women are learning how to advocate for the needs of women and promote peace at the same time. One woman leader went directly to her member of parliament (MP) and asked to be invited to speak in his church. Traditionally neither the Pokots nor the church allowed women to speak. But she was allowed to speak because the MP had invited her. Several women in the area have been elected as local councilors. One is planning to run for parliament.
Both men and women are trained in nonviolent tactics to resolve conflicts. The people of the area, through their Area Peace and Development Committee, set up a nonviolent protest to get the attention of their government representatives. They blocked a major road, refusing to let traffic through until the government minister came to hear the people’s needs security against attack, jobs for widows of men killed in the fighting, reduction of firearms in the area.
The rural women also stretch previously accepted cultural norms. In some areas women are still not allowed to own land. So the group pooled their resources and bought land for co-operative income-generating projects. Previously women were not educated; now women are paralegals, “women who know the law,” to advocate for justice. Traditionally women didn’t ride bicycles, but group leaders needed mobility to report approaching attacks and also to contact groups in other areas. The women bought bicycles with money from their income-generating projects. They now have Women’s Peace Cycling days including games for youth from different ethnic groups.
In West Pokot area the women have addressed issues of leadership, literacy and the need for early warning systems. Kulinguria and Kolongolo are small towns in West Pokot on the border with Luhyia land. The area was deserted in 1996 after fierce inter-ethnic battles which led up to the national elections. Nothing had been planted in the fertile soil because the people had fled the violence. It has now returned to its former productivity. The road to Kolongolo passes kilometer after kilometer of fields of maize and sunflowers. In 1999 the entire community was burned down. Many people were killed. Then NCCK trained local peacebuilders to reestablish security so farmers could return. It has not been an easy task to bring together people who still mistrust each other and remember the violence of the past. Just 2 weeks before our visit there had been violence. But the incidents are much less frequent now.
Rural Women’s Peace Link has used women’s special sensitivities to approaching danger to form women into an early warning system. Women working out in the fields or teaching children in the schools are alert to unusual behavior and alert to their own intuition that danger may be near. Women can travel more easily through conflict areas without being stopped. They report signs of danger to the local police, who have learned that the women’s warnings can help them head off violence. Women, empowered with new skills and new status in the community now speak in front of groups who previously rejected them. Women are some of the leaders of the village peace committees and area peace committees which meet monthly. RWPL plans to develop early warning training manuals for women and to translate them into local languages.
National Council of Churches seminars have brought enemies together to learn peace. Part of the peace curriculum required former enemies to share the same package of food aid. The decisions they make together help build trust on larger issues. The contact with outsiders through the seminars has also stirred an interest in literacy training. The trainers responded by helping the rural people set up literacy classes.
Mt. Elgon district
RWPL serves communities far from roads or other infrastructure. In order to reach the Mt. Elgon region, Selline Korir walked with the women for hours up steep mountains. The trail was too narrow for vehicles. Even donkeys were not available. But at the top of the mountain she found networks of women in 4 different locations sharing economic projects and assisting orphans whose parents had been killed in the clashes. The networks also educate women about AIDS. The work of the networks has earned them the respect of chiefs and local government officials. Men have seen the successes of the women’s networks and formed complementary men’s groups.
There are still challenges because of traditional beliefs about the role of women in the community. But Philice Samson from the Mt. Elgon district says, “We have stopped hating and despising ourselves.” They worked together with the men and peace has come to their area. The women also saw that is was essential to involve youth. They brought together 50 youth who are now a strong and bold group for peace. The youth have created songs and plays which spread the message of peace and educate youth about AIDS prevention. Even though women were traditionally treated like children, they are now demonstrating that they can be community leaders and powerful forces for change in their region.
The women of Chepsiria Toror were pioneers in addressing issues of conflict transformation, education, the environment, micro-enterprise and community health. They began peacebuilding after most of the people in their area had fled pre-election violence in 1992. Many communities had been destroyed by the violence. But as families began to come back, the women could see that peace was fragile unless they took steps to support it. They began by carrying gourds of milk to women of opposite ethnic groups, a traditional symbol of a desire for peace. When a family who had previously been the enemy returned, the women provided essentials for the family home cups, sugar, utensils and helped the family to build a home to replace the one which had been destroyed. They sang traditional songs together to welcome the new family to the community. They made no distinctions between ethnic groups. All were welcome in the new community they were building together.
Soon the women could see that the community needed a school. The government did not provide a school. So they built one themselves and staffed it with teachers and a headmistress. The women use money they raise in income-generating projects to provide school fees for children displaced by ethnic clashes. The school continues to expand. The temporary wood rooms are being replaced by cement block rooms with proper windows and a strong roof. Money is raised for the building by asking each woman to pay 60 shillings (less than US$1) for a few cement blocks or a meter of window casing. They do not wait for money to come from outside the community but find ways of raising it themselves.
Money is raised in various ways. The women buy things in common cooking oil or kerosene for lamps – and then re-sell smaller quantities to individuals and give the profit to the group. They raise sheep, give lambs to new members and sell others, returning the profits to the group. Each member has 9 orange trees to provide good nutrition for her family but also to sell the excess to her neighbors. Each member has a tree nursery. The group provides the original seedlings which the member nurtures and then gives new seedlings to new group members or as a gesture of peacemaking. There is a large plant nursery on the school grounds, which parents help to tend, that is used to generate income for school uniforms, books and scholarships for needy children.
The women’s projects also improve the wider community. They have built 6 community water tanks, supporting and improving community health by providing clean drinking water for themselves and their neighbors. The group promotes reforestation, asking each member to grow and plant as many trees as possible to improve the local and global environment.
The group knows that there is no peace without justice. After learning of a school girl from a nearby community who had been gang raped, one group member provided a safe home for the girl; elder women provide nurturing and healing comfort; the group provides school fees, uniforms and expenses; the larger network provides legal assistance and solidarity to see that the rapists, sons of rich people in the community who thought they could be above the law, are brought to justice. Together they are sending strong messages to the whole area about grass roots peacebuilding.
Through Rural Women’s Peace Link rural, mostly uneducated women have discovered their unique skills as peacebuilders. There are still occasional cattle raids, rapes and abuse in the region. But the “strong yet soft” techniques of women are making remarkable changes in situations of violence in their communities. Women have learned they can speak with conviction but not harshly. They have learned that they can join together to improve their own lives and those of their communities. They can use traditional and modern techniques to build peace, woman to woman, family to family, village to village, and between nations.
Together the women pray and work so that the children on the church porch in Turkana and indeed all the children of the region – can sleep in peace, knowing that attacks are history but not present-day reality.