Nonviolence. Yes, it is working in Kenya

IssueApril 2013
Feature by Benard L Agona , Laura Shipler Chico

Back story

Laura Shipler Chico

When violence erupted after Kenya’s last elections in 2007, Kenyan Quakers were quick to respond – first with humanitarian aid, then listening to people’s stories. Eventually they began to help people process their trauma and knit their communities back together. However, they soon began to see that, in order to build a lasting peace, they needed 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 power-sharing agreement that included some provisions to address the structural root causes of the election violence, but it would be up to the Kenyan people to ensure that these were put into practice.

Through a partnership between Kenya-based Change Agents for Peace International (CAPI) and the British Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW), a programme was launched to help grassroots communities analyse the power relationships and social injustices endemic in Kenya society, and to develop and implement nonviolent campaigns.

These campaigns challenged corruption, impunity, poverty, bribery and inequality in specific and concrete ways. In addition to in-depth training, the programme included ongoing accompaniment and an overarching strategy that had as its aim building a mass nonviolent movement for free and fair elections.

QPSW and CAPI believed that if people had nonviolent strategies for challenging injustice 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.

Benard L Agona

Whoever would underrate the power of women, should look at Pamela Masitsa, Mary Shimwenyi and Martha Lumbasi. These women are of great determination; at long last they can afford a smile, but barely six months ago the trio were confronted by strong forces from the ‘powers that be’. Not knowing whom to run to, they decided to try a nonviolence approach in fighting social injustices.

After learning about the case of Mama Zepreta Atamba, a peasant woman in Malava, in western Kenya, they decided to support her. The poor woman had nowhere to put her head or her family of four children and several grandchildren. Her own husband, who had deserted his family for 20 years, had eventually done his worst – he had sold the piece of land which was their only home and source of livelihood to a senior government officer, without any consultation.

Mama Zepreta was ambushed by the buyer asking her to vacate the land with immediate effect.

Not knowing where to go or what to do, she decided to report the matter to the local administration – without any success. Her pleas fell on deaf ears. Everyone she turned to was unwilling to support her, saying that the case involved ‘a BIG man’ and that they would lose their jobs if they helped her. She was forced to turn to members of her community, who did not know what to do.

Thank God for the Turning the Tide (TTT) programme in Kenya.

When the three trained TTT resource people in Malava heard of the case, they quickly picked it up and pushed the campaign step by step. The women elicited the help of a local human rights group and a legal aid group and together they managed to get a court injunction allowing Mama Zepreta to go back to her land.

At first they thought they had invited trouble; they were offered bribes and could not sleep in their own homes due to threats from the opponent. But they persisted. The community donated materials to rebuild Mama Zepreta’s demolished house, and came together to reclaim the land, armed with the court order. Midway through the construction the police arrived, brandishing guns and attacking with tear gas. The villagers retreated but did not leave – and the TTT resource people spent long hours negotiating with the police and keeping some youth from the village calm so that things did not escalate. Eventually the police gave up and Mama Zepreta and her family are now back on their land.

Benson Khamasi, the western region Turning the Tide program field officer attributes the success to three things: skills, unity and determination. He says: ‘What people need is skills on how to do it effectively.’

‘Our dawn has come, no more harassment by our arrogant husbands,’ said Pamela, a TTT resource person. Indeed, as renowned peace activist archbishop Desmond Tutu has said: ‘No weapon can defeat the power of people who have decided enough is enough – not even a gun’.

After tireless efforts, justice was delivered on 8 October last year, when the court ruled against the buyer and ordered that the innocent woman be resettled in her home. And on 27 October, she was escorted back to her home in solidarity by the entire community. On 3 December, the entire community and friends gathered at her home to celebrate the victory.

During the celebration, each speaker echoed the importance of joining hands to fight injustices. ‘Together we can’ was the message. Here they had defeated the cultural violence where women are not involved in making major decisions in the society.


As the March 2013 elections approached, we took a three-pronged approach. First, in order to apply these active nonviolent strategies, people needed to know their rights - so we launched a massive ‘Know Your Rights’ civic education campaign that reached well over 20,000 people. Then we needed to ‘identify the problems’, and for this we held inter-ethnic dialogue forums and collaborated with another Quaker group who had trained 1,200 citizen reporters. The Quaker network as a whole also had 660 election observers during the election itself.

The third prong was ‘Taking Responsibility and Action’.

As a direct result of these initiatives, having identified bad leadership as the cause of many issues affecting them, residents of Lugari district embarked on a massive campaign on good leadership, titled ‘Wanasiasa Hawatatupanga, Tutawapanga’ (‘politicians will not organise us, we shall organise them’).

The community, after undergoing a Turning the Tide training, initiated a grassroots-based programme known as the Community Initiative for Peace and Development – through which they are sensitising community members on the importance of good leadership and how to get good leaders.

Some of the strategies put in place include: vetting of all political aspirants; naming and shaming bad leaders; participating in elections by voting wisely; recalling those who do not perform.

They convinced candidates for local county representative to appear in a public debate to answer tough questions about their views and their track record. It has now dawned in people’s minds that there is power in their vote. ‘Through our vote we can get the leaders we want,’ says one of the community members.

Apart from collective campaigns, Turning the Tide resource people are doing some individual campaigns within their communities.

Justin Okee, a resource person in Nairobi, attributes his success to the skills acquired from TTT trainings and exposure. ‘TTT training has awakened what is in me,’ he says. He shares about a campaign he launched in his estate with the support of other tenants and which succeeded easily.

The campaign was about poor sanitation in the estate. The campaign slogan was: ‘No modern toilets, no rent payment.’ The secret to a successful campaign is in having an issue that affects people, adds Okee.

Boda boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers in north Rift Valley were unhappy with the lack of government accountability, particularly the dearth of services provided as a result of the taxes they paid. They collaborated with business people to engage the county council officials through dialogue and negotiation – which did not yield much. They employed other methods: they wrote a memorandum outlining their grievances and delivered it to other stakeholders, giving them two weeks to respond: failure would result in another action. Again, this did not avail much.

Finally they resorted to not paying in any taxes until services were improved. This prompted the officials to act – they were called for negotiations where it was agreed that the council would provide shades for the boda boda riders immediately and other services would be made better.

This success was enhanced by having a variety of strategies rather than depending on one approach.

After two weeks, some shades were constructed. The campaign is still on, pushing further to ensure all that was agreed is done. Their motto is: ‘No retreat! No surrender!’

According to Isa Watita, one of the resource persons, their success is a result of skills and confidence acquired from the TTT trainings. ‘Though I was born an activist, I lacked the skills to do it better, but now am sharper,’ he says.

It is now evident that the fire of nonviolence is spreading fast in Kenya.