Sabahi (Washington, DC)

18 January 2013

Kenya: Youths From Kenyan Slums Use Community Events to Ease Ethnic Tensions

Nairobi — Osewe Ramogi slowly describes the vivid scenes he witnessed during the height of the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, when youths descended upon shantytowns in the capital Nairobi to burn and loot homes, and terrify civilians they perceived had not supported their candidates.

Many in Kenya fear another breakout of violence in Nairobi's slums as the March 4th general election approaches.

"I have tried to shake off the images from my memory but they keep on replaying in my mind every time," said Ramogi, a 30-year-old youth leader who lives in Nairobi's Kibera slums. "They uprooted those they deemed ethnically different and never supported a particular candidate. We were left with shattered lives and deaths after the violence."

Ramogi, member of Under The Same Sky-Kenya, a Kibera youth group that addresses local environment and climate change problems, said over the years politicians have engaged in public campaigns to incite people in the slums and create chaos for their own political benefit.

"Ethnicity has played an influential role in Kenya politics since independence in 1963, and ethnicity tends to be the significant basis for political decisions," he said.

But as Kenya prepares for the March 4th general election, Ramogi said youths from various Nairobi slums are coming together to ensure that no one is used as political pawn again.

In January 2012, Ramogi formed the Action Inter-Ethnic Youth Dialogue and Peaceful Reconciliation forum with a number of other youth-based groups to address the ethnic divisions that were still persistent in the Kibera slum years after the 2007 election.

With funding from the European Union, he said, the forum holds free educational events about the upcoming elections. In town-hall style events, residents have an opportunity to speak directly to political candidates who are invited to present their platforms, talk about the economic hardships they face and the opportunities they seek. Events also include music festivals, sports competitions and seminars to teach youth about tolerance, peace and understanding.

Promoting coexistence, civility

"We formed this forum for us to be able to shake off the existing tribal tensions and talk to our fellow youths about the need to maintain peace and refuse to be used by the politicians," said Charles Omanga, forum member and chairman of the Langata Youth Network.

"We decided to create avenues where we can talk, release tension and educate citizens about their civic rights and the importance of co-existence," he said. "We refuse to accept the image of Kenya's slums as places of hooliganism, hopelessness, insecurity, alcoholism and violence. We want to be known for peace-making, civility and accommodation."

Omanga said some people are predicting a chaotic post-election period in which politicians will be able to use the youths from slums to unleash terror for their own political benefit.

"But this time around, I bet you they are mistaken because most youths used to act violently out of ignorance, but now we have educated them and they realise that elections should not be used to drive us to the precipice. Instead, they are a democratic process to bequeath the people with better leaders that will promote development," he said.

The primary objective of the forum is to make members of the community respect the well-being of their neighbours regardless of their origin, said forum chair Erick Onduru.

"Our philosophy behind this project is that by breaking down prejudices, encouraging dialogue, and giving the right tools to citizens and youth, our participation in the election process will be peaceful and without violence," he told Sabahi.

Dorothy Anyango, head of the Young Women Initiative, said the forum events are teaching youths to be tolerant of divergent political opinions and to engage in sober political debates.

"Debates about political preferences have been mainly tied to ethnic orientations, but we are telling them politics should all be issue-based," she told Sabahi. "We are making the youths understand that incompetent leaders, irrespective of their ethnicity, leave everyone they are leading suffering."

Residents overcome prejudices

Kennedy Kamau, a 25-year-old unemployed Kibera resident, told Sabahi that the events co-ordinated by the inter-ethnic group have helped him learn how to participate in the political process peacefully.

"We used take political matters personally, tying them to our ethnicity that we could be easily mobilised to beat up those who did not support our candidate," he said, adding that while people in the slums fought over political matters, leaders did not get into ethnic squabbles with each other.

"I have decided to be a peace ambassador in my individual capacity, and gauge politicians on their ideologies rather than money or tribes."

Holding forums in which candidates can talk to citizens is helping Kenyans in slums engage in political discourse by actively participating in setting the agenda and holding politicians accountable to their promises, Kamau said, adding that the initiative is helping build and nurture good relationships among people in the slums.

Mary Muli, 50, who owns a kiosk at Kibera's Olympic area, said the programme has helped her forgive those who burnt her kiosk during the 2007 post-election violence.

"I have lived with anger in my life," she told Sabahi. "I never knew I could overcome it. But after attending an inter-ethnic dialogue event in November 2012 with those from the community who attacked me by burning down my kiosk, the bitterness melted away. I forgave them and now embrace them."

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