A young woman who saw her home burned to the ground as a child, and another who ended up homeless for 1 and a half years after Kenya's election violence of 2007 and 2008, are among the youth leading a movement to end the destructive cycle.
Backed by a Mercy Corps program of leadership training, entrepreneurship grants and technological innovations that was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Ann Wanjiku Mwangi and Zipporah Chepkemoi Maina have become young peace activists in a country repeatedly convulsed by election-related violence - until this year. With the exception of isolated incidents of violence and unrest, this month's general elections were largely peaceful, and losing candidate Raila Odinga has pledged to pursue his appeal in court rather than in the streets against winner Uhuru Kenyatta. "The avoidance of violence so far is no accident," USIP Executive Vice President Kristin Lord said during a March 11 roundtable hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. and co-sponsored by Mercy Corps to outline the program's work and the challenges that remain.
Kenyan civil society, its government and the international community mobilized a range of programs to detect, respond to and mitigate violence, Lord said. More than 500,000 young people have become involved in "Yes, Youth Can" to form 17,500 youth "bunges" or parliaments from the national to the local level, said Grace Karanja, Mercy Corps's chief of party for two regional branches of the program in her homeland of Kenya.
Karanja, Wanjiku and Chepkemoi outlined the program's work, and Elliott Wilkes, the organization's technology adviser to the program and a former data manager for President Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns, laid out the digital approaches used to communicate between group leadership and members and to head off potential violence with community monitoring during an election.
This year, 21 members of youth bunges were nominated to run for county government seats, and 12 were elected, Karanja said.
This is "a big departure from the last five years," Karanja said. In the past, the public and political leaders most often viewed young people as contributing to violence during election periods. "It shows that the community has more confidence and trust in youth to be leaders." Election violence was a feature in 60 percent of the 17 African countries that held presidential, legislative or parliamentary elections in 2011, Lord told the audience. In Kenya's last presidential election in 2007, more than 1,200 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by the worst violence since the nation gained independence in 1963.
In addition to Mercy Corps's "Yes, Youth Can" program, USIP has supported organizations such as FLT Films, the Map Kibera Trust and the Center for Creative Leadership to develop peacebuilding skills. The Institute's Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding has run workshops in Kenya during the past year, and USIP's Center of Innovation in Science, Technology and Peacebuilding, in partnership with Portland, Oregon-based Mercy Corps and faculty at George Mason University in Virginia, is using systems analysis to evaluate how youth programming in Kenya could be more effective.
"In many transitional states, trust between young people, their communities and the local private sector has been badly eroded," said Andrea Koppel, a former CNN correspondent who is vice president of policy and global engagement for Mercy Corps. "Elites often view youth as nothing more than weapons to use as proxies in their battles against political, ethnic and regional rivals." Political elites sometimes view employment programs geared toward providing young people with financial independence as threats to their authority, and youth leaders involved in such projects face intimidation as a result, she said.
Still, the project proceeded. In addition to the youth bunges that have been formed, "Yes, Youth Can" program has issued more than 10,000 micro grants for young people to start income-generating activities such as farming businesses or to do community service projects. The program emphasizes equal participation by young women as well. Wanjiku, who overcame a childhood growing up in the Rift Valley and a slum in Eldoret despite twice having her home burned to the ground, said the program helped her broaden her influence in youth organizing. She's now treasurer of the National Youth Bunge Association.
"I came to understand that the youth in Kenya were being misused every election year because they were unemployed," Wanjiku told the audience.
"Through 'Yes, You Can,' we have been able to explain to the youth the importance of peace and that peace in Kenya rests in their hands." She and Chepkemoi have helped lead "Yes, Youth Can" campaigns that encouraged young people to get the identity cards they need to vote, and to persuade them to go to the polls.
Technology based on SMS text messaging on cell phones was a key to communication even with young people in remote villages, the participants said. Wilkes cited the GotToVote campaign and the affirmation of sample messages such as "Thank you for being the kind of person who votes" or "Thank you for keeping the peace and making history along with thousands of Kenyans like you." Facebook pages and Twitter feeds accessible with a range of cell phone technology broadened the audience, Wilkes said. The National Youth Bunge Association's web site marked a 28-day reach of 581,289 users and scored a reach of 300,252 during election week, he said.
"It's that positive social pressure, making people feel like they're part of the global or at least national peace effort," Wilkes said.
Chepkemoi said the training she received in reconciliation and tolerance even helped her reunite with her parents, who had rejected her for years after she married a man from another tribe. But the violence that ousted her from her home in Eldoret in 2007 and the "horrible" camp she and her two children were forced to stay in for five months afterwards remains vivid. She still hasn't seen her husband, who disappeared as the violence swirled around their home.
And challenges remain for mobilizing Kenya's youth constructively and using technology effectively, the participants said.
The emphasis of youth-led programs usually means variation in quality and performance, Karanja said. "Just like us adults, some youth have very strong leadership skills, others are struggling," she said.
And while the SMS system allowed reporting and early warning of violence or, conversely, to dispel false rumors of violence around the time of the election, the next step is to speed the response, she said.
"Looking forward, how can we train youths as mediators and negotiators of peace so that they can do something immediately on the spot as we wait for responses to come" from authorities, Karanja said.
One of the challenges is to coordinate donors and similar projects and to "bridge the technological divide between platforms," Wilkes said.
"The lesson learned, to be frank, is to start this process earlier" on the technology side, he said. "There could have been more synergy, more coordination technically." Still, the government did share about 85 percent of its data with the 'Yes, You Can' digital system, Wilkes said.