Friday, September 28, 2007

Building peace in Mt Elgon

For the past three weeks the Peace Centre where I have been staying has hosted peacebuilding workshops with people from Mount Elgon in far western Kenya. I attended the second one, and it was my first time being directly part of such a process.

Mt Elgon has been experiencing violent conflict recently, to the extent that many people have lost homes, land, family members and livelihoods. While some see the conflict as a land dispute between two tribal groups and others see it as an extremest group that has gone "into the forest" to fight for land, what hasn't made the news is the numbers of people from both communities yearning for peaceful solutions.

These peacemakers were so keen to participate in the Healing and Rebuilding Our Community (HROC) workshops that they travelled for a full day by bus, matatu, motorbike or whatever they could find, and often borrowed the money for transport. They arrived in greater numbers than our little peace centre or the two facilitators were prepared for, and many people had to share beds.

The facilitators were from Burundi and Rwanda and they brought their personal experiences of war and genocide to the workshop, urging people to prevent similar escalations of violence. What amazed me most about the three day workshop was how quickly people changed from two groups to one. Some of the activities involved singing and laughter, which was a great source of healing and bonding, allowing people to find commonalities amongst the group.

One particular commonality that was discovered was a shared experience of loss and trauma as a result of the violence. Even though those attending the workshops were there because they wanted peace, it was often the first time in many years that they had interracted with those from the other group and the first time they had heard of the others' feelings and experiences.

As over 100 people complete this same process and return to Mt Elgon, I hope the enthusiasm for mobilising communities and a willingness to trust will continue and help heal the wounds that exist. Hopefully that and a commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation will eventually bring those in the forest to the negotiating table.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Buses, matatu's and boda-boda's

Just getting around Kenya has been a real adventure and we've enjoyed every minute. Nothing is quite what you expect. We decided to spend a couple of days in Kakamega National Park, and from Nairobi the journey to the forest was indeed memorable. First we took the regional bus, which was scheduled to take 7 hours, but the roads were bad, so it took closer to 10. As we got closer to Kakamega town, the regional bus seemed to morph into a local bus, picking up people carrying anything from live chickens to small trees who needed a lift down the road, and charging them a small fee. Although this meant a few detours for us, the plus side was that we could get dropped directly at the hotel.

The next morning we bought everything we would need for three days camping in a forest and headed for the National Park. We found a matatu which would take us part of the way there. Matatu's are very efficient mini-buses/utes that pile as many people on as they can, and then head off for their destination. I felt sorry for the lady who had to stand bent over for a fair bit of the ride.The Lonely Planet does mention that they're the most dangerous form of transport in Kenya, but we used them a lot in Nairobi, and the only accident we had was Pete slipping over on his bum in mud before he even got on the bus!

Then, once in the forest, we needed to negotiate a boda-boda (bicycle taxi), or more accurately 3 boda-boda's - one for me, one for pete and one for the bags! I just had to hang on with the hand that wasn't carrying the groceries. Because of the heavy rains, we had to get off and walk a couple of times, which was actually a welcome relief for me, as I was slightly scared of slipping off into a pile of mud and lying there as I did in the snow crying "I simply can't go on". But the journey ended very well, with no accidents, and we arrived to find ourselves staying in a delightful thatched cottage in the middle of the forest with little monkeys, chameleons, birds and butterflies all around us.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How the "other half" lives

After weeks of "slumming it" in cheap hotels, Pete and I decided to spend the day at the swimming pool of a posh hotel in order to find out how the other half lives. Of course, I say this with more than a touch of irony, because we know we represent not only the richest half of the world, but probably the richest 10%. The high wall of the Mena House Hotel allowed its residents to forget about those on the other side of the wall - people struggling to make a living selling scarves, fruit or driving taxis. We were amazed at the lengths staff had gone to to create a "home away from home" for rich westerners. If it wasn't for the huge pyramid towering above us, we could just as easily have been anywhere in the western world. It was nice to spend our last day of 40 degree Cairo heat lazing by the pool, but we do prefer experiencing a bit more of real life.

When we arrived in Nairobi, the temperature was much cooler, so no need for posh pools. In fact, the other day a friend of mine took me to see how the "real" other half lives. We visited the largest slum area in Nairobi - it stretches for 200kms. He told us that 60% of people in Nairobi live in slums, and the majority in these slum areas are single families, with many people suffering from HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Cholera, TB and other diseases that are far less common in Australia. It was a stark reminder of just how lucky we are.