Involve me and I learn

Posted on 31/07/2019
By Elzeever Odhiambo

When I received an email from the Commonwealth Foundation inviting me to a roundtable on women and peace—I was ecstatic. Finally, I was going to have my say on peacebuilding at an international forum. On reviewing the profiles of the attendees, however, I soon became anxious; parliamentarians, presidential advisors, and international peace activists were set to attend, and I thought it best to keep my mouth shut, and resolve to listen and learn. But the meeting’s strength was drawn from its diversity: there were women from over 11 countries who had worked at very different levels of peace advocacy. The dialogue turned out to be one of the most important moments in my career as a peacebuilder.

I am involved in community policing in Kenya, where I do my best to bring communities and police together to cooperate and maintain peace and security. My work is primarily focused on the ‘forgotten’ parts of rural Kenya, where violent cattle theft and revenge attacks are the order of the day. I never suspected that my efforts would be recognised at the international level.

‘I noticed how the role of colour in conflict serves as an illuminating metaphor for the seeming vacuity of group differences’

My views and opinions were keenly listened to and acknowledged and I was asked many questions about my line of work. I explained that, without the presence of independent security forces in the areas of Kenya considered to be violent conflict zones, peace is impossible. This is why we must enlist the help of security agencies and cooperate closely with the police in our peace efforts and mediation strategies. In Baringo, for example, the establishment of Community Policing Committees and Forums has enabled locals to give the police crucial intelligence information. Plans to steal from or mete out revenge on communities have been thwarted as the police are able to swing into action without delay.

‘… our collective aim is to have women present at the negotiating table, and I now feel confident that young women should be accorded a seat’

The rich knowledge and wisdom in the room accounted for more than I can write about here, but one thing that struck me was that wherever you are in the world, conflict is similar—it is always one community of identity or ideology against another. I noticed how the role of colour in conflict serves as an illuminating metaphor for the seeming vacuity of group differences: in Kenya, during the 2007/2008 deadly post-election violence, the colours blue and orange were used to identify what side a person was on; in Northern Ireland, colour codes were used to identify Catholics and Protestants; and in Sierra Leone, the situation was so dire that you could not access services from government offices while adorning clothes of the ‘wrong’ colour.

As peacebuilders, young women are often alone in the field, so I am pleased to say that I made meaningful intergenerational connections during the meeting, including with a seasoned peace activist who has since become my mentor in the field. I decided to set aside the African rule of keeping distance from your elders and instead focus on creating reciprocal friendships regardless of title and age: for our collective aim is to have women present at the negotiating table, and I now feel confident that young women should be accorded a seat.

‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.’ ⁠— Benjamin Franklin

Elzeever Odhiambo is a community peace activist in Kenya.