Building social friendship does not only call for rapprochement between groups who took different sides at some troubled period of history, but also for a renewed encounter with the most impoverished and vulnerable sectors of society. For peace “is not merely absence of war but a tireless commitment – especially on the part of those of us charged with greater responsibility – to recognize, protect and concretely restore the dignity, so often overlooked or ignored, of our brothers and sisters, so that they can see themselves as the principal protagonists of the destiny of their nation”.(FT 233)
The reflection of the Encyclical on the process of social reconciliation brings to the fore the importance of the approach and cultural understanding of such reparative and regenerative praxis. After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and in response to the numerous confllicts that plagued the Continent, Africa has become the theatre of endless projects and reconciliation intiatives, guided by Western approaches. As Sultan Somjee1 acutely observed, this trend – far from offering real solutions – has instead undermined living traditions of peace and disempowered African people:
The belief in Utu, or humanity, recalls the living presence of the Supreme One, nature and ancestors as agencies that guard community welfare. The elders are the mediators as bearers of wisdom, and the people are the collective and enduring witnesses. However, we live on a conflicted continent where previous colonization, and present modernization under nationalist governments marginalize the indigenous communities and tend to overlook people-based knowledge in its rich diversity.
There are the two main unresolved paradoxes affecting conflicts in Africa:
1. Africa has enormous resources yet there is enormous poverty which often leads to conflicts.
2. Africa has rich peace, conflict resolution and mediation traditions yet there are wars.
Both the management of resources and reconciliation for the maintenance of peace come under the administration of the nationalist governments.
(…) African leaders lack confidence in their people’s approaches to conflict resolution that would help to develop African thinking towards a closure of the decades-long wars. Implicitly, the situation reflects on lack of belief among the leaders in their abilities to perform as Africans drawing on their historical and cultural experiences. Such experiences are evidently required to mediate ethnicity-based conflicts. The missing trust reflects on an inherited colonial complex that the negotiators take to the table.
(…) The gist of the argument is that the ruling elites exclude people’s participation to end violence. Instead, in some cases, the regimes have been complicit in flaring up ethnic violence. The result is devastating, as we have seen from the unremitting post-independence chaos, looting of the national resources, environmental devastation and killings in the Eastern African region – Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and the Congo, since 1960.
(…) Africa in conflict with itself makes a good business partner. In the long term, such a business model carries risks to permanently exclude voices of continent-based community thinkers, activists, artists and intellectuals and their crucial contributions to peace and utu. The dire eventuality is that the younger generations in their formative years, who can come up with creative alternatives to peace and governance, are kept away from an intellectual inheritance converted into other impotent, primitive, obsolete and banal custom of the tribal past.
In other words, the diversity of native-grown and body-centered points of view derived through the dynamic relationality of the arts – material culture, dance, song and the affective linguistic heritages – are undervalued in favour of the imported. The indigenous-foreign dichotomy has altered the social character of the vibrant rural communities and generated a new set of values laden with problems due to restricted access to critical communal dialogues, thinking and continuity of intellectual traditions from one generation to another leading to the deprivation in the value of ancestral memories.
The community peace museums were started to harvest the memories of ancestral wisdom and salvage fragments of the living arts of reconciliation for upholding social equity and communal wellbeing. The peace museums present an alternative to the ‘peace-conflict resolution and dialogue’ institutions that have proliferated through the numerous NGOs in the eastern African region especially after the Rwandan massacre in 1994.
So effective have the foreign backed organizations been that the variety of time-tested ethnic reconciliation approaches are subsumed beneath the uniformity and formulaic methods offered by the colonial academy. Consequently, within a few decades, centuries of traditions and bodily arts-based human expressions and knowledge, which link an array of continental heritages sustaining peace, have been rapidly declining.
The decline has sadly diminished the cultural lexicon that carries vast verbal and visual images derived from working the land and supporting the balance of the physical and spirit worlds as revered in the local belief systems. It continues to weaken the culturally appropriate ways of seeing, saying and hearing, and thus reasoning for the closure of conflicts in a way acceptable to the majority. It cleanses the native in oneself to be the modern other. The corpus of Western canons engages in appropriating and managing, if not actually denigrating the African narrative at the grassroots while continuing to build the colonial academy. I use the word denigrating intentionally.
As a missionary living and ministering in the informal settlements of Nairobi, I had the opportunity of experiencing directly together with the local Christian community the regenerating potential of African peace and reconciliation traditions. It has been a transformative encounter with the Risen One, whaich has impacted our life and faith, and this is the story.
The Kariobangi Massacre
On the night between February 28 and March 1, 2002, a member of a vigilante group known as the Talibans was killed while on patrol on the roads of Kariobangi, Nairobi. His colleagues, once they realised what had happened, set themselves on a revenge mission. They apprehended three suspects and killed them that very night. These three young men happened to belong to a sect known as Mungiki, which in retaliation swept the roads of Kariobangi on the evening of Sunday 3rd March, killing 25 people and maiming and injuring scores of others. All this would have become known as the Kariobangi massacre.
I participated in the long journey of healing and reconciliation that involved the survivors and the community of Kariobangi. Life in the neighbourhoods came to a standstill. It was then that for the first time all churches, mosques and religious groups came together for the first time and organised a public rally to pray for peace. An inter-faith committee was set up and started visiting the survivors and accompany them in their terrible situation. Visiting the victims was a concrete act of solidarity, bringing to them prayers and counselling. Listening to them enabled the pastors to carry out also a discrete advocacy work, aimed at making the all but smooth governmental relief operations reach the needy. All this brought consolation to the victims and a special encouragement came by experiencing unity, seeing the religious leaders working together, praying together and assisting them by sharing their counsel and faith.
On the other hand, the issue of violence and insecurity did not show remarkable signs of improvement, quite the contrary! Even though the peace ministry that was carried out brought consolation and contributed to prevent acts of revenge, common criminality and violence kept on terrorising the residents. For example, Patrick Onjiko, who had lost a son on March 3, lost a second one – only 14 years old! – due to mob violence on July 1. This situation was compounded by the harsh police operations, at the same time controlling crime and harassing residents. It was since the beginning clear, however, that public security needed to be addressed firmly, through the institution of a police post in Kariobangi and a community policing programme.
It was therefore apparent that a short term approach to curb violence would not have been sustainable. The slum culture of death is so dominant that it needs to be addressed with a long term programme. That is how the religious leaders in their sharing started thinking of a common effort to come up with a joint peace education programme, targeting, at different stages, their own congregations at first, and then also children and youngsters. People’s consciousness and spirituality need to encounter a deep, life giving culture of peace.
The Community Peace Museums of Kenya
Among other initiatives, such a committee invited the Community Peace Museums of Kenya to contribute to the process of social reconstruction. The situation was so tensed, volatile and shocking that nobody actually knew exactly how to redress it. Everybody was affected in one way or another. Much more so the victims themselves and their closest relatives, who were clearly suffering a deep loss and brokenness because of their dear ones killed and the deprivation of their livelihoods and physical capacities. They were living in fear of further revenge and violence, and of a future that appeared largely compromised and not promising anything good. Moreover, they were finding themselves in a situation of isolation, feeling deserted, with a disturbing sense of social and economic vulnerability.
I would like to bear witness to three specific moments along the journey of healing in which the heritage of peace displayed an impressive power of regeneration. We participated in such events as a Christian community, part of a wider inter-religious network formed right after the massacre to advocate for peace and reconciliation.
The first encounter between the survivors of the massacre and the Community Peace Museums occurred on Madaraka Day (a national feast day) June 1, 2002. Elders and field assistants from various peace museums came to Kariobangi and brought peace trees and staves. They started with sharing their own experiences of violence and healing, showing how they went about reconstructing their lives and the community after very serious divisions and suffering, such as at the time of the colonial occupation and the Mau Mau struggle for independence. They shared about the role of peace traditions and symbols in reconciling the community and gave illustrations of how they personally experienced them. The people of Kariobangi, sitting in a circle, listened very attentively to the elders. Then came their turn to respond by opening up, telling their stories, their experiences of the night of violence, of the aftermath, and their feelings. Some of them were just holding a peace tree, looking at it intently as they talked.
My observation was that a safe place was created for people to take the risk to open up and share their feelings, sorrows, and experiences. Moreover, the sharing on peace traditions and symbols offered a sort of road map on how possibly to express and redress feelings, experiences, and relationships. It was like giving a starting point and a sense of direction to transform the negative events. I was impressed by the level of depth that peace symbols can reach in the heart of people, reconnecting them to the living and to the dead. For example, mama Agneta, who had lost her husband and her first born on March 3rd 2002, took her small peace tree, borrowed money and travelled back to the village, where she planted the tree on the tomb of her husband. Since then, we saw her transformed, she was at peace and took up a sort of new mission in life to promote peace and reconciliation in the community.
It was at the end of that first encounter that unanimously the decision was taken to go and visit Agikuyu Peace Museum in Nyeri. This was no light decision, since in the perception of the survivors Nyeri was something like the centre of Mungiki. But once again, the presence of the Peace Museum and of friends gave them courage to take the risk and go. Interestingly enough, we had on the same bus both the people hit by the violence perpetrated by the Mungiki, and the parents of the three Mungiki boys who had been killed on the night between February 28th and March 1st.
The Agikuyu Peace Museum
Once in Nyeri, local community members warmly receive the group and some of the elders started palying music and singing old Mau Mau songs. Interestingly enough, these are not hymns to war, but rather peace songs. The lyrics are explained, since most of the guest did not know kikuyu. Spontaneously the ladies among the group of visitors stood up and started dancing, and then all joined in the celebration. So we realised how powerful celebrations can be in learning, understanding, making sense of life and healing. The message goes down deep to the heart. The elders made use of narratives, proverbs and traditional wisdom, and reached out to the soul of their guests. Slowly the participants started to open up. Some, who were participating for the first time, managed to drop their anger and move on. Others, who had already passed that stage, were prompted to contribute to the sharing with enthusiasm. The bottom line was that this celebration of life within terrible, violent events still fresh in the minds of Kariobangians re-awakened people’s sense of identity and worth, the sense of being alive. Also, fears disappeared as we came in touch with communities’ traditions of peace building and the realization of how much different communities and peoples have in common. Moreover, the reconnection with their roots helped people to overcome their sense of isolation and loss, giving them a healthy sense of pride and purpose. Then the group visited the peace trees garden at Othaya, where a ceremony was conducted to reconcile the community still affected by feuds dating back to the emergency time. Four Agikuyu peace trees (underscoring four different dimensions of peace) were blessed in a religious service at the Catholic Church and planted on the mass grave. People understood this well, as the Cleansing and Healing of Earth. And a different atmosphere is today hovering on Othaya; people say they perceive it.
Inspired by that story of healing, a proposal was readily accepted: namely, to think of a Peace Trees Park in Kariobangi as a memorial and a “peacemaker”, hence taking up the responsibility (coming from the healing process) of educating the community about peace and reconciliation.
At the end of the day, the most striking event happens. Mzee Thuku, formerly a Mau Mau oath giver, who was holding a high status in the freedom fighters movement, officially announces that the Agikuyu elders of Nyeri have set up a fund for the victims of the Mungiki violence in Kariobangi. Such an initiative of solidarity is underscored by the gift of the Agikuyu women who presented produce from their shamba to their guests. All this created bonding and a sense of communion, which reduced the sense of vulnerability in the survivors from Kariobangi and created new relationships.
The Peace Trees Garden
The third event is about the initiation of a peace trees garden at Kariobangi, on September 14th, 2002, in an open celebration various peace trees were presented, embodying the ancient African tradition of good governance, justice, reconciliation and peace. It was explained that almost every ethnic community in Kenya has a sacred Peace Tree. Their roots spread and unite all people. Various trees were presented together with narratives showing their meaning, use and role in the traditional societies. Elders from the Jaluo and Agikuyu communities planted a murembe tree in the presence of the survivors, the larger community and dignitaries. Thus the Kariobangi Peace Trees Park was initiated. This garden is a sign of reconciliation and peace building in an environment where for a variety of reasons there are long lasting tensions between the two communities. Murembe is the peace tree in the Luhyia community and it is from this tree that the word peace – mirembe – comes. Since then, the garden is always taken care of, and in many occasions the parish priest noticed that people meet in this small garden to talk and sort out their differences. In other words, this small garden is still a respected and effective community asset.
The missionary meaning
This experience illustrates Reconciliation as one of the six dimensions of mission, as Bevans and Schroeder argue in their reflection in Prophetic Dialogue. Reflections on Christian Mission Today2 (2011). In their rivisitation of the history and theology of mission, Bevans and Schroeder present reconciliation as a litmus test of the relevance and significance of the Christian proclamation of the healing force of God; besides, it also proclaims that through the grace of Jesus Christ all hostility and divisions can be overcome, and in fact those who are divided can become one people. Reconciliation is not a matter of strategies and techniques, rather a spirituality, as also the indigenous cultural heritage showed us.
Secondly, we have experienced that the dimension of reconciliation is deeply connected to the other five dimensions of mission: witness and proclamation; liturgy, prayer and contemplation; justice, peace and integrity of Creation; dialogue, and inculturation. We need to approach mission holistically, rather than by compartments. As one can infer from the narrative of our case study, all such dimensions have been present – in fact, they overlap – in that journey of life and faith.
Thus the call to decolonize reconciliation has a great significance for mission. It asks us to enter into dialogue with indigenous cultures and spirituality, and learn from them, find the seeds of the Word and the action of the Spirit already at work in them. On the other hand, the Christian community has been led to a deeper experience of and encounter with the Risen One, and reconnect their experience of faith with their own cultural and spiritual roots. While as an expatriate, from a different worldview, I have experienced aspects of the mystery of Jesus Christ that were new to me, thus expanding my relationship with Him.
1Somjeee, S. (2018) “Decolonizing Reconciliation: Changing the narrative to the indigenous museums of peace in Kenya and South Sudan”, Public Lecture – Florida International University, Miami October 23rd, http://dpanther.fiu.edu/sobek/content/FI/KH/00/00/17/00001/2018%20October%2023rd%20Public%20Lecture%20FIU.pdf
2Bevans, S.B. – Schroeder, R.P. (2014) Dialogo profetico. La forma della missione per il nostro tempo. Bologna: EMI.