By Lillian Aluanga*
A wedding reception, a deserted home and the incessant rattle of gunfire are what it would take to change the life of a woman living in Kenya’s arid north.
The year was 1993 and a pilot working with UNICEF had just been shot dead in the dusty border town of Wajir, north east of the country, fanning an aura of frustration enveloping the town.
The pilot’s killing was one of several pointers to rising insecurity in an area already grappling with incessant drought and conflict.
So when Dekha Ibrahim Abdi arrived at her house one evening to find it deserted by her mother and daughter, she knew it had to do with the drums of war that had been sounding between the Ajuran and Degodia clans.
A political contest had pitted the two clans against each other, with tensions rising as the by-election date for the Wajir West constituency seat – now known as Wajir South after administrative changes – inched closer.
“I knew my family had sought refuge at a friend’s home,” says Abdi, a mother of four.
A 6.00 pm curfew had been imposed on the town and Abdi, then an employee of Nomadic Primary Healthcare, had little time to attend a wedding reception that would change her life.
“I was determined not to let the violence stop me from leading a normal life,” says Abdi, 46, a laureate of the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize and PWAG (1,000 Peace Women Across the Globe) woman.
Abdi’s harmless demeanour as she sips her tea in a quiet corner of a Nairobi restaurant belies the quiet strength that has come in handy during negotiations. She raises her right hand to adjust the silver pin fastened onto her green hijab and excuses herself as her phone rings.
The call is from a peace arbiter in Mogadishu desperately in need of Abdi’s help to get contacts in Nairobi. Such calls, for Abdi, whose first name means ‘Gift from God’, are common and could alter plans for her day which typically begins at 4.00 am, with prayer and reading of the Quran.
Usually her days are busy, with 200 in a year devoted to salaried work and 100 on voluntary activities which include serving on the Wajir Peace University Trust.
“People were freely mingling at the wedding reception. There were no clan differences, just smiling faces,” says Abdi.
Judging from small talk at the event, Abdi discovered she wasn’t the only one frustrated by the cycle of violence in the area.
A challenge thrown at her during the ceremony would lay a foundation for formation of Wajir Women For Peace.
“I was sharing a table with the boss of an NGO. He pledged his support if women would take up the challenge to promote peace,” adds Abdi.
But there were hurdles to overcome.
Back then, peace building was considered a male role, best left to businessmen, religious leaders and the provincial administration.
As is the case now, women’s representation at decision making levels in regional, national and international institutions and mechanisms for prevention, management and resolution of conflict, was far from impressive.
A 2009 UNIFEM study, for instance showed that only 2.4 per cent of signees to peace negotiations since 1992 were female. At the UN level, only 8 special representatives and deputy special representatives have been women so far.
It is perhaps based on such backgrounds that the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, which centres on prevention of new conflicts, participation of women, protection from violence, reconstruction, reintegration, relief and recovery, was birthed 10 years ago.
Gandhi and Mandela
The resolution which recognises thousands of peacewomen across the globe as actors of change resulted from lobbying by women’s groups and acknowledges their right to participate in peace negotiations, their influence on contents of peace agreements and reconstruction processes.
With the curfew still slapped on Wajir town and its environs, Abdi, like subjects of her favourite autobiographies, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, devised a mobilisation plan.
“We would meet between 5.00 pm and 5.45pm and visit homes in the villages to recruit more women,” she says.
The response was encouraging. Between June and July the group’s numbers swelled to about 70 women, also working as ‘market media representatives’.
In a society where women were largely overlooked on matters of conflict resolution, the group offered to share information with the provincial administration on the basis that the security concerns would be addressed.
Often the information was pieced together from marketplaces – usually centres where news of an impending attack between rival clans would filter.
But there was also some external help.
Besides Suzie Cohen, a doctor with UNICEF and a German, a Kenyan woman, Kadija Awale, who had worked in Mogadishu and witnessed the disintegration of Somalia, joined the group on peace missions.
Awale’s pleas not to turn Wajir into another Mogadishu worked, and more women, aware that they and their children suffered most in conflict, backed Abdi’s initiative.
Abdi mellows as she talks about her children, three daughters and a son aged between 19 and 10 years, and her husband Abdinoor, an ophthalmologist.
“It’s never easy being away from them, but I make some time for family, encourage the children to ask questions about my trips and call them everyday whenever am away,” says Abdi.
By 1995 Ibrahim’s group was collaborating with both the state and non state actors, later giving rise to the Wajir Peace Development Committee.
“The State knew how to use violence to bring peace but did not know how to bring peace without violence”, says Abdi.
For a region long accustomed to military prescience, Abdi’s approach of bringing together different clans and arbiters to resolve conflict was a fresh alternative that began to bear fruit.
“We used local level partnership to negotiate the return of stolen items transported across the border. We got better results by engaging with the community instead of sending in the armed forces,” says Abdi.
At the Mandera livestock market the approach was the same, using mediators to resolve conflicts which could easily arise from a business deal gone sour and turn into a gunfight in the villages.
By 1997 Abdi was part of the National Steering Committee for Peace, whose activities were largely low keyed until the takeover by the Narc regime in 2003.
Across borders Abdi’s work has seen her visit to Cambodia, Ethiopia, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Uganda, Zimbabwe, UK, Netherlands, South Africa and Sudan.
When chaos broke out in Kenya after a disputed election in 2007, Abdi was called to chair the Concerned Citizens For Peace. Kenya, she says, has come a long way from the 1990’s in implementing the UNSCR but adds that more remains to be done.
“It is now possible to openly talk about conflict resolution and peace. Women are getting more roles in peace processes as shown by inclusion of two ministers Dr Sally Kosgei (Agriculture) and the then Justice Minister, Martha Karua in the team that brokered the 2008 deal that birthed a Coalition government,” says Abdi.
Currently, every district in the country has a peace committee, where it is mandatory to have women representatives.
Abdi describes her model to peace building as inclusive of appropriate responses and use of multiple options to address conflict.
“The contexts may differ but the principles are the same. It’s also important to address underlying causes of the conflict,” adds Abdi.
She speaks of the 2008 deal and describes Kenya’s new Constitution, which for the first time entrenches greater representation of women at political, economic and social spheres, as a design for the future, but warns that transition may not be easy.
The deal, she says, was an important instrument that requires government’s commitment and political will for implementation.
“Ours was a ceasefire agreement, different from Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement which addresses issues like cessation,” she says.
Outside peace building, Abdi loves spending time with family and confesses to having a soft spot for vanilla ice cream and seafood. But lately she has also been on a spiritual journey and has been writing poetry in Somali and English.
“I have about 10 pieces but am yet to be published,” says Abdi who admits to having a ferocious appetite for books.
“Sometimes they form the bulk of my luggage and will include autobiographies and writings on peace building,” she says. (Oct. 2010)
* Lillian Aluanga is a Kenyan journalist reporting for Kenyan and foreign media.