Conversations promote peace after Kenya elections
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Three Maryknoll sisters give Kenyans time and space to heal from violent conflicts

|| by Teresa Hougnon, M.M. and Giang Nguyen, M.M.

We three Maryknoll sisters—Sia Temu, Giang Nguyen and Teresa Hougnon—feel blessed to play a small part in responding to one nation’s urgent need for peace. Since 2006, when we formed the Maryknoll Sisters Peace Team in Kenya, we have been facilitating and sharing in communities that are seeking peace, reconciliation and healing. We have witnessed people transform their lives, heal their wounds and choose nonviolent responses, all by talking to each other.

Kenya is home to 46 ethnic groups that have experienced violence every election year since multiparty politics was introduced in 1992. Citizens divided along ethnic lines became further divided with ethnicity as the basis for political parties. Ethnic leaders drummed up support by creating chaos and conflict among their followers. Our team, with Kenyan facilitators, began working to bring together Kenyans of diverse ethnic backgrounds—victims and perpetrators alike—to have conversations with each other. By sharing their own experiences and listening to others, participants come to know one another as human beings, not as the “enemy.”

The northwest town of Molo was one of the areas that suffered the most violence following the election of 2007/2008 in which 1,500 people were killed and some 300,000 displaced. Many were suffering from deep psychological wounds and seeking revenge when they joined one of our conversation groups of 14 people. We began with five minutes of silence, which was new for most of them and uncomfortable at first.

Then we invited each person to share briefly from his/her life experience. Many spoke of loss, anger and despair because of the violence.

As each person spoke for five minutes or less, everyone else listened. “When I heard the others express their anger,” one woman said, “I also was able to express mine, and it was no longer trapped in my heart.“

Maryknoll Sisters Peace Team stands with a “conversation” group.(S. Sprague/Kenya)

Meeting monthly over six months in Molo, people began to open up. Those who had harmed others or taken property asked for forgiveness and agreed to compensate those they had hurt. The community has now established a network for peace and sustainability so that they can prevent violence surrounding future elections.

One of the Molo men took peacebuilding a step further. He traveled with our team to Tana Delta, in southeastern Kenya, where we were meeting with communities that had experienced violent conflict after the 2012/2013 presidential election. When a man from Tana Delta talked of his desire for revenge, the man from Molo shared how he had sought revenge after his father’s death in the 2007 conflict. “I realized revenge was killing my family when I lost more relatives in the fighting,” he said, adding that he chose not to fight anymore and to build relationships. The two men spent more time in conversation and remain in contact. The man from Tana Delta has not sought revenge.

We have discovered that the wisdom and impulse for nonviolent solutions is in the people who have been most affected by the violence. In one village in Tana Delta with a school in the center, the Pokomo, an agricultural people, live on one side of the village and the Ormas, a pastoralist people, live on the other. Their ongoing disputes over land rights were exacerbated by the political conflict during which the sanctuary safety of the school was violated and children and elders who were hiding there were killed. The elders of the community asked us to help the people reconcile.

One day we brought together women from both sides to talk to each other, and the next day we did the same with the men. It was obvious they just needed a safe place to share their pain, to acknowledge the wrongdoing, and to know they all wanted peace.

At the end of the two days, they chose to reconcile and mark the reconciliation with a ceremony to which they invited the local government leader. He had tried to bring about reconciliation by offering programs, humanitarian aid and promises from foreign dignitaries. In the end, though, it was only the people themselves who could choose to put aside the violence.

We ourselves live in an intentionally diverse community. Sister Temu is Tanzanian, Sister Nguyen is Vietnamese American and Sister Hougnon is European American. We are committed to self-reflection as we strive to understand each other’s cultural differences. Acknowledging our own violent tendencies and lack of understanding helps us to choose another way and to listen to people who want to tell their story.

This ministry shows us that even a small group of people willing to go deeply into themselves and voice their experience, with encouragement from one another, can start a ripple effect in their communities for a nonviolent way of living, not just in Kenya but everywhere.

Featured Image: Sisters peace team (l. to r.) Giang Nguyen, Sia Temu and Teresa Hougnon. (S. Sprague/Kenya)

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About the author

Teresa Hougnon, M.M.

Sister Teresa Hougnon from Buena Vista, Colorado, has been a member of the Maryknoll Sisters Peace team in Kenya since 2006. She served previously in East Timor.