Friday, November 18, 2011

The Peace Testimony in an African context

By Valerie Hurwitz

Silas Wanjala, an ESR Master of Arts student, spoke about his thesis work during Peace Forum on Thursday, November 17th. He is writing his MA thesis in the area of Peace and Justice Studies, focusing particularly on the gospel of peace in Kenya. Since Kenya’s independence in 1963, all three of its presidents have faced high unemployment and economic stagnation. All three have allowed corruption and nepotism, favoring their own tribes over the others in politics. A one-party system asserted central control of the government until 1992, obscuring the democratic form of government laid out in the constitution. Kenya has 42 tribes (plus a fair number of Caucasians and Asians; Indians brought by the British to build the railroads), and tribal identity often takes precedence over national identity.

Silas is from Western Kenya, as are most Kenyan Quakers. The lands around Kitale, Kakamega, and Kaimosi (which are familiar names to Friends who have donated to FUM projects there) are a rich agricultural region. As such, many tribes have moved into this area, trying to take advantage of the land for farming or raising animals. When I visited this region in June, Kenyans mentioned that the decreasing availability of land and the diversity of tribes as both an advantage (leading to a familiarity between tribes) and a source of tension (as competition for resources grows).

The end of the single-party system in 1992 saw the start of a pattern of election violence that continued in 1997 and 2002. Given the tribal nepotism of the central government and high unemployment, tribes hoped that “their” candidate would be elected, bringing economic and political opportunities. The 2007 elections were contested, with international election observers saying that the elections were below standards and challenger Raila Odinga calling for a recount. In the ensuing violence, over 1,000 people were killed and over a half a million were displaced. Western Kenya, with its already diverse populations and strained natural resources, was hard-hit by the violence.

So why focus on a Christian gospel of peace? Silas has seen first-hand the effects of election violence and moreover has seen the ways that the Bible can be used to incite violence. There needs to be a biblical and theological underpinning for peace movements to be successful in this 80% Christian nation. Kenyan Quakers, already having a reputation for integrity and building on the post-election work that the Friends Church Peace Teams and the Alternatives to Violence Project did, can have a particular impact on this issue in Kenya. Silas sees his academic work as creating a theological and biblical grounding for peace work in Kenya that can support the current work of FCPT and AVP, while also transforming preaching and pastoral care to be more non-violent.

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

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