Claiming the Peace Testimony: My Experience with Kenyan Friends

I thought I was going to Kenya for a vacation. For the first few weeks that was the case. I stayed with an old college friend, visited game parks, met many Kenyans, and saw some of their beautiful country. I also met and worshiped with Kenyan Quakers I had met last summer in Ireland at the FWCC Triennial. At the end of December, things changed tragically in Kenya. What had promised to be a very close but peaceful national election turned violent. Both sides claimed victory. The incumbent president was hastily sworn in before the opposition could contest the disputed results. Violence erupted almost immediately. Political campaign rhetoric had stirred up old tribal and class conflicts. Amidst credible charges of vote rigging, rhetoric now turned into tribal and class violence. Hundreds were killed by mobs and by the police in the first days. Thousands, soon to be more than half a million, became internal refugees because they were of the "wrong" tribe in the "wrong" part of the country. A procession of foreign leaders and dignitaries came to Nairobi to try to mediate the political crisis, but had little success. As the political stalemate dragged on, violence and suffering increased. What had started as a dispute about the election became the occasion for settling old scores of all kinds. Kenyans were in shock. Theirs was a stable peaceful country. They thought what had happened in other African countries could not happen in Kenya. But it was.

I struggled to know what I should do as a visiting Quaker. I had retired from AFSC in May as the head of peace-building. I learned the civil society organizations were meeting every morning. People could come and share stories about what was happening, and the groups could coordinate a response to the crisis. I renewed contacts with Kenyan Quakers, and learned the Friends Church of Kenya, comprising 13 yearly meetings, had issued a first-ever public statement to the political leaders to end the violence and settle the crisis. The Friends International Center and Friends Church on Ngong Road is close to the Nairobi’s Kibera slum, one of Africa’s largest and worst. Friends were expanding their work there, and helping people who had fled their homes.

When Friends learned of my work on peace in the U.S., and that I spoke among Friends on the spiritual foundation of our Peace Testimony, I was asked to share what I knew. Friends in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, and South Africa dealing with war have focused on peace. Kenyan Friends have focused on HIV/AIDS, AIDS orphans, education, and poverty. They had not worked on peace, because their country was not at war until now. Over the next two weeks, I traveled among Friends and witnessed Kenyan Friends claim their heritage as an Historic Peace Church.

In addition to speaking and sharing experience and singing, I tried to be a prayerful presence. In the midst of crisis, people need visits, encouragement, and listening. Through prayer and listening I was greatly blessed and enriched. I also wanted Friends in Kenya to know that my presence with them was but a symbol of the love and prayers for them sent by Friends around the world.

Almost everyone was traumatized to one degree or another. In such times, people need to tell their stories and need to know they are listened to. I listened to many stories both of horror and of extraordinary courage.

One woman told me fearfully that her brother-in-law was of "the targeted group"—code for Kikuyu. (Most Friends are Luhya, a tribe not directly involved in the violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo.) Her sister, who was Luhya, was under enormous pressure from neighbors to dissolve the marriage of many years and leave her husband, who had gone into hiding to escape community violence. These stories of the pressures on long-term inter-tribal marriages are common now in Kenya.

A student at Friends Theological College told me of a terrifying trip from Nairobi to Kaimosi (usually about six hours by car over bad roads) with his brother and two sisters. They were stopped by one of the many gangs who set up illegal roadblocks in the highway. The gang stoned the car and forced it off the road. The gang intended to kill them all after raping the women. Somehow the way the women resisted the rape deterred the gang, and the group was able to talk their way to freedom and safety. The student believed God had saved them. So did I. I heard other stories of travel that ended in injury or death.

I talked with several people who had lost close family members to the violence, just because they were of the wrong group or in the wrong place. I heard of families sleeping outside their homes, despite the threat of malaria mosquitoes, because houses were being burned by mobs in their area. They did not dare sleep in the house nor wish to abandon it to the looters. The pastor of the Friends Church in Eldoret talked of what it meant to try to care for 60 families that had taken refuge in the Friends church compound after another Eldoret church had been burned with people inside it.

A woman, who was sheltering her neighbors secretly in her house, asked me if it violated the Testimony on Integrity that she lied to the mob and told them her neighbors were not there. Thinking of those who had hidden Jews from the Nazis, I said I was sure she had done the right thing—sometimes life gives us conflicting testimonies and we have to choose as best we can.

Staff at the Kaimosi Friends hospital were treating people shot with arrows. A dispute over a stolen cow in a nearby village escalated into violence over an old feud. Five people were seriously wounded, two were dead.

In Nairobi, I talked with a businessman whose wholesale business had been looted and burned by a mob from the Kibera slum within minutes of the announcement of the presidential elections. His business happened to be in a shopping mall near a targeted store, and all the shops there were looted and burned.

I saw the aftermath of the rioting in Kisumu, a city of about 500,000 on Lake Victoria. Although much of the business district was normal, shops owned by targeted groups (Kikuyu and Asians) were looted and burned. The road we traveled to go to church on Sunday were still partially blocked by rocks, burned-out cars, and the remains of burned tires. Everywhere, even on calm days, there was an underlying fear that deadly violence from police or a mob could erupt at any time.

And in this crisis, our Kenyan Friends stood up to claim their testimony as an Historic Peace Church. Many times I heard Friends say, "We have been asleep. We did nothing on the Peace Testimony because we thought Kenya was a peaceful country. Now we must act."

Friends were hungry for the biblical foundation of the Peace Testimony, which is beyond politics. They also needed to know what other Friends in other times and places have done for peace in our own violent and warlike countries. Only Kenyans, of course, can decide how God is leading them in their witness, but we all learn and benefit from hearing and sharing with one another.

Although my talk varied somewhat as I was led, the biblical foundation I emphasized was the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), especially the section on loving our enemies (Matt. 5:38-48). The presence of God in each person, although based on John 1, seemed less compelling in the circumstance. In sharing other Friends work on peace, I emphasized humanitarian work that serves all people and reaches out to the enemy (particularly post-World War I and post-World War II relief), development of skilled negotiation and mediation work (such as that by Adam Curle, Kevin Clements, and others), nonviolent movements for justice (such as ending slavery in the U.S. and British Empire, women’s suffrage, U.S. civil rights movement), opposition to war (Vietnam, Iraq, nuclear weapons), skills and training for communities and individuals (Alternatives to Violence Project and trauma healing work), providing a neutral place where all sides can come and talk safely (such as in Northern Ireland and at the Quaker UN Office). Sometimes we succeeded, and sometimes not. Sometimes success took a long time. In each case I emphasized reaching out to the enemy and the marginalized, and seeing the human face. These examples opened up possibilities that Kenyan Friends then explored. At the Peace Conference, they decided to do humanitarian work with displaced people not reached by the agencies, to greatly expand the AVP and trauma-healing workshops already present through the Africa Great Lakes Initiative/Peace Teams work, and to preach and teach peace in their churches, their schools, and to their nation.

I am thankful that I was led to Kenya at such a time. My prayers are with Kenyan Friends as they add their own chapter to the heritage of the Peace Testimony.

Mary Lord

Mary Lord is a member of Adelphi (Md.) Meeting and attends Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. She recently retired as assistant general secretary for Peace and Conflict Resolution of American Friends Service Committee.