Friday, September 28, 2007

Building peace in Mt Elgon

For the past three weeks the Peace Centre where I have been staying has hosted peacebuilding workshops with people from Mount Elgon in far western Kenya. I attended the second one, and it was my first time being directly part of such a process.

Mt Elgon has been experiencing violent conflict recently, to the extent that many people have lost homes, land, family members and livelihoods. While some see the conflict as a land dispute between two tribal groups and others see it as an extremest group that has gone "into the forest" to fight for land, what hasn't made the news is the numbers of people from both communities yearning for peaceful solutions.

These peacemakers were so keen to participate in the Healing and Rebuilding Our Community (HROC) workshops that they travelled for a full day by bus, matatu, motorbike or whatever they could find, and often borrowed the money for transport. They arrived in greater numbers than our little peace centre or the two facilitators were prepared for, and many people had to share beds.

The facilitators were from Burundi and Rwanda and they brought their personal experiences of war and genocide to the workshop, urging people to prevent similar escalations of violence. What amazed me most about the three day workshop was how quickly people changed from two groups to one. Some of the activities involved singing and laughter, which was a great source of healing and bonding, allowing people to find commonalities amongst the group.

One particular commonality that was discovered was a shared experience of loss and trauma as a result of the violence. Even though those attending the workshops were there because they wanted peace, it was often the first time in many years that they had interracted with those from the other group and the first time they had heard of the others' feelings and experiences.

As over 100 people complete this same process and return to Mt Elgon, I hope the enthusiasm for mobilising communities and a willingness to trust will continue and help heal the wounds that exist. Hopefully that and a commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation will eventually bring those in the forest to the negotiating table.

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