Building Peace after the Violence in Kenya

CRS Board Member Dr. Carolyn Woo, dean of University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, recently returned from touring CRS projects in Ethiopia and Kenya. Other delegation members included her son Justin Bartkus, CRS Board Chairman Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, CRS Board Member Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, CRS Foundation Board Member Art Wigchers, and CRS’ Executive Vice President of Overseas Operations Sean Callahan. Here, Dean Woo shares final thoughts about her experiences in the field.

The last leg of our Africa trip was the most overwhelming for me.

In Kenya, we got a more detailed grassroots look at the violence that resulted after the election at the end of December 2007. While the trigger was mass reaction to election irregularities, the seething anger was stoked by ethnic divisions tied to unresolved tensions about rights to land. These differences, played up by politicians to create voter support, erupted in ways that took the average Kenyan by surprise. Approximately 1,000 people died while 600,000 (estimates varied) were displaced when neighbors turned on each other along ethnic lines to claim homes, livestock and land. People who had worked, lived and worshipped together suddenly looked upon each other with suspicion and, in some cases, with hostility. While the situation has calmed down and the Church is doing extraordinary peacebuilding work, the underlying factors remain. In addition, there are now new grievances, unclear accountability for those who incited the violence, and thousands of citizens still displaced.

In one of Mombasa’s slums, we walked with Emma, who works for the local diocese on peacebuilding in her neighborhood. This is home for her and her 9-year old son. In a place where the unemployment rate is 60%, Emma is one of few who are employed, but she worries about being mugged on a daily basis. She showed us the effort of a neighbor to build a stone side for his house to replace the straw that currently upholds the dwelling. He puts a few stones on when he has the money. But the stones don’t stay because they are taken away almost as soon as he puts them up. Emma tries to be home before sundown. I wondered what a challenge it must have been for her to get home the night the diocese held a celebration for us until 10 p.m. There is no light, no roads (just paths made muddy by rain) and little sense of safety.

In a later meeting with Cardinal Njue of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, it was clear to me that the diocese must reach out to business — not for philanthropy, but as a partner for development. The unemployment problem cannot be solved without engaging the business sector. Left alone, the problem could breed more violence. My advocacy for peace through commerce went from a rather intellectual level to the gut level. Perhaps this is the most important gift for my own education.

I emphasized to the Cardinal how the Catholic Church has successfully reached across many boundaries: from relief to economic development and from Christian brothers and sisters to partners of other faiths. The Church must now use its influence and highly sophisticated education of her leaders to convene business in addressing these issues. While business and Church will have different primary focuses, there are also common ground and common interests. Much depends on our recognizing and forging these common elements.

Finally, in a session at an AIDS clinic, we met with approximately 20 discordant couples, where one spouse is living with HIV and the other is not. Three women spoke about their hopelessness when they found out they were HIV positive. One, in her early or mid-20s, felt like both her marriage and her life would be over. They talked about the care that they received from the clinic and the restoration of their lives and livelihoods. I could not help but imagine for each couple the trauma to their marriage and what it took for the couple to stay together and care for each other. It was a much-needed reminder to me that forgiveness, healing and new hope are possible despite our own frailties and limitations.

I need to believe this because it is the only counterforce to violence. When I think pragmatically, I can’t help but note how easy it is to resort to violence and the Herculean efforts it takes to create peace. It is in such moments that I turn to God, who is not pragmatic and fortunately gives us love and grace beyond what we think is humanly possible.

I am convinced: Divide and we will be conquered. But with God’s grace, we can instead try a little harder to come together, suspending one grievance, one suspicion, one self-interest at a time. The alternative fills me with dread.

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