Dekha Abdi
( 2007 , Kenya )

... for showing in diverse ethnic and cultural situations how religious and other differences can be reconciled, even after violent conflict, and knitted together through a cooperative process that leads to peace and development.

The participation in a peace process is not about the mathematics of numbers and percentages in relation to who is in majority or minority. It is about plurality, diversity, participation...


Dekha Ibrahim Abdi was a global peacemaker from rural Kenya. She was engaged in peace work and conflict resolution in many of the world’s most divided countries. Her comprehensive methodology combined grassroots activism, a soft but uncompromising leadership, and a spiritual motivation drawing on the teachings of Islam.

Contact

Dekha Ibrahim Abdi
PO Box 3032
Post Code 80100
Mombasa
KENYA

Dekha Ibrahim Abdi passed away on July 14th, 2011, after a severe car accident.

Biography

Early career

Dekha’s early life

Dekha Abdi, born in Wajir in 1964, grew up in a mixed neighbourhood of different ethnic groups and religions. Although a Muslim, her closest childhood friends were Christian and of a different ethnic group. At secondary school, students were divided along religious and ethnic lines into two camps, but Dekha and her friends created a space between these opposing camps by sticking together; a space which grew as it was joined by many other students who did not want to chose one camp over the other. These early actions were the backbone of her philosophy of inter-religious co-operation and subsequent peace work. She was convinced that working towards positive relations between different groups and faiths is crucial in order to achieve durable peace.

Starting a grassroots peace initiative: The Wajir Peace Comittee

Wajir is one of the Northern Kenyan districts that was under emergency law from 1963 to 1990, with government forces fighting an active guerrilla movement (the Shifta war). When the emergency and quasi-occupation ended, the security situation deteriorated even more. There was an open conflict which claimed 1500 lives, and which resulted in a lot of hatred between different clans. In 1992, Dekha and other women as well as concerned men started a grassroots peace initiative, bringing together people from all clans. Despite opposition from the traditional clan leaders (elder men), they began to organise mediati …

Dekha’s early life

Dekha Abdi, born in Wajir in 1964, grew up in a mixed neighbourhood of different ethnic groups and religions. Although a Muslim, her closest childhood friends were Christian and of a different ethnic group. At secondary school, students were divided along religious and ethnic lines into two camps, but Dekha and her friends created a space between these opposing camps by sticking together; a space which grew as it was joined by many other students who did not want to chose one camp over the other. These early actions were the backbone of her philosophy of inter-religious co-operation and subsequent peace work. She was convinced that working towards positive relations between different groups and faiths is crucial in order to achieve durable peace.

Starting a grassroots peace initiative: The Wajir Peace Comittee

Wajir is one of the Northern Kenyan districts that was under emergency law from 1963 to 1990, with government forces fighting an active guerrilla movement (the Shifta war). When the emergency and quasi-occupation ended, the security situation deteriorated even more. There was an open conflict which claimed 1500 lives, and which resulted in a lot of hatred between different clans. In 1992, Dekha and other women as well as concerned men started a grassroots peace initiative, bringing together people from all clans. Despite opposition from the traditional clan leaders (elder men), they began to organise mediation between the warring parties (with representatives of minority groups acting as moderators). When an agreement was in place, they set up the Wajir Peace Committee, with representatives of all parties – clans, Government security organs, Parliamentarians, civil servants, Muslim and Christian religious leaders, NGOs etc. – to implement the agreement. Dekha, who had been working as coordinator for a mobile primary health care project for nomadic people, was elected as Secretary of the Peace committee hence undertaking dual roles.

Reaching out

The model developed in Wajir, which Dekha described as “a peace and development committee – a structure for responding to conflict at a local level”, was used again in 1998, when the Christian community in Wajir experienced some violence. Dekha assisted in the formation of a disaster committee of Muslim women to assist and make amends with the Christian community. They held prayer meetings with Muslim and Christian women, in which both shared their experience and thereby strengthened their relationship. Subsequently the Wajir Peace Committee began to include Christian women, leading to the formation of an inter-faith committee for peace which has undertaken further activities to intervene in religious conflicts.

Fostering inter-faith dialogue and attempting to resolve tensions and conflict between religions had been a central focus of Dekha’s activity since her first involvement in working for peace, and her methods have now been copied not only elsewhere in Kenya, but in Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Africa. In addition, Dekha has taught in Somalia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Canada, Cambodia, Philippines, Ghana, Nigeria, Netherlands, Zimbabwe, and the UK.

In 1996-97 Dekha was team leader for the Community Development training programme of the Arid Lands Resource Management Project in Kenya. She has written extensively and was the Organising Board Member of Nomadic and Pastoralists Development Initiative, a Kenyan rural development initiative. Also in 1997 she was a founding member of the regional Coalition of Peace in Africa (COPA). As East African Regional Coordinator, she was involved in the Linking Peace Practice to Policy (LPP) programme of the COPA, funded by Comic Relief in the UK. LPP seeks to support and link communities in volatile areas in conflict prevention and peace-building work. Dekha also, in 1998, became Training and Learning Co-ordinator of Responding to Conflict (RTC) which engages in conflict transformation: planning, organizing and facilitating a range of conflict resolution training programmes. She was also a Board Member of Co-existence International, an initiative committed to strengthening the field of policymakers, practitioners, researchers, advocates, organizations and networks promoting co-existence. Dekha was a founding Member of a Global Peace Practitioners Network ACTION for conflict transformation and since September 2000, had been a member of a consortium of African and international conflict transformation specialists working together on development of a series of intensive, participatory workshops for the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). UNDESA assists governments and civil society partners in sub-Saharan Africa to strengthen their capacities for anticipating, containing and managing conflict situations. Since 2002 Dekha had also been a patron of the London-based NGO Peace Direct. She worked towards inter-religious/ethnic co-operation in this capacity through co-facilitating a project which aimed to provide a platform for young Muslims from all UK backgrounds, after the London bombings, to explore issues and challenges around being a Muslim and British in current UK society. Dekha was a Member of the International Advisory Board of the University of Ulster, INCORE London-Derry, North Ireland. She was a Board Member of the Berghof Center in Germany.

Dekha last lived in Mombasa and worked on peace, conflict and development issues with a number of organisations. She raised funds to support community groups in peace-building and communication infrastructure and continued to work for the Wajir community with young people to create economic development. She supported Peace Practitioners through mentoring and coaching in order to create a second generation of peace workers in Kenya and on the Horn of Africa.

In Mombasa she has supported the setting up of the Oasis of Peace Centre, helping the local communities in Kikambala to do some basic mediation, and she worked as an advisor to the Kenyan government for mediation work in different parts of the country.

In 1999 Dekha was awarded the Distinguished Medal for Service by the District Commissioner for Wajir on behalf of the Kenyan Government, and in 2005 was named Kenyan Peace Builder of the Year. She was also nominated as one among 1000 women for the Nobel Prize in 2005, now known as 1000 Peace women across the globe, and received the 2009 Hessian Peace Prize (Germany).

Qu’ran’s teaching as background

Dekha’s religious and spiritual identity as a Muslim formed a strong foundation for her peace work. Her religious beliefs informed her vision of how peace is to be achieved. She referred to and explored the Qu’ran’s teaching on understanding the soul in the context of outlining what is necessary for bringing about a sincere and durable peace. Indeed, Dekha encouraged individuals and communities affected by conflict to critically analyse themselves using verses from the Qu’ran, which she stated would enable them to build their conflict transformation on a religious and spiritual base.

Dekha’s principles for comprehensive peace building

Dekha defined a set of principles that summarise her experience of comprehensive peace building, linking peace theory and policy with pragmatic action¸ and private lobbying/advocacy with public mobilisation. Sometimes she expressed this through the acronym AFRICA: Analysis, Flexibility, Responsiveness, Innovation, Context- specific and awareness, and Action/learning-orientation.

 
 

Interview with Dekha Ibrahim Abdi

Questions asked in 2007

Q: You have never attended university courses on peace and conflict resolution. How did you learn?

A: I agree, I have not studied full time at university. I have done short university courses here and there.

Learning takes place in and out of university. I have combined practice (a pragmatic approach) learning, reflection and writing. Learning is a life long process, but in relation to the learning of peace building and conflict transformation my journey started in 1992-3 from observing the practice of the elders, government officials, religious leaders, and women leaders by being there and a support to them.

However, I got the opportunity to study for 2 weeks in Bergen, Norway, in January 1994, looking at the aspect of trauma and children. There I met other professionals mainly from former Yugoslavia. Later, in April 1994 to July 1994, I studied for three months at Birmingham, UK, an intensive  course organised by a British charity called ‘Responding To Conflict’. The course was entitled “working with conflict”. This course has been a turning point in my life as it systemized my knowledge and experience and gave me the conceptual understanding, and my work and experience made sense. While on the course the tutors used a lot of my own case studies to teach mediation. I learnt later that during the application they almost refused to admit me on the course on the basis that I did not need it. I am glad they accepted it as I have kept the relation with the organization to date.

After my studies I put into practice training and peace activism and later went back for further learning. I wanted to study full time but never got a scholarship to do so, so I ended up doing short courses. In 1998 I attended a six weeks course at Eastern Mennonite University in the USA. This course also opened for me the world of writing. It was an international course and when I gave an example in classes the fellow participants asked where I read the example. When I replied that it is life experience they were shocked and encouraged me to write, and that began my journey in writing in which I made contributions to the book called Working with Conflict, Skills and Strategies for Peace, by Zed Books, 2000.

Q: Do you think it is possible to learn about peace only from university courses?

Comprehensive learning requires both university setting, as well as practical learning in the field. Important too, is to find space to reflect on the study and the practical work. To study at university contributes to the learning process but is not the only way. In 1998 I met my High School classmate, Abdirashid Hussein, at George Mason University Washington who has completed a masters degree. We exchanged experiences and he told me: “Dekha, I can write and tell you all about mediation and negotiation but I don’t think I can mediate between two chickens.” This showed the limitation of myself and Abdirashid, that we need both university courses as well as the day to day practice.

Q: What do you think are the biggest mistakes a peace worker can make?

A: To think that they can sort out people’s problems. We are enablers, facilitators. We do not have answers and the answers lie with the conflicting parties. Ours is to help with the process so that at the end they will say: “We did it, we sorted it out.”

Q: You bring together Muslims and Christians, at the same time you encourage people to analyse themselves using verses from the Quran. How do Christians react to your Quran teaching?

A: In mixed training we always have mixed training teams of Muslims and Christians and I request my Christian colleagues to find the equivalent from the Bible or African traditional religion. In many such instances my Christian friends have appreciated it to be able to link their spirituality to their work.

Q: Why do you work so much with women?

A: I am a woman and naturally the best place where I started my peace work was with women though not only with women. Women have an important role in our society when tension and division are so high and intense. I found that women’s roles are the most effective in building bridges of social relations, trust and confidence, which are crucial for other public processes that start later like dialogue and mediation.

Q: What were and are your major obstacles and opponents?

A: I have learnt that people or institutions that I used to see as obstacles did actually either not understand my motivations and vision or were looking for ways to be included into the process. In the political climate of Kenya in the 1990s to 2002, Government officials were very hostile to our work and made it very difficult both at personal and public level. Peace was seen as reserved for the Government only. It took patience, persistence and perseverance to make them understand. Now a lot of them are converted and transformed to the point of now looking back with regrets that they wished they had learnt from us then.

While I was facilitating a workshop for Government officials at the end of September 2007, a former district officer Mr Mbaruku whom I worked with in Wajir stated that he never appreciated our work and saw me, the coordinating secretary, as a bother. He regrets it now, and wished if he had used his time wisely as a learning opportunity and engaged with peace process then, it would have been more beneficial.

Vision need to be a shared vision by all and having the patience to bring all on has been an internal obstacle within myself. I had to learn to appreciate the contribution and growth of all at their own pace.

Q: Can you give us an example of how you influenced peace work in other countries outside Kenya? 

A: Two neighbouring states of Somalia and Ethiopia are my immediate examples as well as Afghanistan.

In Somalia and the local border areas adjacent to Kenya, the local community has used our model of working together and using a variety of approaches in transforming violent local conflict. For example, in Elwak District of Gedo Region, Somalia, in September 2005 we supported the local community and shared with them our experience of using local traditional and religious leaders working with Government officials from Kenya to take up a mediating role. This worked and led to a cease-fire that held for 9 months, leading to a negotiated settlement in June 2006. Peace and community structure in Elwak Somalia are still holding.

In September 2007, a mission led by Ethiopian Government officials came to Kenya to learn the process of building peace and creating a national policy framework. The Ethiopian Government officials were amazed and surprised by the model of policy development in Kenya. Which in their observation was that in Kenya the policy is led by practice as influenced by the Wajir Model, a grass root approach influencing national policy making.

Ethiopia is in the process of developing a model similar to Kenya that will meet Ethiopia’s specific needs.

In Afghanistan my colleague Mohamed Suleman stated that his grass root peace work is influenced and inspired by the work of Elders in Wajir, Kenya. His model of the Peace Shura is also based on the Wajir Concept.

Q: Today, regarding current conflict and wars, you could think that religions do more harm than good. Do you agree? 
A: The ways it is being packaged and manifested, religion seems to be a force for violence. However, the full potential of religion has not been explored sincerely. It is only the bits that are used to mobilize and entrench some views and ideologies which is influencing the current global violence. All religions do have capacity to contribute to global peace.

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