Last Saturday, I spent a deeply inspiring afternoon. Gathered in the Louis Leakey Hall at the National Museum were 180 lovely souls, brought together to revel in the spirit of Dekha Ibrahim, the renowned peace-builder who was tragically killed a month ago in a car accident.
I got to know Dekha when I stumbled into one of the early Serena Hotel meetings of the Concerned Citizens for Peace, at the beginning of January 2008. She had been called by Bethuel Kiplagat, George Wachira, Gen Lazaro Sumbeiywo and Gen Daniel Opande to join them in doing what they could to pull Kenya back from the brink. Concerned Citizens for Peace, or CCP as it became known, had no formal structure, but very early on Dekha was invited to act as its co-ordinator.
Day after day, for several weeks, we met each morning at eight. On the one hand we received reports from around Nairobi and from the hot spots elsewhere in the country, seeing what could be done to cool these down and to prevent the violence spreading further. We called them “downstream” initiatives. On the other hand we would discuss how the attempts at national mediation (the “upstream” side of our work) were progressing, and see how we could strengthen what was happening.
For everyone who attended those meetings they gave meaning and purpose to our lives at this most awful time in the history of the country. And what brought us together was a common passion for resolving the conflict and building peace.
Some, like Dekha, were experts in the field. Some were close to the action. Others, like me, were just offering ourselves to be useful in any way that we could. (My main role was to integrate peace-building community that CCP represented with the private sector and the religious leaders. All three sectors were working flat out yet independently, to have the violence stop, to see humanitarian assistance provided, and to push the political adversaries into forming the coalition agreement.)
Attending the Serena CCP meetings became addictive. At the site where the squabbling politicians were regularly meeting with local and international mediators, in a country where unspeakably awful things were happening, I found myself in the company of the purest of souls, a delightful collection of high quality human beings, courteous, cheerful and of low ego.
Dekha personified these great qualities, and I immediately respected and admired the way she and the others manoeuvred through the minefields of those desperate days in ways that brought together the visionary and the practical, and all with calmness and positivity. To this day they remain my role models of how life should be lived, in pursuit of higher and more noble purposes.
I wrote an article about these unsung heroes at the time, and here’s how I concluded:
I do not wish to give the impression that I am seeing the world through rose- tinted spectacles. As I write in praise of these largely unsung heroes (being sung about is not what they’re after!) it is not to deny everything else that is happening. It is indeed because the people I have been with are so troubled by the terrible things they have seen and heard that they come together to seek ways out of it all.
Inevitably, they have to endure criticisms of all kinds: they’re not doing enough; they’re too slow; they’re just talkers; they’re doing the wrong things; they’re biased… But they’re used to that. They listen, they adjust where they feel the criticism has merit, but they also know that among the many great strengths we Kenyans possess, one of our prominent weaknesses is to undermine the actions and motives of good people, who are doing their best to bring others together and improve their lot.
For the cynical and untrusting, such human beings just don’t exist, certainly not in this republic. But let me assure you they do, and in large numbers.
So last Saturday some of these people gathered together again, now to celebrate the memory of one of them, Dekha Ibrahim.
Many others were from North Eastern Kenya, from where Dekha hails and where her great peace-building work began, in her native Wajir. Speaker after speaker eulogised this beautiful person, and first her brother Apollo Mohamed, who spoke movingly of his sister as a determined visionary, a person of humility and cheerfulness who, with her warm smile and bright face, touched everyone she met.
She spent her life so well, he said, preaching peace and justice, in Wajir, elsewhere in Kenya and later around the world, with top leaders as with the common folk, and always without bias. Everywhere she went she proclaimed “I refuse to be a victim. I am a resource for peace.”
Virtually every speaker challenged us to keep her dream alive, and not just in this critical run up to another election. Dekha had started to plan for the establishment of a Peace University in Wajir, and I was thrilled to see that far from this idea fading with her passing, the tragedy of her loss has merely reinforced the determination to see her dream come true.
Mohamed Elmi, the Minister for Northern Kenya, sang the praises of a woman who was never afraid to have a wild idea or run with it; who easily persuaded others with her smiling generosity and her poignant story-telling; and who networked so widely. These are the very qualities needed for building peace, he said, calling for many more Dekhas to emerge, people with the same passionate belief and boldness.
There’s so much more I would wish to write about what was said that day, about her shining influence on peace-builders from Afghanistan to Croatia, from Palestine to Sri Lanka, about her wisdom and imagination, about the shining candles she lit. But I must stop… and let you think and feel. Very deeply.