There are nine different nationalities and several ethnic groups at Kakuma Refugee Camp. All have different cultures and beliefs, and some of the nations and tribes are at war with each other in their home countries. Everyone is forced to live together in an over-crowded, hot and desolate refugee camp, where food is scarce, water is scarce, and life is too often lacking in any hope for the future. It is no surprise that there are outbreaks of violence. In response, ODWEP has developed one of our most important programs, Alternatives to Violence, bringing communities together to talk about their differences. We sit in a circle, and look at each other and listen to each other.
The idea of coming together in a circle to work out problems as a community comes from our Bantu culture (and this practice is also present in other African cultures). When a problem would arise in the village or community, anyone could call for a meeting, and we would all sit in a circle so we could see each other. Everyone would have the chance to speak their thoughts. Also, our elders traditionally would gather the youth around a fire circle to teach them morals, and Peace was always the main theme of these circles and these teachings. After we began to implement these circles at Kakuma Camp, we learned that there are organizations around the world that are doing similar work in many different situations of conflict. One organization, called Alternatives to Violence, came to Kakuma and we trained with them and we adopted the name. We also trained with Jesuit Worldwide Learning, the Lutheran World Federation, and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
ODWEP has held these discussions in about three-quarters of Kakuma Camp; it is some of the most important work that we do. Some of this work involves simply talking and listening to someone from another culture, but as well there are often very concrete problems that need solutions (for example,
disputes concerning distribution of water), and it is the wisdom of the collectivity that comes to a solution, realizing the necessity that we all need to live together.
• Space is always a problem when we want to bring large numbers of people together. At minimum, we need a structure with shade from the sun. We need bigger structures in more areas of the camp than we have now.
• We don’t currently pay any of our Alternatives to Violence facilitators, but we would like to offer a subsistence stipend so that they could devote themselves more fully to this work.
• Offering simple refreshments is essential when we hold these gatherings.
• One of our goals is to put together a booklet, a guide for peace-making, in all the different languages of the camp. It would contain the wisdom we have learned in the Alternatives to Violence sessions that we have held through the years, a document of how people have identified problems and the solutions they have come up with by talking together. This guide could be used in future gatherings, and taken home by people when they are repatriated to their home communities.
• One problem that came up in group discussions was a different kind of violence – not violent disputes between nationalities within the camp, but violent intruders coming in from outside, at night, to rape and rob camp residents. Collectively, residents thought up the solution: to build fencing around camp neighborhoods, so that if someone enters through the fence doors at night the sound would be audible, awakening camp residents to shout and drive off the intruder. The Kenyan government and the UN Refugee Agency have helped with this initiative, but each small community within the camp still needs to come up with some funds to build the fence, and not all have been able to do so.