My colleague, Amy Potter Czajkowski, and I have journeyed to Kenya to learn more about the work of women peacebuilders in Kenya and to explore what Catalyst for Peace might be able to do to help invite and support women’s leadership in peacebuilding and development. After getting to bed at 1 AM this morning on the tail of a long, long journey from Washington, DC to Nairobi, Kenya, with a transit through Frankfurt, Germany, it was a relief to have a somewhat slow first day in a Nairobi whose face and sense of globalness have been transformed since my last visit here about 17 years ago by a construction boom and the economic development that goes with it.
We are being hosted by the Green String Network (GSN), co-founded by Angi Yoder-Maina and Tecla Wanjala, two highly experienced, profoundly committed peacebuilders who pay special attention to trauma healing and resilience. So, it’s no surprise that most of our activity, arranged by my dear friend, Nyambura Mundia, who now works for GSN, took place at their office – an inviting open space with bright green and purple walls, stone tile on the floors and lots of warm wood surfaces, in Nairobi’s Loresho district.
A special blessing for this day is that Ruth N., a student/colleague of Amy’s from her work at Eastern Mennonite University, drove all night from her home in rural Kenya to be with us through the morning. Before the formal meeting began, Amy, Tecla and I had the opportunity to sit with Ruth in a lovely coffee shop (run by an Australian couple) around the corner from GSN’s office and hear about her work with rural women. Ruth talked about how a course she took from Amy several years ago as part of EMU’s Women Peacebuilders Leadership Program (WPLP) had changed her life – awakening her to a passion to work with oppressed rural women.
She has recently founded an NGO that focuses on helping women, who are often the victims of gender violence, take control of their lives. As Ruth recounted WPLP’s impact on her life, Tecla shared that an inspiration she received and shared with Angi a decade ago planted the seed that became WPLP, so she was particularly moved and gratified to hear that Ruth’s work was inspired by her experience in that program.
Then, as the two women proceeded to talk in great depth about the myriad challenges rural women face and potential livelihood projects they might engage in (projects they’d identified themselves, like cassava and ground nut cultivation, and raising poultry and dairy cows), we witnessed the ongoing flow of sharing inspiration, experience and wisdom. From her deep experience over decades, Tecla was able to offer Ruth insights into the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the work she has begun, as well as very practical information, such as who to contact to find the best cassava seeds to plant in the poor soil of the area where she was working. It was inspiring for Amy and me to see these two women come together in a way that represents the heart of the work we are doing – bringing women together in ways that allow them to share inspiration, spiritual and emotional support, and practical advice in ways that are mutually enriching.
Angi summoned us from the coffee shop and we were soon sitting in a circle with most of GSN’s staff – 6 women and 4 men who bring a wide array of experience and skills, as well as a shared commitment to their evolving engagement with grassroots partners focused on the empowerment of women, trauma healing and promoting resilience. They call their program Kamekucha – New Dawn/Rising Sun. Their work, as Catalyst’s work, is grounded in the belief that the answers women are seeking to the challenges of their lives already exist in their local communities. That the resources they believe they need from somewhere else they have in themselves, waiting to be acknowledged, honored and cultivated.
As we talked about the importance of women having a space that is created by and for women, where women can discover and/or be their most authentic selves, and speak unguardedly from their unique experience and wisdom, we spent some time deliberating whether or not the men sitting in our circle should be present tomorrow when a larger number of women from different organizations will be gather. On the one hand, we felt it might be helpful for the women to know that there were men prepared to support their leadership. On the other hand, we recognized that there were likely important conversations that would only happen in a group that was all women.
In the end, we decided that the men would be present as everyone gathered. After the group was welcomed and everyone introduced, the men will express our support for the women and then adjourn to have our own conversation about how men can best support women. This outcome was completely unanticipated; and it felt exactly right. I find myself deeply excited about the conversations that lie ahead.
Later in the day, I had the great joy of meeting with a dear friend from my years helping to found the United Religions Initiative, Hamed Ehsani – a property developer, a devout Baha’I, and one of most gracious, spiritually balanced people I have had the privilege of working with.
Amy and I closed the day with a relaxing dinner with Angi, her husband and their two lovely daughters, then came home to prepare for our conversations tomorrow, and to pack for our trip to the coast, where we will spend Wednesday and part of Thursday learning from GSN’s work with women there.
So much richness in one day! And our time here has only just begun.