From the first time I met Dekha Ibrahim Abdi in 1999, she began to shape my thinking about conflict transformation. I already knew, from the research we were then doing at Oxford Research Group for a book of stories about initiatives in peace building called War Prevention Works (2001, now out of print) that local people clearly knew best what was needed in their area. I also suspected that women peace-builders were ahead of the curve. And Dekha proved to be the most eloquent and experienced role model that I had ever met.
Dekha Ibrahim Abdi by Jerry Riley
From her origins in rural Kenya, she became a global peacemaker, helping transform violent conflict 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.
She was born in 1964 in Wajir, near the border with Somalia, and received a good education thanks to her father’s support. At her secondary school pupils were divided along religious and ethnic lines, but Dekha and her friends created a space between these opposing camps by sticking together. This childhood experience informed her philosophy of inter-religious co-operation as essential to achieving durable peace. "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 and ownership of all affected by the conflict."
In Wajir a conflict between clans over water and livestock claimed 1500 lives in the early 1990s. Dekha, then head teacher of a school in Wajir, started a grassroots peace initiative with women from other clans. Despite opposition from traditional leaders, they began to organise mediation between the warring factions. Dekha’s method was first to listen carefully, without interrupting, to all involved in the conflict. She knew that humiliation is one of the main drivers of violence, and she knew that the best antidote to humiliation is….respect. The process was a personal interaction with each individual or group, in order to “see the pain in each situation”. Then, when everyone felt their point of view was understood, she would work together with all parties to “restore relations between victim and offender”. Although Dekha may not have known it at the time, this is exactly the method that Mandela used in South Africa and later to prevent the Rwandan conflict spreading to Burundi. She explains this process in a short Youtube.
When an agreement was finally in place, the women didn’t rest. Knowing that 50% of peace agreements fail unless followed up, they set up Wajir Peace and Development to bring together all stakeholders - clans, government security officers, parliamentarians, civil servants, Muslim and Christian religious leaders - to ensure that the agreement was implemented. In the following years, Dekha and others in Wajir worked tirelessly to expand work amongst young people, ex-combatants and the nomadic population, as well as initiating peace festivals and school programmes, to try and ensure a lasting peace. “We used local level partnership to negotiate the return of stolen items transported across the border. We got better results by engaging with the community instead of sending in the armed forces.”
What was striking about her approach was, firstly, her presence. When she walked into a room, a sense of calm and dignity entered with her. That meant that before a word was spoken, everyone felt a little safer. Tensions began to subside. This kind of presence cannot be invented or conjured up; it’s the result of years of self-examination, reflection, listening, and learning.
Second, her conviction that peace was possible. I remember her addressing a group of hard-headed journalists in London after the post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008. She held them spell-bound with her account of how the citizen-led strategy for violence reduction was put into action, minute by minute. “Violence doesn’t get put on hold while someone processes funding for peacebuilding. Conflict can escalate very quickly so speed is everything in sharing information and acting quickly.”
Third, young people immediately warmed to her. From 2002 Dekha was patron of the London-based ngo Peace Direct. In this capacity, after the London bombings, she co-facilitated a project to provide a platform for young Muslims to explore the challenges around being a Muslim and being British.
Fourth, her modesty and generosity. She never took credit, even for the many awards she received. Back home she worked as an advisor to the Kenyan government on mediation, and in 1999 was awarded the Distinguished Medal for Service. In 2005 she was named Kenyan Peace Builder of the Year. She was nominated as one among 1000 women for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. In 2007 she received the Right Livelihood Award, often referred to as the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’. She gave her substantial prize money to help start a Peace University in Wajir, which is today an inspiring project.
Dekha's spiritual identity as a Muslim formed a strong foundation for her peace work. She explored the Qu'ran's teaching on understanding the soul in terms of bringing about durable peace. Indeed, she encouraged individuals and communities in conflict to examine themselves using verses from the Qu'ran. 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.
When violence erupted all over Kenya after disputed elections in 2007, she was called to the Serena Hotel In Nairobi, where two retired generals, an ambassador and two other civil society leaders were already gathered. They pointed to the empty chair and said ‘Dekha, please take the chair. We have to design a way to stop the killing.’
One of the methods they used was to ask the 60,000 members of a women’s organisation who had cell phones, to look out of their windows and report what they saw. The information started pouring in. They began to plot not only the ‘hot spots’ of the violence but also the ‘cold spots’, since it was important to know where people were running to, so they could be protected. They then began to develop strategies for each spot, with the help of trusted local leaders. In less than 3 weeks, with the help of community, youth, and church leaders, sports personalities, police and the media, these strategies brought the violence under control. When Kofi Annan arrived to mediate between Kibaki and Odinga, it was possible to secure a peace agreement based on a mix of ‘official’ plus ‘local’ methodologies – exactly the way advocated by Dekha and her colleagues.
Their methods were expanded into the brilliant Ushahidi - an open source project which allows users to crowd source crisis information to be sent via mobile. It has now saved lives in many political and humanitarian crises.
What do I do differently as a result of knowing this great woman? I utterly believe in the power of one local person to transform a violent situation. I know that humiliation is the driver of most incidents of violence, and that respect is the best antidote to humiliation, and I try to apply that. Dekha said “feast with your enemies”. So I do my best to prepare and offer food to those with whom I find myself in disagreement.
She saw only too clearly the fragility of peace, saying that peace needs to be nurtured as carefully as an egg. Dekha found deep fulfilment in enabling others to develop their full potential as leaders for peace and justice, never seeking the limelight for herself.
Dekha died on 14 July 2011 as a result of a car crash in north-eastern Kenya. An event to honour her memory will be held at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, UK November 13th 2011
This article was first published in November 2011. It is republished here as part of 50.50's series 16 days of Activism against Gender Violence.