“I was received so well that I felt like one of them.”
In 2008 NIMD’s Kenyan partner, the Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD-K) created a project called Building Bridges of Understanding. This project, a pilot designed to promote dialogue between different ethnic communities in the aftermath of election violence, involved a Kieni constituency from Central Kenya and their Lua counterparts from the Bondo constituency, hosting each other in their homes for a week long visit. These visits changed perceptions previously held by the individuals, as they were exposed to, and educated about the culture of the other. This is the story of what transpired.
Before he made the journey from his Kieni home in Central Kenya to the sunny Village in Bondo District, Mr Reuben Magoko was nervous. He was journeying as part of a 10-man team led by Member of Parliament (MP) Nemesyus Warugongo, and the string of myths he had heard about the Lua made him apprehensive.
Another team, led by Bondo MP Oburu Oginga, set off from Bondo for Kieni. Each of the groups comprised the young, the elderly, as well as people living with disabilities.
On arrival, Mr Magoko was introduced to his host, Mr Michael Opata. “I was received so well that I felt like one of them,” he said at the end of his stay. A goat was slaughtered in his honour and when night fell, the host couple left their bed for him.
Mr Magoko also had a chance to experience life in a polygamous setting. His perception of the rival Luo community had undergone a complete transformation, thanks to the visit.
During the visit, a trip to Got Ramogi, the home of the founding father of the Luo community in Kenya, was made. They also had an encounter with fish landing at Wich Lum Beach and Oyamo Island in Lake Victoria.
The delegation criss-crossed Luo Nyanza, chatting, eating, worshipping and generally getting a feel of life in the area. They also visited the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga mausoleum in Bondo. In all the homes and museums they visited, they were exposed to the Luo culture.
For Mrs Esther Mureithi, a member of the delegation to Bondo, the love that she experienced at her host’s was unbelievable. “I felt as if I were among members of my immediate family,” she said. The reception exceeded the expectations she had when she set aside her job for a few days and bid farewell to her husband and their three children.
In future, she says she wants such visits to be fostered in the country among different ethnic communities, besides maintaining an open communication channel. “Let’s not allow ourselves to be divided along ethnic lines,” she says.
Mr Magoko says that for as long as he could remember, harmony amongst different ethnic communities has been a positive thing in Kenya. “When there are no communities feuding, there is no trouble,” he says.
“Before the teams were dispatched from either end, intense negotiations had to be done with the MPs,” says Njeri Kabeberi who heads the Centre for Multiparty Democracy in Kenya, and who accompanied the delegation on the trip to the Bondo District.
Ms Kabeberi says that understanding cultures of others will help change Kenyans’ perceptions, attitudes and ways of thinking about other communities. "Stereotypes and prejudices about characters and lifestyles of various ethnic groups abound in the country. This has been blamed for hatred"
When chaos broke out following the disputed 2007 presidential polls, a significant minority of Kenyans turned against one another. Hundreds were killed and thousands forced from their homes. Ms Kabeberi says it was only after this violence that the idea of organising exchange visits among different ethnic communities was conceived to promote understanding
“We need to deal with this issue once and for all” she says, and, with a mixture of foresight and finality in her voice she adds “then we can make Kenya a safe place for democracy.”
The Bridges of Understanding programme, and the bonds of trust and empathy it creates, is purposefully and inclusively bringing that vision all the closer to reality.