Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Community Meetings Address Legacy of Kenya Violence

With national courts failing to act, restorative justice is promoted as limited way of soothing victims’ pain.
By Catherine Chumo
  • Mathare, a half-million-strong slum area of Nairobi. (Photo: Meena Kadri/Flickr)
    Mathare, a half-million-strong slum area of Nairobi. (Photo: Meena Kadri/Flickr)
  • Whole neighbourhoods of Mathare were burnt down in the  2007-08 violence. (Photo: Brad Ruggles/Flickr)
    Whole neighbourhoods of Mathare were burnt down in the 2007-08 violence. (Photo: Brad Ruggles/Flickr)
  • Children in Mathare. (Photo: Life In Abundance International/Flickr)
    Children in Mathare. (Photo: Life In Abundance International/Flickr)

In the absence of serious national prosecutions for the crimes which took place during electoral bloodshed in Kenya six years ago, residents of a Nairobi slum are seeking redress through face-to-face meetings with perpetrators.

The gatherings are run by a local charity called the Ghetto Foundation in conjunction with a community radio station, with similar events also hosted by churches. They aim to support efforts aimed at bringing peace and reconciliation among those living in Nairobi’s giant Mathare slum area which suffered brutal attacks in late 2007 and early 2008.

The violence that erupted across Kenya followed the disputed outcome of a presidential election held on December 27, 2007. Political grievances quickly descended into ethnic conflict, leading to the death of more than 1,100 people nationwide and forcing more than 650,000 others from their homes.

In Mathare, which has a population of around 500,000, whole neighbourhoods were burnt down, hundreds killed or injured, and women and girls were raped.

Similar meetings to discuss the 2007-08 violence take place in neighbouring slums, but they have not been widely replicated in this format elsewhere in Kenya.

The country’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, have been charged with orchestrating the conflict and are currently facing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. A former journalist, Joshua Arap Sang, is also charged.

But very few of the thousands who committed atrocities have been prosecuted in Kenya’s national courts. The government has been heavily criticised for failing to set up a special tribunal to put mid and lower-level suspects on trial and experts say other efforts at justice have fallen well short.

Catherine, 24, lives in a village in Mathare. During the 2008 unrest, she was on her way to collect firewood when she was beaten up by two local men whom she knew. A large scar on her face serves as a permanent reminder of the attack. As the violence spread, Catherine and her family were forced to flee their home and take shelter at a local church.

When Catherine heard about the meetings, she decided to go along.

Each event is attended by between 25 and 50 people. Participants gather in a temporary marquee, where invited speakers discuss what happened in 2008 and debate broader issues around conflict.

They use photographs and video clips to inform and prompt discussion. The participants are then given a chance to speak about their own experiences of the bloodshed. Everyone who attends is assured that nothing said at the meeting will be made public.

For Catherine, recalling what happened to her is particularly painful because she knows her attackers.

But she says that speaking out at meetings has helped her move forward from the horror of 2008.

“As you speak, you remember what happened and you find yourself crying. You can't stop it,” Catherine told IWPR. “Talking about it helps. When you keep quiet, it will hurt you inside. After I talk about what I went through, I feel better.”

The meetings also have an impact on those who committed abuses during the electoral violence. Individuals who, at the meetings, confessed to carrying out attacks would not agree to be interviewed for this article. But Charles, a 30-year-old who lives in Mathare, says the meetings have helped friends of his who committed terrible crimes. He himself was displaced in the conflict and has attended similar meetings in the neighbouring areas of Huruma and Nyalgunga.

Charles says that while his friends never talk in public about what they did, the meetings have allowed them to open up and have helped them reflect on the crimes they committed.

“I have seen my friends change because of these forums,” he told IWPR. “They say that they took part [in violence] but did not know what they were doing. The forums show them how to move forward with their lives. Some have successfully started their own businesses.”

Samuel Kiriro, one of the founders of the Ghetto Foundation, says he has seen the benefits of bringing together those who committed atrocities with their victims. The meetings do not lead to any type of punishment or retribution, but he believes they offer a sense of justice.

“When someone sees the person who carried out the violence remorseful, they find it easier to forgive,” he said. “They see that they are not that horrible.... It also helps the victims uncover the pain. They do not hold it in their hearts any more. This is where the justice is.”

The meetings are extremely sensitive and IWPR was not allowed to attend any of them. Sometimes the exchanges can become heated, but Kiriro says the organisers always plan the process very carefully to ensure that things remain calm.

One way of preventing things escalating has involved asking respected professionals such as doctors and engineers who grew up in the slums to lead the discussions.

“The people listen to one of their own,” Kiriro said. “They respect and are inspired by them. They are able to talk freely. Those invited don’t fear to venture into the slum, like many outsiders do, because they have grown up here.”

Catherine, who has long since despaired of the Kenyan courts, sees benefits in the meetings that the criminal justice system has never provided to her.

“If they [the perpetrators] are locked up, will it bring my property back? Will it bring all those people who died?” Catherine said.

Others, however, take a different view. Some of those who have participated in meetings are dubious about the benefits.

Joyce, whose family home was burnt down in 2008, says that justice will only be done when those involved in the bloodshed are behind bars. She also wants the government to compensate her for the property she lost, so that her life can begin getting back to normal.

Not everyone agrees that the limited redress provided in these meetings is worth pursuing.

Maria, who lives in Mathare and lost her house in 2008, has not attended any of the sessions. She says she just wants to forget about the conflict.

“I chose to forget all that happened,” she said. “We just want peace. That is the justice that we want.”

While many experts have welcomed the meetings, some, like Christopher Gitari of the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), caution that they do not offer a “magic” solution for the post-election crimes.

“Some victims have probably, and remarkably, recovered while some are a pretty long way off, and many of your participants are in the middle,” he said. “In our experience, giving victims a chance to talk about their experience can be healing, while for some it just reminds them of a dark past which they would rather not be reminded of. For this latter group, it is likely that they are in denial and not ready to confront their past.”

Other observers say that while dialogue is useful, there also need to be formal prosecutions in order to uphold the rule of law and prevent future attacks in places like Mathare.

Njonjo Mue, a transitional justice expert in Nairobi, told IWPR that meetings like the ones in Mathare are not by themselves sufficient to deliver justice and thereby peace in the longer term.

“Any community dialogues that are designed to bring people together to discuss common concerns and identify solutions to common problems are an important building block for reconciliation,” Mue said. “[But] where gross violations of human rights such as murder, rape, arson, mutilations occurred there must be accountability beyond mere dialogue, to restore the rule of law and the society’s trust that state institutions are able to protect them and prevent future abuses.”

Some names in this article have been changed for security reasons.

Catherine Chumo is a freelance reporter in Nairobi.

This article was produced as part of a media development programme implemented by IWPR and Wayamo Communication Foundation.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?