Peacebuilding in Somalia: an alternative to violence
INTERVIEW / Celestin Nkundabemera
Celestin Nkundabemera is the Program Director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Somalia, assisting the country's peace-building efforts. The organization's work in Somalia touches on many key concepts: development, human rights, community safety, conflict prevention and mediation, to name a few. In real life it has meant going to communities ravaged by 20 years of war and rebuilding their capacity for peace
Nkundabemera, who attended the Comunidad Segura Media Workshop in Nairobi last October, describes how his organization has been helping to reactivate wells and create water centers that include women in management; the key role Somali elders and women play in defusing conflict; and how clan allegiance that had been manipulated to foment war can work to build peace.
The American Friends Service Committee's Peace Program tries to open new doors for youth who were born and raised in war, to help them start their own businesses: young women learn dressmaking and young men metal work. In a country where almost a third of the population has been displaced by war, the AFSC has also provided youth in refugee camps with photography and film equipment, to help them understand that “life is not about violence, there is more to it”.
“Our program focuses on helping communities affected by conflict to rebuild themselves. Specifically, we are looking at capacity building for civil society organizations, working from the ground up,” said Celestin. The AFSC is in active in Africa in Burundi, Zimbabwe and Somalia. Here he talks about their work in Somalia:
Where do you work in Somalia, and how many people does the Somalia Peace Program reach?
We have been working with the Peace Program for the past two years in the Gedo region in Somalia. We are involved with grassroots organizations: the water project is located in Berbera, youth skills in Bura Howa, and peace committees and mediation projects are located in Elwak. Every project includes learning about peace.
We are currently working closely, directly, with 900 individuals. Indirectly, if you consider that every Somali family has [an average of] 7 children… you see we reach many more people.
What kinds of challenges does the program face?
The two main challenges in the region, after 20 years of war, are are finding sources of livelihoods for youths, many of whom are displaced, who are living away from their traditional homes. The second challenge is resource-based conflict, in our case, it is guaranteeing that communities have access to water, which is a continuous source of strain and motivation for clans to in Somalia to invade land that belongs to other clans.
Of course, to bring peace we need to give youths opportunities for work. Most of the youths often get involved in conflicts because they have nothing else to do. So war becomes employment, it becomes an opportunity.
But to reach youths, there are two other important points: In Somalia, we must first consult Somali elders, who are key to creating an environment of peace before staring any program, and we have also found that women are an important secondary factor in sending men to war. So the role of women cannot be overlooked.
What kinds of skills do you teach youths?
We offer skills training in tailoring and also in metalwork. We help young girls learn to make clothes and use them, so they can sell them. Young men learn metal work, so they can make doors, windows, and other products with similar materials. Besides these skills, we also help them learn how to start and manage small businesses, encouraging them to form small groups.
All this goes hand in hand with competence in peace building and peaceful coexistence. We stress the importance of peace, of knowing how to live together in communities that include groups of different ethnic backgrounds and so on, it is a complete package.
How do you help organize water resources in terms of preventing conflict?
We have created water management committees, and these organizations of course, are taught to deal with resource-based conflict. The idea is to enable communities to manage their resources in such a way that all animals have access to water and all households have access to water minimizing conflict.
Do these communities have permanent homes or are they nomadic?
Many have a home in the location, and although they move they don’t move too far. In most cases, when they move, it is because they are searching for water. When they have water they tend to stay put longer, so increasing the availability of water also means increasing permanent residence of communities in a particular place. This is good for reducing conflict because they won’t move into land that belongs to other communities and is a means to avoid unnecessary confrontation.
What about the wells, do you import outside technology or experts?
Right now we're reactivating existing infrastructure that was damaged during the conflict. Because the country has been at war for 20 years, we are working with the community to rehabilitate them. Most of the technology exists locally. They don’t need to ask for expertise from outside.
You said that Somali elders have an important role, can you explain?
In Somali traditional society, the role of traditional elders is very important. They are the pillars of society, society looks to them for inspiration and leadership and particularly in difficult circumstances. The AFSC believes it is critical to restore the role of traditional leaders in peace building. In Somalia they simply cannot be overlooked.
For example, in the water project, you cannot have youth participation in the project until the elders have been involved. So we start with a consultation in the area when our partners explain to the elders what the project is about, what it aims to achieve, and what benefits it will bring to the community. Once the elders approve, they work with our partners to realize the project. They are very important in training youths and also in the water project. They are members of the water committees as well.
The elders, I would guess are men in general, right?
The elders are men, and most of the initial contacts are made with the men. So we try to encourage them to understand the role that women play in these projects. For example, we say, if the women cannot make dresses, the committee will have no clothes.
At the same time we tell them that the women will come to draw water for cooking and so on, that it is very important that they take part in the management committees of the water points. We also say that women need to be encouraged.
It’s important to mention that women play a big secondary role in conflict in Somalia, so likewise they have an important role to play in peace as well. For example, if a woman complains that her husband is a coward, that other men are fighting and this one is always stuck in the house, that he is useless, the man will eventually go to fight. They have a powerful voice that is often ignored. We encourage women to participate in most of the leadership roles in Somalia.
You also work with the Internally Displaced in Somalia. Are they likely to resettle permanently where they are now?
We have close to one million internally-displaced people in Somalia (in south central Somalia in particular). This is out of a population of roughly 3-1/2 million. So you have close to a third of the population displaced. They are either spread across Somalia or have moved out of Somalia into refugee camps.
Our organization in particular has worked with refugee youths at the Daadab refugee camp in Kenya. We work with them on skills, we have worked with them on photography and video production skills, and an alternative to violence program. We recognize that they have lived with conflict for 20 years, many were born in the camp and have known no other form of government than the organization in the camp.
Can you explain the Alternative to Violence Program ?
The message we want to give them is that life is not about violence. There is an alternative. The Alternative to Violence Program has been developed by Quakers in the United States and has been used in many countries in Africa. It has become popular particularly among young Somali refugees in Daadab. It encourages youths to see the other sides of life, that is not about violence. The next step for us is to take the same program to central Somalia, to see how the internally displaced take to it, but it is in the early stages, and I would not be able to say much about it right now.
How would you describe AFSC's core beliefs?
This AFSC community works to transform conditions and relationships both in the world and in ourselves, which threaten to overwhelm what is precious in human beings. We nurture the faith that conflicts can be resolved nonviolently, that enmity can be transformed into friendship, strife into cooperation, poverty into well-being, and injustice into dignity and participation. We believe that good can ultimately prevail over evil, and oppression in all its many forms can give way.