Around the world, extraordinary yet unknown women and men work tirelessly to build peace in conflict and post-conflict zones. Driven by faith, they dare to do the work that others are afraid to take on. At Tanenbaum, we are honored to recognize two of these inspiring peace activists, Yemen’s Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Marwani, a Sufi Muslim, and the Philippine’s Maria Ida “Deng” Giguiento, a Catholic, as our newest Peacemakers in Action.
Yemen’s Sheikh Al-Marwani negotiates peace between tribal leaders and works to counter calls for extremism. In the Philippines, Deng Giguiento is a teacher and has worked in the Mindanao conflict, creating alliances among conflicting Christian, Muslim and indigenous groups. Both Peacemakers have been threatened as a result of their work yet they persevere, deeply motivated by their faith and a vision of a peaceful future.
Sheikh Al-Marwani and Ms. Giguiento join 28 other Peacemakers from 22 conflict zones who together form the unique Peacemakers in Action Network. Through the Network, facilitated by Tanenbaum, these peace activists inspire each other and share skills.
To be named a Peacemaker in Action, nominees must meet five criteria: be religiously-motivated, have worked in an area of armed conflict, have risked their lives or freedom, be locally based, and be relatively unknown.
As we reviewed applications for this year’s honorees, we were humbled and uplifted by the amazing work and dedication shown by nominees from 20 countries. Below you will find the profiles of our awardees and finalists – their stories are important because they prove that peace is attainable. We hope you are as inspired by their perseverance and charm as we are!
Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Marwani – Yemen
Maria Ida “Deng” Giguiento – Philippines
Huda abu Arqoub – Palestine
Janneth Lozano Bustos – Colombia
Hina Iqbal – Pakistan
Fazal Ghani Kakar – Afghanistan
Daniel Masumbuko Kasereka – Democratic Republic of Congo
Boaz Keibarak – Kenya
Jenny Neme – Colombia
Offuh James Offuh – Côte d’Ivoire
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
2015 Peacemakers in Action Awardees
Melodic calls to prayer rise upward, echoing across Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a. Children gleefully run down a flooded street in Old City, past buildings with striking geometric patterns made from burnt red brick and white gypsum. Then a whistling noise cuts through the air, followed by explosions.
Hope lies at the edge of the city – at the Dar Al-Salaam Organisation (DASO) which means “House of Peace”. Founded in 1997 by Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Marwani, DASO is a Yemeni NGO working in conflict resolution, negotiation and countering violent extremism through engagement of tribal and religious leaders and by working with youth. Fiercely driven by his devout Sufi beliefs and a vision of a peaceful Yemen, Sheikh Al-Marwani travels throughout his country tackling volatile and seemingly intractable conflicts.
This year, however, has been particularly difficult. More than 1500 Yemeni civilians[i] have died as conflicting forces engage in escalating struggles for power. The Houthis (Shi’ite rebels allegedly backed by Iran) seized control of Sana’a in 2014[ii] and are fighting allies of ousted Sunni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Saudi-led airstrikes targeting the Houthis have devastated the capital. Meanwhile, from the south and south-east, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is attacking both the Houthis and allies of the Hadi government,[iii] while ISIS is launching devastating suicide attacks.[iv] Simultaneously, as this destruction is wreaked across the nation, Yemeni children and adults are still being targeted in revenge killings by warring tribes, in a continuing and underlying battle over land rights and power.
It is there, within Yemen’s remote villages and towns, that Al-Marwani and DASO work hard for stability by negotiating peace between tribal leaders. This work is not without risk. At least 15 members of DASO have been killed in crossfire between warring tribes as a result of their peacemaking work.[v] The Sheikh, himself, has been targeted for murder. Yet he fearlessly continues his work, despite the risks and the toll it takes:
“Sometimes I can’t sleep…sometimes I feel my head is going to explode but let me tell you: I would give my life if only the world could live in peace.” – Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Marwani
Thankfully, he has not given his life, though he has saved many. To date, he has helped DASO resolve more than 1000 tribal, family and personal conflicts, and developed a network of 250 grassroots Peace Committees throughout Yemen’s Governorates that include over 4000 tribal, religious, youth and other community leaders serving as Committee members. Through this network, the Peace Committees mediate conflicts throughout Yemen and prevent revenge killings (a prevalent practice in Yemen’s tribal society). Revenge killings not only invoke fear and destroy families by murdering loved ones, but they prevent thousands of children from going to school because the simple act of trespassing on disputed land or crossing a tribal boundary often results in death.[vi]
Over the years, Sheikh Al-Marwani and DASO have used other approaches to build peace. They have: led mass rallies calling for peace; secured the release abducted foreigners; resolved disputes involving marginalized minorities, including Jewish and Somali communities; promoted dialogue between Sunnis and Shias; engaged religious leaders to reduce violence; and carried out awareness campaigns against weapons and armed violence. And he does not stop there; he works with schools and youth, persuading those subjected to a culture of extremism and terrorism to embrace a culture of peace, sometimes in fun ways, such as through plays.[vii]
The Sheikh persists even though, in recent years, Yemen has become a safe haven breeding ground for extremists.[viii] In Abyan, a Governorate in southeast Yemen, two of DASO’s Peace Committee members were kidnapped by terrorist groupsand in April 2014, Sheikh Al-Marwani had to close the doors and shutdown DASO’s operations, at least publicly, after receiving a direct threat from a suspected member of a terrorist group. Accused of encouraging young Muslims to abandon their faith, Al-Marwani believes this was because he promotes respect, the need to understand different faiths represented in Yemen (including Christianity and Judaism) and the interfaith dialogue DASO fosters between Yemen’s Muslim and Jewish communities.
In a country flooded with weapons, Al-Marwani travels without a weapon as a powerful example of peace.[ix] Trusted by many tribal leaders, the Sheikh meets with Yemeni government and international representatives, perhaps serving as the strongest link between the nation’s government and the tribal leaders.[x] DASO also facilitates interfaith collaboration and friendship between Yemen’s Muslims and the country’s small Jewish population, to promote respect and understanding of Islam and Judaism.
“There is no development without peace, and no development without tackling the causes of violence. Violence comes from prejudice. We must be a candle in the darkness.” – Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Marwani
[i] “Yemen: Amid ‘massive’ Humanitarian Crisis, UN Reports Civilian Death Toll Now Exceeds 1,500.” United Nations News Center. July 7, 2015. Accessed August 12, 2015. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51351#.VaVmUxPbK1s Yemen: amid ‘massive’ humanitarian crisis, UN reports civilian death toll now exceeds 1,500. UN News Centre.
[ii] Al Sanani, Nasim. “In Pictures: Houthis Take over Sanaa.” Al Jazeera. September 27, 2014. Accessed August 12, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2014/09/pictures-houthis-take-over-sana-201492371244889418.html.
[iii] “Yemen Crisis: Who Is Fighting Whom?” BBC News. March 26, 2014. Accessed August 12, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423.
[v] Power, Carla. “‘If You Kill All the Christians …'” Time. July 25, 2008. Accessed August 12, 2015. http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1826707,00.html.
[vi] “YEMEN: Revenge Killings Keep Children out of School.” IRIN: Humanitarian News and Analysis. November 8, 2010. Accessed August 12, 2015. http://www.irinnews.org/report/91020/yemen-revenge-killings-keep-children-out-of-school.
[vii] “Gun Control, Yemen-Style.” The Antlantic. February 12, 2013. Accessed August 12, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/02/gun-control-yemen-style/273058/.
[viii] Bennett, Brian. “U.S. Intelligence Confirms Death of Al Qaeda’s Second-in-command.” Los Angeles Times. June 16, 2015. Accessed August 12, 2015. http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-yemen-al-qaeda-20150615-story.html.
[ix] Healy, Mike. “The Peacemaker.” Al Jazeera. January 10, 2010. Accessed August 12, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2009/09/20099715835576637.html.
The soldiers’ automatic weapons pressed into her body from different angles, as Deng shielded the priest from a group of inebriated soldiers. Taking in the situation, Deng saw that the soldiers’ name patches had been hastily ripped off, leaving the threads exposed.[i] Composed, she began to negotiate for their lives.
This happened in the 1980s, when the Communist Party of the Philippines’ military, the New People’s Army (NPA), fought the Philippine government for land rights and political control. Peace seemed impossible and communities were shattered as the NPA battled the national military, the police and civilian militias.[ii] Maria Ida Giguiento, known to all as Deng, and her colleagues at the Archdiocese of Cotabato were in the midst of the conflict, pursuing justice and peace. It was while they were researching the bombing of a Filipino mountain village, allegedly by the Philippine military, that they were forcibly detained.[iii] Clearheaded, Deng negotiated their escape. And despite the harrowing event, she remained steadfast in her peacebuilding and reconciliation work.
Deng’s profound commitment towards interfaith peacebuilding is an expression of her Catholic faith. For more than 20 years, she has worked on the ground in the Mindanao conflict in the Philippines, creating alliances among conflicting Christian, Muslim and indigenous groups. Truly a grassroots peace activist, Deng learned the indigenous Maguindanao dialect from women by shucking corn alongside them, from which her hand still bears a scar. As former Director of Notre Dame University’s Peace Education Center in Cotabato City, she developed programs, facilitated interfaith dialogue workshops with religious leaders, raised awareness about Muslim victims of conflict and helped civil society develop their agenda for peace, ,. That agenda was included in the 1996 final peace agreement accord between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF).
Beyond the Philippines, Deng has profoundly impacted the lives of many in Timor-Leste. When East Timor sought independence from Indonesia in 1999, Deng worked for Catholic Relief Services and the Dioceses of Dili and Baucau and helped bring pro-Independence East Timorese and pro-Indonesian East Timorese leaders together. She and a colleague were serving as aides to Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of Dili and Bishop Dom Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau, when the UN called for a referendum to vote for independence; knowing the East Timorese language Tetum and a bit of the Bahasa Indonesia, Deng helped train hundreds of youth leaders, teachers and religious leaders organized by the Diocese and taught them how to monitor and prepare for the referendum. On the historic voting day, Deng went around East Timor and witnessed community elders wearing their finest clothing – traditionally worn in preparation for death. The elders confided that they expected to die as a result of their participation, but that they had to vote because their dreams of independence for their grandchildren could no longer be stifled.[iv]
Today, Deng is the Training Coordinator for Peacebuilding at Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in the Philippines. She also serves as one of the core Facilitators at the Grassroots Peacebuilding Learning Institute (GPLC) where she trains youth, village elders and leaders from different religions and sectors of society. Deng also serves as one of the core Facilitators at the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI) where she co facilitates in training peace educators, peace practitioners, and key stakeholders in peace processes from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas. It was at MPI where a new layer of Deng’s peacebuilding initiatives unfolded.
Decades after the traumatic incident in the village of Cotabato, Deng remained wary of the Philippine military. Prior to the start of a peacebuilding course at MPI, she realized that a military colonel had enrolled. She was suspicious of his motives and even tried to remove him from her class roster. But after deliberation, Deng agreed to teach him – and a remarkable transformation in her own peacebuilding work occurred. Deng and her students were moved by the colonel’s enthusiasm, and she now advises and trains numerous military leaders and officers. An example is how she provided support to Philippine General Raymundo Ferrer during challenging times
In tandem with her work with the military, Deng maintains close connections with non-state actors based in trusting relationships that she is able to establish. She lives the life of a true bridge builder – a creative and gentle force who links people together, including those from the grassroots to those in the government and military.
“Deng has exceptional power and strength that has sustained her work for over 20 years. Her capacity to connect with people from different races, ethnicities and religions is amazing.” – Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer, American University
[i] Cusimano Love, Maryann. “Partnering for Peace in the Philippines: Military and Religious Engagement.” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Accessed August 12, 2015.
[ii] “Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts Project: Philippines.” Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. July 9, 2012. Accessed August 12, 2015.
[iii] Cusimano Love, Maryann. “Partnering for Peace in the Philippines: Military and Religious Engagement.” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Accessed August 12, 2015.
[iv] http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0506950.htm. Accessed June 5, 2015.
Their stories are haunting but the women glow with determination as they lean forward in their white plastic chairs, attentively listening to each other. Children run in the background while an older woman with a red and green bandana describes the recent loss of her son. They are Colombia’s indigenous Nasa women, fiercely independent, and gathered together to learn more about their rights from peace activist Janneth Lozano Bustos. Over the past half-century the Nasa people have fought to defend and reclaim ancestral land from Colombian national forces and rebel groups – an arduous, heartbreaking task.
For Janneth Lozano Bustos, peace is born within the hearts and personal experiences her fellow Colombians, who each have the power to effect change on a daily basis. She has worked for more than three decades for the protection of indigenous women’s rights in Colombia,[i] most notably the Nasa indigenous women from northern Cauca – one of Colombia’s most violent regions. The risks are high in northern Cauca and Janneth herself has been caught in the midst of armed confrontations. Often working in the field for extensive periods of time, she is sometimes unable to travel home due to the region’s volatility. Motivated by her unwavering Catholic faith and experienced as an educator and social worker, Janneth leads transformative workshops and lends critical assistance to women in need. She finds personal inspiration and solace in Catholicism but loves working with individuals who practice various religions and spiritual beliefs; Janneth truly understands how to promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue among women. Her approach is respectful as she urges women to protect their rights, orchestrate their future and lead their communities.
Generations of Colombians have been terrorized by execution, murder, kidnapping, extortion, narco-trafficking and sexual abuse, disproportionately impacting women.[ii] Together with the Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca (Association of Indigenous Council – ACIN) and Corporación de Apoyo a Comunidades Populares (CODACOP),[iii] Janneth leads trainings for indigenous women in self-protection, women’s rights, the collective rights of indigenous communities and political participation. In addition to focusing on these critical topics, Janneth guides women towards strengthened self-esteem, personal identity and celebration of their own spirituality.[iv] In these ways Janneth nurtures positive change while teaching women the practical action steps required for indigenous communities to defend their livelihoods and land while pursuing sustainable peace.
Throughout the years, Janneth has built an amazing rapport with countless women, helping share their voices in national and international forums. To support visibility, protection and access to justice,[v] Janneth has produced human rights reports for international bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. She also assisted in drafting a report on sexual violence in Colombian armed conflicts that was presented to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflicts. Additionally, Janneth has worked on a variety of projects that include the creation of a Human Rights School, alleviation of poverty, organization of peaceful protests and reporting on sexual violence.
“Janneth has mobilized together a group of indigenous women in their search for justice, facing situations that threaten her life…Janneth´s life has been that of a committed leader and a devoted companion.” – María Consuelo, Colombia
The makeshift internally displaced persons (IDP) camp sprawled for miles. A young mother named Nadira tried to console her newborn son, but she herself felt terrified. Separated from her husband when the Pakistani military attacked the Taliban, Nadira held onto the hope they would be reunited. At the IDP camp, an aide worker suggested that she meet Hina Iqbal. As Hina approached her with a warm smile, Nadira knew she could trust her.
Hina Iqbal is a social and women’s rights activist and one of Pakistan’s youngest female leaders in the peacebuilding field. In 2009 when the Pakistani military attacked the Taliban who were living within civilian communities in Swat valley[i], around two million Pakistanis were displaced.[ii] In the aftermath of this devastating humanitarian crisis, Hina stepped forward and began to provide individual psychosocial services and sessions to women and girls. Hina’s initiative, the Rehabilitation and Reconciliation Program, sought to empower women and children by helping them heal from trauma and by guiding them to embrace peace and promote nonviolence in their communities.
Hina is deeply inspired by Islam and the belief that all religions stand for peace, harmony and shared humanity. To help resolve conflicts, Hina studied the different interpretations of peace across religions and within Islamic traditions. By revealing the commonalities across religions, Hina demonstrates the common ground that is shared – a desire for peace.
“Her approach towards conflict resolution, peacemaking in conflict affected areas is absolutely clear cut and she is able to infuse vibrant energy into the people, thus motivating them to give their level best to fight for peace negotiation, peace activism, conflict resolution and interfaith harmony.” (Diana Milasuite)
For 15 years, Hina has helped relieve the suffering within conflict affected communities in Pakistan. She also works with radicalized youths, disentangling them from extremist factions. In the wake of the Muslim-Christian riots in Faisalabad, Hina gained public recognition for her work as a peace activist. As a role model, Hina inspired both human rights activists and members of marginalized communities across Pakistan to raise their voices against the unjust treatment of Christians. Her campaign reached every corner of the country, resulting in the formation of national peacemaking committees – a campaign that ultimately saved many lives.
In 2007, Hina co-founded Global Peace Pioneers (GPP), a nonprofit organization that addresses critical needs in Pakistan. Hina explains that “GPP’s task is to propose a vision of faith, not in terms of intolerance, discrimination and conflict but in terms of complete respect for truth, coexistence, rights and reconciliation.”[iii] GPP program areas include peace education and interfaith work, gender and development, water and sanitation and disaster response.[iv] At GPP, Hina trains women’s groups to report violence against women; she supports victims of violence through legal aid and she works with the media to raise awareness. Hina has met resistance to her work and her support for victims of violence places her own life at risk.
Hina has worked with international humanitarian organizations and within Pakistan she is helping thousands of youth and community members transform and work towards peace as they attend GPP events, trainings and programs.
[iii] “‘International Interfaith Day’ Celebrates Religious Freedom.” Parliament of the World’s Religions. June 24, 2010. Accessed August 13, 2015.
At the beginning of Dr. Fazal Ghani Kakar’s workshops in Afghanistan, it’s common for participants to express the harsh beliefs about women that pervade cultural norms. “For women is home or grave” and “if women go out of house, mischief will occur” are two unfortunately common examples. One may speculate that individuals who hold such viewpoints are impossible to change – however this is not the case. After a two-day workshop with Dr. Kakar, one man’s perspective of his wife shifted from shame to pride; taking it a step further, the man described how he must allow her to vote in an upcoming election. [i] As a teacher, peace activist and scholar, Dr. Kakar’s approach is so effective because each topic, e.g. women’s voting rights, is supported by excerpts from the Quran and presented respectfully.
Fluent in multiple languages, Dr. Fazal Ghani Kakar travels throughout areas of armed conflict (e.g. Afghanistan’s northern, southern and eastern provinces) where he works with communities, often risking his life to bring peace and stability. Holding a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies and Sharia Law, Dr. Kakar founded Nahdhatul-Ulama Afghansitan (NUA), an organization that seeks to spread moderate, balanced and just messages of Islam to combat extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan. Additionally, he pioneered the successful Role of Ulama & Religious leaders in peace and reconciliation (RUPR) program that brought more than 5,000 Ulama and imams together working towards peace in 21 of Afghanistan’s 34[ii] provinces. The Ulama are an educated class of Muslim legal scholars; as part of Dr. Kakar’s efforts to teach Afghans from an Islamic perspective, he engages the Ulama, seeking to influence them in the promotion of women’s rights.[iii] By addressing women’s rights within traditional societies, Dr. Kakar believes Afghan religious leaders will play a critical role in mitigating violence against women and inequality.
“Afghanistan has a traditional society led by religious leaders. If prayer leaders inform people on certain issues, it would have a positive impact on the overall situation of women.[iv] Lack of awareness among men was one of the key reasons for violence against women, premature and forced marriages, deprivation of education and socio-political rights.”[v] – Dr. Fazal Ghani Kakar
Dr. Kakar has worked on long-term programs to improve women’s rights and opportunities throughout volatile regions of Afghanistan as Program Coordinator at the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organization[vi] (NECDO). Founded by Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action Jamila Afghani, NECDO is an NGO that provides hundreds of women, youth and children in Kabul, Ghazni and Jalalabad with health, literacy, vocational, internet, English language and other specialized classes.
Prior to working with NECDO, Dr. Kakar founded the organization Fajr (The Dawn) in 1997 to train young men and women living in Pakistan Refugee camps and throughout Afghanistan. The youth were hungry for opportunities and positive role models; Dr. Kakar worked with them for 20 years in many capacities; bringing them to libraries is just one way he steered the young men and women from participating in militant groups.
Dr. Fazal Ghani Kakar has a BA in Islamic Law from the Islamic Academy of Science and Technology, a MA in Arabic Literature and a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies and Sharia Law. As an author of several books, Dr. Kakar is passionate about the power of the written word in transforming conflicts and overpowering inequality. Dr. Kakar has represented Afghanistan in conferences and forums including the Asia Forum in South Korea on Human Rights, the forum on Interfaith Dialogue in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the Peace Forum by NUBP (Nahdhatul Ulama Indonesia) which mediated for the safe release of many Koreans kidnaped by the Taliban in Ghazni, Afghanistan.[vii]
In 2002, the Nyankunde Hospital in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R. Congo) boasted the best medical facilities in the northeast and was known for treating patients of all faiths and ethnicities.[i] Inside, Daniel Masumbuko Kasereka was working as a financial administrator when screams ricocheted down the hallway. 7,000 strong[ii], a rebel militia from the Ngiti tribe stormed the hospital; their faces were painted ferociously and their heads crowned with leaves. They began to massacre everyone with knives, machetes, rifles and bayonets.
The militiamen held Daniel at gunpoint and interrogated him for several hours. They accused him of being from an opposing tribe – and then miraculously Daniel escaped, assisted by a guard who spoke Nandi, the same language as Daniel.
Following this horrific experience, Brother Daniel, as he prefers to be called, felt driven to reconcile people and communities traumatized by hatred and war. Instead of retreating from conflict and harboring resentment, he was empowered by his Christian faith to teach and unify others. As director of the Congo Initiative’s Center for Church Renewal and Global Mission, Brother Daniel has dedicated the past ten years to leading peace and reconciliation trainings in northeast D.R. Congo.
“His quiet, untiring, community-centered approach has communities talking with each other – a relational initiative that is rooted and grounded in each particular context.” (Paul Robinson)
Deeply committed to his Christian faith, Brother Daniel facilitates reconciliation among people who previously engaged in horrific violence against each other. “Daniel has developed a model of peacemaking where warring communities and individuals openly confess their wrong doings, forgive each other, and help each other heal their wounded hearts and spirits.” ( Peter Macharia)
Additionally, at the Center for Church Renewal and Global Mission, Brother Daniel and his colleagues address the hard theological questions and real challenges that face D.R. Congo today. “Where is God in the midst of suffering?” “How is the Church responding to HIV/AIDS?” “How can we forgive those who killed our brothers and sisters…?” By training Church leaders and Christians to promote healing and forgiveness, the Center encourages participants to “embody a theology that is uniquely suited for the war-torn, but resilient communities of D.R.Congo.”[iii]
The Congo Initiative also runs the Université Chrétienne Bilingue Du Congo (Christian Bilingual University of Congo – UCBC) where Brother Daniel serves as Chaplain and mentors students. In a country whose past is scarred by tribal conflicts, the transformation that one student from the Hema tribe experienced is profound. After participating in Brother Daniel’s training, the student exclaimed “I never thought I could have the kind of friendships and relationships that I have [at UCBC] with my fellow peers who are Lendu.”
Expansive in scale, the Congo Initiative also implements the following programs: the Center for Development and Partnership (micro-finance, income generation and resource mobilization); the Center for Community and Family Renewal (health, child development, women’s rehabilitation); the Center for Professional Development and Vocational Training (skills and vocational training, professional development); and the Center for the Creative Arts (Christian music, TV/radio, visual art).
Widows and children appear over the horizon, defiantly marching across the parched earth. Nearby, a small river separates the Turkana-Pokot border in northern Kenya. The remaining livestock graze nearby, guarded by herders with AK-47s. Gorgeous colors demand attention as women march in brightly colored dresses, yet their hearts are heavy. More than 300 of their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers have been killed during revenge attacks.
Enter Boaz Keibarak, a young Pokot man who grew up experiencing persistent violence between rival ethnic groups. Deadly clashes between the Turkana and Pokot villages are often sparked by cattle raids[i] and exacerbated by drought, politics, land disputes and the excessive number of automatic weapons (e.g., AK-47s) owned by young men. After the death of his father, Boaz and his mother were left with nothing. Their home had been burned to the ground following an inheritance dispute – and Boaz left the village as part of a negotiated agreement with village elders so his mother could remain.[ii] Boaz lived on the streets until moving into a ministry for the American Baptist Church. Inspired to transform his life, Boaz studied the gospel and enrolled in a two-week conflict transformation course, paving the way for what would become his future vocation. It didn’t take long before his new skills were put to the ultimate test.[iii]
As a fledgling peacemaker and conflict mediator, Boaz sold the livestock he had been able to accumulate to pay for a trip to the village of Lorogon, where the Turkana people were under siege by armed men from the Pokot. The conflict was a territorial dispute and local authorities were not willing to enter the fray. Boaz, risking his life, entered the village and brokered an end to the hostilities between the village elders. Encouraged by his success and having gained the trust of the elders, Boaz was awarded funding from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America to train more than 450 people in four village hot spots, all within the Turkana/Pokot regions. These trainings incorporated an experiential learning process due to high illiteracy rates, laying critical groundwork for improved relations between the Turkana and Pokot people.
The impact of Boaz’s work has already reached beyond Kenya. In Zimbabwe, he collaborated with another young peacemaker, Lance Muteyo,[iv] to help rural chiefs solve various conflicts in Masvingo Province. An excellent singer, Boaz also formed a choir among his Zimbabwean trainees to promote unity and creativity. After completing Boaz’s training, the head chief of one village tried to entice Boaz to stay with a generous land offer, which would allow Boaz to “stay forever…preaching the gospel of peace.”
Today, Boaz Keibarak is the co-founder of the Pan African Peace Network, and is president and founder of the Kingdom of Peace and Development (KOPAD), an organization that works for peace and reconciliation between inter-tribal communities in Kenya, as well as across Uganda and South Sudan. Boaz serves as the Board Secretary of the District Peace Committee of Kenya and as the pastor of The Rock Baptist Church of Kenya.
[ii] Keibarak, Boaz. “From Street Boy to President of Peace: My Vocation as a Peacemaker.” Bautistas Por La Paz. November 10, 2014. Accessed August 12, 2015.
“My heart was gripped with sorrow and anger,” peace activist Offuh James Offuh recalled after meeting with Alain Lamkan Coulibaly, president of the Ivory Coast Albinos Association. James had listened as Coulibaly described the daily horrors experienced by persons with albinism in Côte d’Ivoire. Many employers refuse to hire persons with albinism for jobs. In public spaces, people humiliate, spit on and run from persons with albinism. Erroneous superstitions and myths lead to traumatic and fatal attacks, including infanticide, sale and abandonment of children, trafficking in persons, trade in organs and ritual attacks.[i] James knew he must do something.
War has been a stark reality for James and his family. James was born and raised in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire after his parents fled Igbo, Nigeria during the late 1960’s Biafran War. Since 2002, James witnessed his homeland, Côte d’Ivoire, ravaged by two civil wars. Deeply motivated by the teachings of Jesus and inspired by the exceptional story of 200 Muslims and Christians uniting for peace[ii] in Jos, Nigeria, James founded United for Peace Against Conflict International (UFPACI) “to create safe spaces” for dialogue and community healing among warring tribes. At the site of the 2011 post-election massacre in Duékoué, Côte d’Ivoire , James and his UFPACI team braved the risk of conflict to reconcile the Guerre, Mossi-Burkinabe, Malinke and Dozos tribes in 2013. [iii] Although time had passed since the 2011 election, the two tribal reconciliation events led by UFPACI required military protection due to recent killings. Members of the Dozos tribe were hiding in the forest but UFPACI was able to gather leaders and members of the feuding tribes. James spoke eloquently and members of each tribe, including women and youth, shared their perspectives, lessons learned and hope for the future. By the end of the dialogues, even the military security was participating!
Then in 2014, UFPACI continued its groundbreaking reconciliation efforts, this time between Côte d’Ivoire’s Albino and Non-Albino citizens. Through dialogues and workshops,[iv] James and his team confronted the country’s troubled history of “murdering, ritual sacrifices, kidnappings and the exclusion of African citizens with albinism.” Workshop participants described the pain of prejudice, abuse and fear – in addition to the constant stress of having vision and skin problems including skin cancer. Several young participants had already attempted suicide.[v] When James and UFPACI created space for persons with and without albinism to speak with each other, participants were transformed:
“…The Albinos are marginalized and discriminated against…I discovered they are humans like us and we need to love them.”[vi] – UFPACI Workshop participant
James enjoys working at the grassroots level and invites people to participate in UFPACI workshops from diverse local communities across Côte d’Ivoire, where he encourages students to become “artisans of peace.” A talented leader, James has also trained personnel from UNESCO and Côte d’Ivoire’s Ministry of Education through UFPACI programs. James champions the development of communication skills and relationship building. He believes that dialogue mitigates distrust and builds mutual understanding, forging the way towards a more unified and harmonious Côte d’Ivoire.
“Recognizing our common destiny, we envision a world in which love becomes the prevailing human function, cooperating together with all cultures, races, nations and religions for the benefit of all life.”[vii]
– Offuh James Offuh, Founder and President, United for Peace Against Conflict International
[i] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session24/Documents/A_HRC_24_57_ENG.doc OHCHR. United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council. Twenty-Fourth Session. Agenda items 2 and 3. Pg. 5.