Young people are a big part of the population of Kuria, a traditional community found in Migori County, Kenya. Kuria is further subdivided into four clans namely Wanyabasi, Weirege, Warenchoka and the Wakira clans. It is believed that each clan had a common ancestor, identifying themselves with a wild animal that they believe can’t be killed in their favour. For example, the Wakira clan identify themselves as Inchugu, which means elephant, so descendants of the Wakira clan will never kill an elephant for whatever reason since it is believed to be their protector. Farming is central the livelihood of Kuria, with families mostly into maize farming, tobacco farming and cattle-raising.
All clans are of Bantu (Swahili) background and share a common language, Kuria. With this rich culture as a backdrop – interesting ethnic music and dances and very traditional rites from marriages to circumcision – lies the tradition of cattle-rustling that has kept the dynamics of grassroots conflict going in circles.
For generations and generations, cattle-rustling has been practiced by young males and is even regarded as a symbol of courage and readiness to start a family. In order to pay dowry for a bride, young males are asked to steal or raid cattle from a neighboring clan. It is a widely practiced activity, meant to show valor, manhood and pride. Poverty is one of the most pressing issues faced by the clans with victim communities being forced to retaliate and steal back as a form of revenge. This unending cycle of cattle-rustling, and the clan members’ an eye for an eye mindset has perpetuated inter-clan conflicts to such extreme levels of violence.
Young people are center stage in all these physical, social, psychological, structural and cultural violence – as perpetrators, as victims, and most probably both. Young women and girls are forced to drop out of school and get married after attaining maturity through FGM (female genital mutilation), sometimes without their consent or the freedom to be able to choose and decide for themselves. Young people are also manipulated by politicians who promise them a better life out of poverty, encouraging them to fight other clans for their own personal gain. Youth are seen as powerless, easily manipulated and brainwashed because they are poor. They don’t have skills they could put into use, therefore making them vulnerable to bad influences among their peers – drug abuse, prostitution, and violence.
How it all started
In November of 2010, after the most violent clash between the Wanyabasi and Weirege clans, my organization Kuria Development Community for the Marginalized (KDCM) had a burning urge to do something and begin the journey for change. Comprised of young volunteers from all 4 clans, KDCM offered support for rehabilitation, as well as business coaching and mentorship to the victims of the conflict, most of them school drop-outs. We divided participants into groups, each consisting of equal numbers of youth from the four clans in conflict. Together, they designed business ideas which they think will be beneficial for their communities. The joint venture they established was registered into the Interactive Micro-Finance Project, a project organised by KDCM and The Gemach Project, a USA-based NGO that works to empower poor people in marginalized communities like Kuria.
The Interactive Micro-Finance Project allowed youth groups to access interest-free loans to help them with their start-ups. After repaying back the loan, they were encouraged to use profits earned to continue their independent businesses onwards, creating more employment and ensuring sustainability.
Using the same strategy, the next group in the project was trained by the previous beneficiaries since they now had more experience. They become Peace Ambassadors in their respective clans.
By January 2012, we were bringing together young people and widowed women from the four clans in training sessions on business and other essential life skills. Recognizing that the lack of formal education amongst the youth was a barrier to their development, KDCM empowered vulnerable young people by partnering with a local polytechnic which welcomes youth from the conflict affected villages regardless of their situation and without bias. They were equipped with skills like plumbing, tailoring, carpentry, masonry and many others – with the aim of making them valuable in the eyes of the community, while at the same time getting them ready for employment.
Joint Chicken Poultry Cooperative
In the course of this healing, we happened to convince two clans to allow their sons and daughters to join our organization for a pilot project where they were to carry out a poultry project jointly as an IGA that would help them earn income for a start-up.
This Interactive Micro-Finance Project involving youth from the Wanyabasi and Weirege clans was about managing poultry in a chicken cooperative where they all had an equal share in the business. Equal share meant that they were to share responsibilities and work in shifts to feed the chicken, as well as jointly market their produce. KDCM supports them by finding a market on their behalf as well as partnering with private and public institutions for egg and chicken supply from the youth poultry farms.
Bearing fruitful results
This project has proven important because it was a start to solving many social problems using one simple idea, and it also made the youth and the entire community realize their roles in peacebuilding and development.
Since the initiation of this particular project in 2012, we have had over 15 groups 300 youth and poor widowed women benefit from our trainings and poultry ventures. Thanks to our poultry farms projects, we are seeing an improvement in the way people from both clans relate. They now organize social events like group dances, games and group discussions involving people from both clans. A bond is being created between them.
The initiative has established trust, especially in doing business together. We have them forming partnerships and borrowing funds from us to carry out businesses as groups. Incidences of conflict between clans have reduced, and war between the clans that were previously in conflict have not reoccurred. No house torching has been reported because the young people usually involved are now actively participating in development activities.
Women are more empowered. Kuria is a community where women were undermined and looked down upon. They are believed to be meant to serve a man, forced to get married at tender ages (13 to 15 years old), give birth to a huge number of children in a family (beaten when they refuse to have sex), and denied the right to education and freedom to develop. Many have been left widows because their husbands died as a consequence of war or HIV/AIDS. Polygamy is also embraced in Kuria with men having more than 5 wives, contributing to more poverty as these men are not able to provide for a huge family, and abandon it all to women who have nothing.
Women were encouraged to actively take part in our projects because they were mostly threatened by the traditional culture that undermines their development. Women were trained, taught about their rights, and were given an awareness of gender equality. They were given small amounts of interest free loans as startup capital to do business.
To date, there are over 100 widowed women from the four clans benefiting from our micro loans. Every woman now feels empowered to provide and protect their families, and many children are now attending schools.
Aside from the poultry ventures, we have introduced personal interest free loans for individual benefit, giving opportunities those people who are talented but lack collateral to access loans from other financial institutions and banks. We fund these individuals with projects like corn millers. These are also given in form of a loan and when the loan is repaid the money is then lent out to another group of needy people. Through this cycle, we have realized significant impact on the lives of the people we are funding. We also have some young people establish bookshops and reading rooms and from the income generated, they repay back the loans for others to benefit from.
While we can’t say that cattle-rustling has completely stopped, understanding that it is also embedded in our culture, we still believe that it is a long process that involves changing mindsets while at the same time creating alternative means of generating income.
Achievements come with challenges – and we are aware that our resources are too limited to cater to the rising number of micro loan proposals from young people and women. Meeting these needs requires stronger support from both the private and public sector.
The project with young people has made us understand more the role of the youth in peace building and the development of the communities we live in. We have had impact in building a just and peaceful community, but still much needs to be done in order for us to attain our goals. Our poultry projects encounter disease outbreaks that leads to loss of large numbers of chicken demoralizing the participants, we lack enough funds to cater for the huge population in Kuria so many still feel sidelined from our projects because their applications are pending. We still need to increase the capacity of our team in order to be more effective and also sensitize men in Kuria to the role of women in peacebuilding and development in the sense that we can reduce the high rates of gender violence in our families. Nonetheless, with your help, “WE CAN AND WE ARE FOR PEACE”.
Story: Silvanus Babere is a 23 year Peacebuilder from Kenya. He is a member of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a college business student, and the Founder and CEO of Kuria Development Community for the Marginalized (www.kuriadcm.org), a youth-led volunteer non-profit organization working to empower the poor, rural and conflict-affected communities.
Artist: Tatiana Paz Carriazo