I. Odinga: Touching the Hearts of People in Kenya
Written by Mrs. Ida Odinga, Chief Executive Officer, Spectra East Africa; Wife of Prime Minister Raila Odinga
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Address to the International Leadership Conference and Global Peace Festival
London, UK, November 22, 2008
Published in the journal Dialogue & Alliance, Spring/Summer 2010
About 30 years ago I lived very close to the Nairobi River. My little son then used to sneak into the river and come back with small fish in a bottle and ask me to feed them and keep them for him so that he could have them as pets.
Today if you go to the Nairobi River, you don’t even want to touch the water, never mind the fish. The fish are not there. Therefore, the Universal Peace Federation project mobilizing young people to clean the Nairobi River was fantastic. It was a very good idea because young people own the activity. They know the future belongs to the young people, and they know that unless they do something now to clean the river and make sure it remains clean, they have no future. Therefore, this was a very important thing in the lives of young people and the life of Kenya as a whole.
This Nairobi River had become a point where criminals used to gather and they kept people away from the river. Of course, criminal activities went on around the river. Since the river had become very dirty, criminals knew that people of good faith and character would not visit the river. That’s why it became important to clean that river — so that the criminal activities that took place along the river could be removed.
What are these criminal activities? There’s the brewing of illicit brews; there is the planting of certain plants. Also, people hide near the river because they know even the police don’t want to go there. So, by cleaning up the river, you are not just cleaning the river but also cleaning up the environment, cleaning up criminal activities, and making people come out into the light and become better people.
The clean-up project for the Nairobi River awakened the young people and gave them an alternative to sitting around idle or doing negative things. It showed the young people that the world belongs to them. The Nairobi River belongs to them. Nairobi, the city, belongs to them. They feel proud to go and work for these things. It has given them an idea of what they can do with themselves.
We had been through a very difficult period in the months of January and February, following the contested elections, where people came out to protest. They protested violently, and many people lost their lives. Many people were maimed, and property was destroyed. Most of these activities were carried out by the young people.
The young people reflected on their lives. They reflected on what they had just done and had a change of mind. They said, “We want peace. It is only through peaceful coexistence that we will be able to survive.”
Young people from different ethnic backgrounds and different religious backgrounds coming together with one destiny — recognizing the importance of being Kenyans and the importance of belonging to one family under God. They came together and said, “We want to promote peace and improve our environment.”
In Kenya we had taken peace for granted. We thought that wars and uprisings were activities reserved for our neighbors in Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, and so forth. When conflict visited us at home in Kenya, we realized we were in trouble.
Having been Ambassadors for Peace for a long time, it was very useful to us. My husband and I looked back at the values that we had learned through this organization and we realized that we are the ones who are in the right place at the right time to lead people into reconciliation and peace-building.
To begin with, I was shocked at the conflict. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I tried to say prayers many times, and many times I got lost in my prayers. I asked my friends to come and pray with me. I asked my friends to pray for the nation, but it was so difficult. I couldn’t see an end to this thing. Life had just come to an end. It was the end of our nation. It was the end of our people. It was the end of us.
I took a trip to one of the areas that was badly affected. I was perhaps the first person to go to this place. I visited the people whose homes had been burned and who, as a result, had to move into the church compound. I visited the people who had been hurt. Most of them had been shot in various parts of their bodies. I also visited a morgue and could see what had happened.
One particular scene that touched my heart was a young mother who apparently was killed as she was running away. At the time when she was killed, she had a baby tied onto her back and was holding the hand of another one. I don’t know what happened to the child whose hand she was holding, but the bullet went through the mother and through the baby on her back and killed both of them instantly. The two bodies were removed to the morgue and kept there. When I saw that, I felt hurt in my heart, and I knew we had to do something and do it immediately. We wanted to be leaders, but you cannot take pride in being a leader of the dead. You want to be a leader of the living. You want to be a leader of happiness, leading people who are happy and are at peace.
So what we learned from the Universal Peace Federation came in handy. What we learned is that we now have to change and talk to people. And I went and talked with people from all backgrounds. I told them, “This is not the Kenya we want. We want a peaceful Kenya. Let’s get back to where we should be.”
Sometimes I’ve wondered, if Hon. Odinga had not attended these meetings and not been a part of this institution, what would have happened to Kenya? The principles that we learned here, the principles of being one family under God, actually guided us. They became the major principles that guided us during this very difficult time. The principle of putting other people before yourself, the principle of putting other people’s interests before your personal interests, was very dominant and useful to us at this particular time, because many people who came out to fight may have thought they were fighting for him. But he said, “You don’t have to demonstrate like that. If you want to demonstrate, carry a twig, carry a wet handkerchief and wave it. That is demonstration. Don’t take a weapon and hurt your fellow Kenyans.”
I prayed a lot. I prayed a lot because I knew it was only God’s guidance that could keep us together. It was not easy. In the past I sometimes talked on national radio raising funds for people who had been affected by floods, and I gave my personal phone number. This personal number that I had given out at that earlier time was used during this time. Everywhere where there was trouble, people would call me, even in the middle of the night, at all times. I never switched off my phone. And they would tell me, “We have a problem here. We’re being attacked. Something is happening.”
I used the same phone to alert the police, to alert the authorities, to tell them exactly where they needed to go to help and so forth. So it was not an easy thing. And you could hear in the background as they talked about what was happening. Some people would say, “I want to tell you what’s happening but I have no money.” I had to look for a way of sending them air time so that they could call me back. And for some, even just talking to me was a relief.
When people are in trouble, sometimes it is not enough just to go there and talk to them, but listening to them is a critical part of the healing. Some of them just talk to you; you let them talk, and you listen. In the end they said, “Thank you very much for listening to me.” That’s what they needed.
Ambassadors for Peace sent me e-mails. They prayed with me, and believed in me. Some called me. This was a real source of encouragement. It helps you to focus once again when you feel you are lost.