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Betting on peace as high-stakes elections approach

Kenya, January 31, 2013

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  • Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer visited many communities that were at the center of 2007's violence. Youth leaders have worked hard to recover and bridge divides to prevent the same horrors during the March 4 elections. Photo: Beryl Okundi/Mercy Corps
  • Neal, Mercy Corps Kenya leaders, and members of the Mutwot Village youth bunge, one of thousands in the network promoting peace and economic opportunity for young people in Kenya. Photo: Beryl Okundi/Mercy Corps

Amani means peace in Swahili. And Kenyans are working hard to make amani a reality in their upcoming general elections on March 4.

I was just in Eldoret, a town in western Kenya's beautiful Rift Valley, and also the epicenter of the horrific political and tribal violence that erupted around the country’s last elections in late 2007. Approximately 1,500 people died, many hacked by machetes. More than half a million people fled their homes. Much of the violence was carried out by youth gangs, stirred up by political demigods.

Such bloodletting shocked Kenyan society.

Today, Kenyans all across the social spectrum are determined that the next elections will be peaceful. The primaries earlier this month, while disorganized, were largely peaceful.

Mercy Corps (along with many others) has been working with women and youth leaders in those communities that witnessed the worst violence. These leaders represent the major tribal groups and political parties. They are united in doing everything they can to ensure a peaceful political process.

With funding from USAID, Mercy Corps has supported the training of hundreds of women and youth groups in how to prevent violence, how to map potential hotspots, and how to intervene to stop incidents from escalating. We have helped develop a youth movement, The National Youth Bunge Association, now close to half a million strong and growing. We have partnered with many local groups, including Africa Sports and Talents Empowerment Programme (leveraging sports to bridge ethnic divides), Ushahidi (leveraging innovative technology for interactive mapping and information collection) and Nairobi’s popular HomeBoyz radio station (leveraging youth-focused media).

These efforts, along with those of the government and private sector, are engaging millions of Kenyans as active peace ambassadors.

Of course, none of this guarantees peaceful elections. Yet, I am betting on peace. Because I saw firsthand how these efforts to prevent violence and promote positive change, especially at the community level, are paying off. And because of Mary and Nelson.

Mary, the leader of a women's group in Eldoret, told me, "We women from all our tribes will not allow our community to be split." Nelson, a youth leader who saw his close friend hacked to death, said, "I guarantee you that we youth will not allow violence again." I am betting on Mary and Nelson, and on the power of women and youth organised for peace and development.

The March elections will be a defining moment for Kenya and the region. More violence will have serious economic repercussions. The country’s economic growth was 7.1% in 2007; it dropped to 1.6% in 2008. This year, growth is forecasted to be back up around 5%, according to The World Bank. Moreover, Uganda, DR Congo, and South Sudan are all dependent on Kenya for its ports and the transport of goods and commodities.

Many Kenyans, as well as many of us from the global community, have invested deeply in the effort to keep 2007 from happening again. We believe Kenya can fulfill its place as a model of political stability and prosperity for the region. Going forward now, our role as a global community is to keep watch and continue to support transparent and peaceful elections — and the hopes of Kenyans like Mary and Nelson.

How You Can Help

Kenya is one of many places around the world where we are working to give young people the opportunities to improve their lives and communities. Your support helps us empower youth to build a stronger, more peaceful world. Donate today.