The private sector gets back to building peace

Amid the normal noise of our zero-sum politics, KEPSA recently launched the fourth phase of its Mkenya Daima project, which is all about building a more peaceful and cohesive society. The new programme will work on our much-neglected national values, and on helping us to become more responsible citizens.

The initial campaign resulted from the decision by the private sector to get involved in peace-building, following the devastating consequences of the post-election violence of 2008. The first phase of the campaign, in the build up to the 2013 election, was dubbed Mwenye-nchi sio Mwananchi, and it was about building commitment to peaceful elections. It was followed by one that celebrated the good that exists in Kenya and handled the negatives that divide us. The third phase emphasised that rights go along with responsibilities, and that each Kenyan is responsible for Kenya.

Through all the campaigns, stakeholders beyond the commercial private sector were brought together, including civil society, religious groups, the media, musicians, and university students, all to build peace. Support also came from politicians who, even as they hunted for votes in the 2013 polls, appealed to their supporters to maintain peace. The media too conveyed the peace messages, and their airing of the presidential debates was a notable first for the country.

The next phase will encourage the adoption of national values, again encouraging (I don’t like the word “instilling”) a sense of responsibility, and fostering character change at the individual, institutional and national level. It will do this in the ongoing context of building national cohesion and peace, encouraged by the sense that the messages of past phases have indeed inspired Kenyans to co-exist peacefully, enjoy freedom with responsibility, and focus on the goals of Vision 2030.

During the launch UNDP Resident Representative Nardos Bekele-Thomas showed how strongly she feels about peace-building and about the key role of the private sector in supporting it. She challenged Kenyans to take a more active role in running the country’s affairs, acknowledging that since independence the country has been a bastion of peace in a troubled region, offering leadership and refuge to its neighbours.

“Kenya can be greater than it is once Kenyans realise they employ the politicians, and indeed all arms of government,” she stated, adding that “the constitution is only as strong as the people who made it. You can have the best constitution in the world, but it is no good if the people do not drive action to build prosperity.”

Ken Njiru from the Uungwana Institute, a member of the Mkenya Daima steering team, gave a presentation on the next phase, to be called “MKenya Muungwana Daima 2030”, explaining that its objective is to develop a values-based culture among Kenyans, so we take responsibility for the running of the country in an ethical way.

Reinforcing Nardos Beekele’s message, he pointed out that we created our institutions, and when they don’t work we are the ones who must fix them. We need a “Muungwana culture” that can only be developed by embracing healthy values. This is easily said. Indeed it’s all spelt out in our constitution, in the values pillar of Vision 2030, in the work of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, and in the National Values System.

But who knows how to change things? Who knows how to move, even a little, from our actual to our aspirational values? How do we increase our sense of patriotism and adopt a “Kenya First” mentality rather than a “Me First” one? Njiru rightly identified that what we need is people who understand change management, and so the campaign must reach out to practitioners in this field. (Good news: I’m one of them, describing my work as “aligning people’s energy around common visions and values”.)

Mkenya Daima Steering Committee Chair Vimal Shah told us that this phase of Mkenya Daima will cover five years, up to and beyond the next election. The business community will continue to be at the forefront, maintaining a non-partisan approach and encouraging Kenyans to put aside their political differences for the greater interest of the country. He also introduced popular rap singer Juliani, who is part of the campaign and is clearly a thoughtful and delightful young man.

Mkenya Daima Steering Committee Vice-Chair Polycarp Igathe urged the private sector to drive the peace agenda “so as to ensure healthy and hygienic conversations within and outside government” and to ensure a peaceful election in 2017. I particularly liked his statements that we need to move the narrative “from protest to prosperity”, and that peace building is a continuous effort.

Having been part of the earlier campaign I see the need to up the level of contribution from civil society and the religious leaders. I remember that some civil society people felt we private sector people were only in it “to assure business continuity”. Well we are concerned about that, as all Kenyans should be, but it would be quite unfair to assume it’s only the bottom line we worry about.

We need to link up with the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, supporting their work – which is much more than combating hate speech. And we must also support the many wonderful peace-building NGOs.

Above all we must be wary of merely preaching to the already converted. Our big challenge is to reach out to those who are hard to convert: to the politicians (except the moderates, who are often the less influential and also largely ignored by the media), the disaffected youth, the matatu drivers and others who are least interested in what we are preaching. This includes much of the media, who love nothing more than conflict and confrontation.

Very ambitiously, the campaign envisages a corruption-free Kenya, and it is not by coincidence that last week’s Presidential Round Table with the private sector focused heavily on this subject, along with the development of entrepreneurship. Watch this space.

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Managing stress… with mindfulness

Over twenty years ago, my friend Kay Shamte and I decided to put together an event on stress management. We were far from confident that Kenyans would feel comfortable talking about the subject, but to our great relief it turned out that the groups we assembled were extremely pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the symptoms and sources of their stress, along with what they could do to cope with it better.

A few months later, encouraged by the earlier positive reception, I conducted such a session at a coastal hotel with the board and senior management of a major parastatal. Towards the end, in the late afternoon, I was leading them in deep breathing exercises, their spectacles on the tables in front of them and the lights switched off. While they were in this blissful state their Permanent Secretary entered the silent gloom to close the event – you can just imagine his confusion!

After another such session, for a collection of senior managers gathered by the Kenya Institute of Management, two of the participants expressed outrage when evaluating my performance, insisting I should never be allowed to run any event for KIM again as for some strange reason I had offended their religious beliefs.

Religious beliefs? Well yes, it turns out that even the innocent activity of deep, calm breathing, without even a whisper of a thought in the direction of meditation, is enough to arouse feelings of serious unease in some people. To such folk it smacks of spirituality, of New Age mysticism, with all the negative connotations of… er, I’m not quite sure what. The fact that deep breathing and meditation are (rightly) associated with Buddhism can merely add fuel to this spurious fire.

No wonder, therefore, that a less threatening word for relaxing, de-stressing, focusing, being “present”, and all such good things has come into increasingly common use: “Mindfulness”. For those who can’t handle terms they feel clash with their sense of what is proper, mindfulness puts them more at ease. It’s far away from the world of self-help gurus, swamis with long hair and strange clothes, and is adequately palatable for your average executive in a suit.

I was led to reflect on my earlier experiences while watching a video of down-to-earth American television anchor Dan Harris telling an audience of Silicon Valley techies how he had embarked on a skeptical odyssey through the strange worlds of spirituality and self-help… and through it discovered a way to become happier. (Here’s the link: It also led him to write a book about his journey, 10% Happier.

After having a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America, Harris knew he had to make some changes. A lifelong non-believer, he found himself on a bizarre adventure, as a result of which he eventually realised that the source of his problems was the very thing he always thought was his greatest asset: the incessant, insatiable voice in his head, which had both propelled him through the ranks of a highly competitive business and also led him to make the bad decisions that provoked his on-air freeze.

We all have a voice in our head, explained Harris. It’s what makes us lose our temper unnecessarily, check our e-mails compulsively, eat when we’re not hungry, and fixate on the past and the future at the expense of the present. Most of us assume we’re stuck with this voice and that there is nothing we can do to rein it in. But Harris stumbled on a way.

It was a far cry from the miracle cures peddled by the self-help swamis he met, something he always assumed to be either impossible or useless: it was meditation. After learning about research that suggests meditation can do everything from lower your blood pressure to rewire your brain, Harris started exploring how CEOs, scientists, and even marines are now using it to reach increased calmness, focus and happiness. But why should we be surprised? I’ve also heard of prisoners in jails benefitting greatly from practicing meditation.

For many (not excluding me), when we are being taught to meditate our minds simply refuse to empty as instructed. The best we can manage is contemplation, despite being guided to focus on our breath as it emerges from our nose, or in other ways to ban our mental clutter. Like Harris, we feel like failures, frustrated by our inability to not think, to not keep processing issues and to-do lists.

My advice? Don’t be too ambitious, and certainly not as you start. I recently attended a musical function at my grandsons’ primary school, and guess what: to settle the children down, to have them be fully present, the teacher running the show got us all to indulge in a mindfulness exercise – some deep breathing, which worked like a charm. Well, you might say, this was California. But also this year, during a programme hosted by the World Bank I attended for consultants like myself (the subject of an earlier column), I was delighted to see that at the end of one of the days a slot was reserved for mindfulness. Yes, the World Bank, promoting mindfulness.

So now, emboldened by these two experiences, these days when I am running a workshop and I want an unruly group to pay attention, or a flagging one to re-energise, I lead them in deep breathing exercises. It works like a charm, and needless to say I don’t mention any “M” words.

My advice to the sober readers of this column is therefore to put aside the distracting myths that accompany meditation and mindfulness. Just think of them as Mark Williams and Danny Penman describe in their book, Mindfulness – a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, as “mental training” that can readily exist within anyone’s religious beliefs, or in their absence. And don’t think in terms of failure or success. Just breathe deeply!

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