A month ago I was privileged to attend the launch of Alice Wairimu Nderitu’s book on national cohesion and integration, Kenya, Bridging Ethnic Divides. Ms Nderitu was a founding Commissioner of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), and before and since she has enjoyed a distinguished career promoting the cause of cohesion and integration, in Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere.
The chief guest at the launch was Dr Fred Matiang’i, the Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Interior, and in his remarks he said that if he were still at the Ministry of Education he would have ensured the book was made standard reading at all the teacher training colleges, adding that he would recommend to his colleague that this be so.
Let me go further: in my view every Kenyan owes it to themselves to read this book. Not just Kenyans, but all those who seek a richer understanding of how ethnic tensions come about and sometimes get out of hand, and how thoughtful, purposeful people like Ms Nderitu, her colleagues in the NCIC and others set about identifying the root causes of the problem and seeing how to build a more cohesive and integrated society in which everyone can grow and prosper.
The NCIC is largely known for going after those who utter hate speech. But this is just the visible tip of their cohesion nurturing iceberg – the one the media relishes, as it is usually prominent politicians who are put on the spot by the commission.
Being taken behind the scenes by this former NCIC commissioner is therefore particularly valuable, as it reveals the almost unknown mass of the NCIC iceberg.
She writes eloquently about Kenya’s two-steps-forward, two-steps-backward history of ethnic relations (a great summary of the country’s past, from colonial and even pre-colonial times onward); about the build-up to the formation of this, the only permanent independent commission to have been formed following the 2008 post-election violence; about how they dug into their subject, consulting widely and evolving strategies to move Kenya forward on a more sustainable basis; and about how they have been engaging at all levels in our society and in all corners of the republic to move us forward.
At the launch Ms Nderitu told us that when she was a commissioner with NCIC what drove her was to make a difference. She talked about the establishment of the District Peace Committees, designed to provide early warnings of unrest, leading to swift responses. “We knew violence was coming,” she remembers being told, “but we didn’t know whom to tell.”
She recognised what a painful topic ethnicism is, and drew attention to the need to develop facilitators who can bring people together – from the youngest age.
During her time with NCIC I supported the commission in various ways, so I know from personal experience how serious she and her colleagues were, and how many quiet initiatives they undertook. It is indeed in the nature of such work that to be effective much of it must take place behind the scenes, and so to read about it now is the more necessary. Their successors too, the current team, are equally assumed by many to be little more than “The Hate Commission”, and it is an equally unjustified jibe.
Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia was the opening speaker at the launch, and he commented that “writing is a spiritual discipline that clarifies the mind and processes confusing emotions,” adding that “a difficult day can be redeemed by writing about it.”
Reading too can serve such a purpose, although probably more mildly. So I conclude by urging everyone to indulge in the spiritual discipline of reading every page of Kenya, Bridging Ethnic Divides, and through doing so to process your confusing emotions.
But however necessary, that remains insufficient. To reach the necessary readers must not only conclude that Kenya’s ethnic divides have so sadly held Kenya back from fulfilling its potential.
We must not only decide to reach out to “the other” in and beyond our communities. We must influence others to do so. Not least our politicians, so they can seek votes and enjoy power through different paradigms.