Rebuilding Relationships Through Good Neighborliness Seminars in the Rift Valley, Kenya

William Kiptoo

November 2013

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


In 1992 Kenya experienced "ethnic conflicts" or "land clashes", in the build-up towards the first multi-party general elections. The clashes started innocuously in 1991 in Meteitei farm in Nandi District in the Rift Valley that was inhabited by a mix of communities. It later spread to other parts of the country as the political campaigns for the 1992 election intensified. The conflicts continued into 1993 and 1997; and reoccured again in 2007 with far worse consequences. This reflection is confined to a period before 2007.

The wave of the 1992/93 inter-ethnic conflict in the larger parts of the Rift Valley, Nyanza, Western and some parts of the Coastal provinces was unprecedented.[2] According to the African Watch report (1993) the violence was state-sponsored. Politicians took advantage of ethnicity to perpetuate their dominance and hegemony in an atmosphere characterized by perceptions of scarce resources, fear and prejudice. The consequences: victims were left homeless, landless, destitute, injured, abused and dead.[3]

At the height of the displacement, I was a part of a team that implemented a Community Peacebuilding and Reconciliation Project of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK). The NCCK was among the first organizations to respond to the 1992 violence in the Rift Valley and Western Kenya through a series of interventions.

The project started as the "Land Clashes Project" then became the "Relief and Rehabilitation Project", the "Peace and Reconciliation Project", and later the "Community Peacebuilding and Development Project". It began by providing emergency assistance to the displaced families in the camps, and then went on to address the resettlement needs of the "victims" who were returning to their farms. Later NCCK began to focus more on re-integration and healing of the "clash victims" in which relationship-building among the affected communities took center stage.

During the emergency period NCCK provided emergency relief assistance to about 40,000 families (approximately 250,000 people) in 136 camps and trading centers.[4] The families received food, shelter and sanitation facilities as well as addressing the needs of children and women who were particularly vulnerable due to the poor living conditions in the camps. The women and girls were particularly vulnerable to sexual assault.

After the violence many families became desperate to return home. NCCK provided building materials to many of them. However, the majority of the beneficiaries were almost exclusively from one ethnic community, largely perceived as unwanted "foreigners" in the areas where they had previously lived. Insecurity and renewed hostilities that still existed in the target areas became a major concern. It was then that NCCK realized the need to engage all the communities in a process to rebuild relationships through a conflict transformation method that would facilitate reintegration of IDPs back into their homes. It is this search for an appropriate response that led to the adaptation and evolution of the NCCK intervention through the phases described above and the Good Neighborliness (GN) seminars.

In those early days of its interventions, NCCK had made contact with a leading peacebuilding organization, the Nairobi Peace Initiative - Africa (NPI-Africa). The initial focus of the NCCK/NPI-Africa's cooperation was the accompaniment of the NCCK Peace Task Force (PTF) as it initiated a dialogue processes in some of the affected areas. This collaboration was central in all of the NCCK's interventions, including the Good Neighborliness seminars.[5]

Good Neighborliness Seminars

There were a number of contextual considerations in the choice of the Good Neighborliness seminars approach. First, the political sensitivity in the country in general and in the project area in particular was such that a non-threatening approach was necessary. Holding what were effectively "problem-solving" and "conflict resolution" workshops under the banner of promoting good neighborliness was considered to be a safe approach. Second, the Kenyan government officials were very suspicious of the work of "NGOs", many of which were perceived as anti-government due to their outspokenness. There was no doubt that their work was necessary; however in a pre-dominantly pro-government region, being seen to be anti-government was counter-productive for the goal of bringing communities together. Third, the local level government officials were very influential and therefore needed to be brought on board. They would not, however, associate themselves in a process that could expose them to censure by their seniors in case the process attracted negative attention.[6]

NCCK's overall goal remained to have communities in the Rift Valley coexist harmoniously and to reduce the level of violence in the affected areas. Good neighborliness became a connecting point. In this context, first and foremost a "neighbor" referred to persons who were members of a community other than one's own. Secondly, there was kinship that had developed out of some intermarriage that occurred and this became a starting point to strengthen good neighborliness.[7] Neighborliness therefore, was an important aspect of community relationships.

GN seminars comprised a series of community-level workshops, conducted in remote villages where conflict had occurred. It targeted all sectors of the community, across the conflict divide and included a broad range of actors such as women, youth and elders. The guiding philosophy was that of reconciliation would be achieved through constructive dialogue, mutual cooperation and respect for the rights of individuals and communities.

Initially, the GN seminars targeted local leaders such as elders, religious leaders, women, and youth leaders. NCCK staff would kick off the seminars with presentations aimed at spurring discussions and then invite participants to open discussions. Initially the opening presentations dealt with four themes: peace and reconciliation; peace and leadership; peace and development, and participants' perspectives on peace. Later on, other topics such as harmonious coexistence, the role of church in peace making, the church and the state, and traditional methods of reconciliation were added to the initial list. Other workshops that targeted specific groups (such as youths who had been warriors, and elders who played multiple roles in conflicts, sometimes constructive, sometimes not) were held with NPI-Africa staff joining in to lead some of the workshops. Ways were also found to bring in the influential government representatives, known as the Provincial Administration (PA).[8] Through the GN seminars, it was hoped that communities, through dialogue among themselves, would be encouraged to coexist, respect each other and appreciate their interdependence. One mark of the success of the process was that members of the PA moved from being reluctant and suspicious participants, to actually being the conveners of the Seminars.

Peace Facilitators[9] appointed by the community, were instrumental in organizing GN seminars. PF worked closely with the Village Peace and Development Committees (VPDCs) and Areas Peace and Development Committees (APDCs)[10] to reach out to the youth, women and elders in the community and made follow-up on the outcomes of the GN seminars.

NCCK would then encourage neighbors who participated in the GN seminars to engage in some joint social activities and income generation projects to solidify their friendship. Such activities provided communities with platforms to further dialogue. Even though NCCK continued to provide building materials for the displaced families during the subsequent phases of the project, neighbors became pivots for one another as they participated in rebuilding the houses of the same neighbors they once destroyed during violence.

Key Outcomes of Good Neighborliness seminars

One of the major concrete outcomes of the GN seminars was the establishment of VPDCs and APDCs. There were about 166 VPDCs and 24 APDCs in 9 districts each composed of 22-24 people that were formed through the local network of local churches spread across the region[11]. VPDCs and APDCs met on a monthly basis to analyze the local peace situation and to plan for appropriate strategic response. They also constantly monitored incidences of violence within their locality and coordinated other local activities with the NCCK and other stakeholders.

GN seminars became the platform where communities dialogued and reflected on their experiences. For the "host"[12] communities it was a show of solidarity with their displaced neighbors and a beginning of a renewed relationship. Through the work of the VPDCs and APDCs, NCCK and NPI-Africa assisted communities to develop a functional community-based system of early warning and early response, uniquely responsive to their local situations. For example, whenever there was imminent attack, the VPDCs would alert the people to move to safer areas to avert loss. VPDCs reached out to the relevant authorities to mobilize support for a quick response. At the local level, NCCK and NPI-Africa continued to build partnerships with various stakeholders and to raise awareness about the need to work together so as to avoid further violence during elections times.

NCCK and NPI-Africa also expanded this reach to critical groups involved directly or indirectly in violence, such as the Ngorokos (youthful raiders) and Laibons (elders). They also included other crucial constituencies such as women, and the Provincial Administration, scaling up to involve Members of Parliament and top religious leaders. This enabled the NCCK to rebuild trust with these communities; that trust had previously been shattered by the perception that NCCK was political and anti-government (the president at the time hailed from the dominant community in the region). The process helped to create a network of trained peace animators who then took on the responsibility of training others.[13]

Challenges and Lessons Learnt

One of the challenges confronting peace work at the level at which the GN seminars were implemented is that it does not easily address the broader systemic and root causes of the conflicts. We found out that focusing on relationship building alone was not enough to address the problem especially those that required policy change. For example, there were those families who still mourned their dead members and had lost properties during the violence. Others were still struggling with the historical land grievances while others saw themselves as victims of poor governance and unequal social, political and economic structures.

We began to think more deeply about how these issues could be addressed at the policy level. Some of the questions that we asked were: Why did people feel so helpless and unable to defend themselves or demand for government's action during the violence? How could the government allow its citizens to be terrorized under its watch? Were there voices that were silenced? How could the cycle of violence continue un-averted for so long as the government watched? Why did the government fail to protect its citizens? What were the issues aggravating the violence and who exactly was involved, responsible or benefiting from violence? These were important questions to ask.

Luckily, our GN seminars approach had become a good starting point for engaging with these questions. We were at a point where we were no longer telling people what was right or wrong but listening more to what they were saying was right for themselves.


As with much of peace work it is not easy to quantify results of success of the process. However, reflecting on my experiences, I believe the GN seminars played an important role in facilitating dialogue among communities affected by the social and political violence. GN seminars bridged divisions that emerged out of the violence and brought neighbors together. Even though there were enormous challenges such as the lack of skills among the facilitators and lack of sufficient resources to sustain the program, GNs contributed to a large extent to the stability of the conflict-affected areas. The most fundamental question is how this process can be carried forward to help tackle the root causes of violence in the Rift Valley that feed into the circle of violence such as poor governance, poverty, inequalities, historical injustices, youth unemployment among others.


Africa Watch "Divide and Rule: State-sponsored Ethnic Violence in Kenya" (New York: Human Rights Watch, November 1993), pp. 16-17

Barasa Kundu Nyukuri (1997): The Impact of Past and Potential Ethnic Conflicts on Kenyan's Stability and Development. A paper prepared for the USAID Conference on Conflict Resolution in the Greater Horn of Africa. Department of History and Government University of Nairobi

Lederach, John Paul (2003). The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, Intercourse, PA: Good Books

NCCK Community Peace Building and Development (CPBD) project Progress Report (2000)

Samir Elhawary (2008). Crisis in Kenya: Land, Displacement and the Search for Durable Solutions, Overseas Development Institute.

[1] The author acknowledges additional information and comments received from George Wachira, the former Executive Director of NPI-Africa, who worked closely with the NCCK team in the execution of its peacebuilding work.

[2] Africa Watch "Divide and Rule: State-sponsored Ethnic Violence in Kenya" (New York: Human Rights Watch, November 1993), pp. 16-17

[3] Barasa Kundu Nyukuri (1997): The Impact of Past And Potential Ethnic Conflicts On Kenyan's Stability and Development. A paper prepared for the USAID Conference on Conflict resolution in the Greater Horn of Africa. Department of History and Government University of Nairobi

[4] NCCK Community Peace Building and Development (CPBD) project Progress report (2000)

[5] Personal communication with George Wachira, former executive director of NPI-Africa (April 2013).

[6] Personal communication with George Wachira, former executive director of NPI-Africa (April 2013).

[7] ibid.

[8] This is a hierarchical administrative structure made up of, in ascending order, Assistant Chief, Chief, District Officer, District Commissioner and the Provincial Commissioner, with the latter reporting directly to the head of state.

[9] Community volunteers that were trained by NCCK to be trainers of GN seminars

[10] These were community-based structures that grew out of the GN seminars and became part of the wider peacebuilding infrastructure at the community level. VPDC comprised mainly representatives of the communities (elders, women, youth,) in a given village. APDC had a wider representation of VPDCs members, area Chief and/or Assistant Chief, Church leader, local NGO representatives, local leaders etc. The local NCCK staff was often the Secretary of the committee.

[11] NCCK Community Peace Building and Development (CPBD) project Progress report (2000)

[12] The terminology of 'host community' was used out of the need to avoid the then common language of 'victims' and 'aggressors' that was polarizing and offensive to some. 'Host' was used to invoke the notion of welcoming back those that had been displaced by the violence. It is recognized that if the term is used out of context, it could be misleading and seen to imply that some citizens were 'hosting' others whereas, in fact, the displaced persons had a constitutional right to return to their land.

[13] Personal communication with George Wachira, former executive director of NPI-Africa. (April 2013).