By
Jonathan López
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07 March, 2012

Search a map for Burnt Forest and you will find a tiny town of 3,000 inhabitants surrounded by farm land. It is in the west of Kenya, not far from Lake Victoria.

Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye join people from Burnt Forest, Kenya, to celebrate the opening of a Peace Office in the town. The festivities, which were the culmination of several days of intensive mediation by Ashafa and Wuye, were covered by national newspapers and television. (Photo: Alan Channer)
Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye join people from Burnt Forest, Kenya, to celebrate the opening of a Peace Office in the town. The festivities, which were the culmination of several days of intensive mediation by Ashafa and Wuye, were covered by national newspapers and television. (Photo: Alan Channer)
Not long ago, its market was divided into three parts, corresponding to the area’s three main ethnic groups. In 2008 Burnt Forest witnessed unprecedented violence, following Kenya’s presidential election in 2007. The town was the epicentre of nationwide inter-ethnic violence which left over 1,000 dead.

Five years later, the Burnt Forest market is now unified and the relationship among neighbours has been transformed. Initiatives of Change brought this example of trust-building to its London centre, at an event entitled ‘An African answer to conflict’ on 28 February.

How did the reconciliation happen? The town was supported by the example of two Nigerians, Imam Muhammad Ashafa and the Pastor James Wuye from Kaduna, who have become peace-makers after being paradigms of inter-religious fighting. Tired of the violence, they found forgiveness and decided to work together for a better future.

Their story is portrayed in a documentary film, The Imam and the Pastor (2006), and in 2010 a sequel was produced, An African Answer, which shows the mediating work of the two Nigerian peace-makers when they were first invited to Burnt Forest. Both films are produced by FLTfilms, the production company of Initiatives of Change. At the London event, a new third short film, entitled Two years on, was screened, showing how well the new integrated market in Burnt Forest is working.

Imad Karam (left) with fellow film-maker Alan Channer (Photo: Mike Brown)
Imad Karam (left) with fellow film-maker Alan Channer (Photo: Mike Brown)
The films’ director, Alan Channer, told how the strength of character of the imam and the pastor and the message they deliver has encouraged him to live in Kenya for long periods, with the task of making the films as widely available as possible. Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General had earlier commented that ‘we must learn, indeed, from Pastor James and Imam Ashafa and multiply in a thousand places their experience of healing and reconciliation.’

Their message is simple: violence doesn’t solve problems, and such troubles should be solved by local people working together towards a better future. Burnt Forest has seen its inhabitants reconcile by talking sincerely and openly about their traumas caused by the violence and how to resolve their daily problems.

Trade is thriving between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities in the re-integrated market of Burnt Forest (Photo: Alan Channer)
Trade is thriving between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities in the re-integrated market of Burnt Forest (Photo: Alan Channer)
A local Peace Committee was set up to keep track of the process once the Imam and the Pastor returned to Nigeria. The local authorities have supported the Committee by giving it an office and place of meeting. Their whole intervention in Burnt Forest has been extremely cost effecting, without the need for a large-scale or world-acclaimed NGO or governments.

The London audience also saw another film, showing the imam and the pastor in a studio interview conducted by Professor Margaret Smith, from American University in Washington DC, and Imad Karam, co-director of FLTfilms.

One of the key points the two men highlight is how the process in Burnt Forest wasn’t imposed from outside. It was something which, with their guidance, came from the people and for the people themselves.

An attendee at the London event asked how the mediation could achieve all that it did. ‘Creating empathy, removing doubts’, says Pastor James in the filmed interview with Smith and Karam. In the panel discussion following the films, Imad Karam commented: ‘We went there as normal people. They get more confidence in you if they see you are just like them, if they see you are not coming to impose anything from outside.’

Two key moments are shown in

Burnt Forest market (Photo: Alan Channer)
Burnt Forest market (Photo: Alan Channer)
An African Answer. The local people taking part in the mediation by the two Nigerians are asked to write down their hates on paper. Then they are asked to throw their papers onto a fire. A simple action like this, which ends with the participants holding hands and singing a peace song in a circle, is purifying and helps to remove hatred.

Another key moment is when the Imam tells the local people, all of whom are Christians, about the goodness of Jesus. It is shocking for some that a Muslim tells Christians about the goodness of Christ. It makes them think: if a Muslim tells us this, how come we are in conflict with our own Christian neighbours? ‘I wouldn’t be a good Muslim if I didn’t encourage peace,’ comments the Imam.

Imad Karam, producer of An African Answer, highlighted the importance of not leaving anyone outside the process. In Burnt Forest, with its small population, it was important that everyone within the community got involved. Each and every neighbour should feel he or she is part of building a new trust among the inhabitants of the town. ‘If someone feels he is not part of the process, the process itself could get ruined,’ Karam said.

Wanjiku Kibunja Croy, a Kenyan consultant living in England and one of the panel of speakers, highlighted the need for counselling, portrayed in An African Answer. Violence creates traumas which those who haven’t suffered it can’t imagine. ‘The methodology shown in this film comes from inside the community, and it has achieved more than any NGOs present in the area,’ she said. ‘The Imam and the Pastor don’t even use the word empowerment, but I think that is just what happened in Burnt Forest.’

Taking a message of peace through the whole of Burnt Forest area (Photo:  FLTfilms)
Taking a message of peace through the whole of Burnt Forest area (Photo: FLTfilms)
Croy said that the main thing needed to avoid conflict is to close the gap between poor and rich, very noticeable in Kenya. She explained how many young people were involved in the riots following the presidential election because they didn’t have anything to lose, since they had nothing. ‘Many youngsters see how a few in Kenya have so much, and the majority with so little. That is the big challenge.’

She emphasised that some of the root causes of conflict in that part of Kenya also related to land ownership, due to the colonial legacies in Africa.

She called for a rethink on the role of NGOs: ‘It is said that for every 100 people in Kibera, the biggest slum in Kenya, there is one member of an NGO. But what has that changed?’

Another panel member, Musa Aliyu, a journalist from Jos in Nigeria, which has been a flash-point of inter-religious tension, said he was impressed by the wider team the Imam and Pastor have created in Nigeria, including in his home city. Their work had an effect on Nigeria’s diaspora communities around the world, encouraging them not to fan division from a distance.

Signing the Sorry Book outside the newly-opened Peace Office (Photo:  FLTfilms)
Signing the Sorry Book outside the newly-opened Peace Office (Photo: FLTfilms)
The event concluded with a call to translate the film into as many local languages as possible, especially Swahili with 110 million speakers in Kenya and large parts of Africa. Croy supported this, explained how in many parts of Africa, English is still seen as reminiscence of a brutal imperial past.

Thanking the panel, Mike Smith, head of communications for Initiatives of Change UK, said that the films represented ‘African to African answers—Africa creating its own solutions—and could be AAA rated’. He appreciated Alan Channer’s commitment to Kenya, which ‘in a small but not insignificant way is helping to repay the debt we owe to Africa’.

www.fltfilms.org.uk

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