People connect with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) as members and attenders at a monthly meeting, seekers, workers for Quaker organizations, friends of Friends, or as “fellow travelers.” Dekha Ibrahim Abdi was one of the last three. Born on November 17, 1964 in Wajir in northeast Kenya, Dekha met Quakers in 1994 just as her life’s work as a peacebuilder, writer, and social justice activist was being recognized in Kenya. Her first contact was at a Response to Conflict (RTC) course at the Woodbrooke Quaker Center in Birmingham, England. When she died as a result of a horrific and tragic accident at 47 on her way to a peacebuilding conference in Garissa, Kenya, she was a Somali consultant for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). She left behind four children and many friends and co-workers. Her husband and driver were killed in the same accident.
Although born in Wajir, Dekha, her parents, and 11 siblings lived in the nearby rural drylands area among the ethnic Somali pastoralists. Her father went daily to his work in the city. He believed strongly in education; thus, all his children went to school. Dekha excelled and was well liked. She was encouraged by her mother, who was strong, well-organized, and resilient. Her mother supported her large family’s participation in the sustenance, chores, problem solving, and religious life of her family and community. She was known for helping others. Dekha early on developed a positive attitude, feeling any problem had a solution. Connecting with others, hearing their stories with respect, and getting their input seemed to be a method she discovered in dealing with her family and friends.
The pastoralists who herded their animals nearby often had clan conflicts over ownership of animals, water, and grazing lands. These conflicts had affects throughout the area. In secondary schools, the administrations used the “divide and conquer” strategy of separating the students not only by gender but also by clan, ethnicity, social class, religion, and wealth. A physical space was the divider. Bekha organized her friends from each of the groups to meet and socialize in those empty spaces. She was so open, supportive, and fun to be with that the other girls could not say “No.”
She used these same persuasive ways as a teacher and later head of a lower and an upper primary school. The children loved her! She discovered the interests and needs of her students and gave them a sense of empowerment. When the older girls were absent during their monthly periods, Dekha talked with them, gave them important information and found them necessary supplies. Attendance improved immediately.
In 1992, devastated by the continuing warfare between the clans, Dekha called on the support and participation of some of these former students and other women to work out a peace agreement. They were total amateurs! But, fired by Dekha and her developing methodology – grassroots activism, soft but uncompromising leadership, and spiritual motivation, they moved ahead. All was based on listening, listening, listening. Everyone needed to be heard without interruption. Humiliation was the biggest danger, sure to lead to violence. Respect was the key to success in mediation. They practiced as amateurs, became journeymen, and then were deemed experts.
A peace agreement was reached. The work, however, had just begun. Dekha and her group set up a Peace and Development Committee to implement and monitor the agreement. They knew the two things had to happen together. They reached out to everyone affected by the agreement for participation and support. Always they were sensitive to the local cultural mores. They sought to move the military and police forces from force to talk to mediation. They wanted them to understand that they were not the only ones whose job was to bring peace and order. They involved businesses, non-governmental organizations, civil servants, politicians, and religious leaders. They found mentors to help them learn skills they needed. The clan elders and many others contacted were mostly men, who slowly but more and more listened to the women.
Dekha was a devout Muslim. Just as George Fox was said to know the Bible from A to Z, Dekha knew the Qur’an. She pulled suras(chapters) and sometimes specific ayahs(verses) to support her ideas and actions. When meeting with Christians and those of other religions in areas of conflict, she shared her Islamic spirituality and asked participants to look and find comparable statements of faith and practice from their faith, to reflect on the movement of their soul forces as a means to bring about peace, and to curb bad behaviors. She emphasized the importance in peacebuilding of bringing back relations between victims and offenders through reconciliation and forgiveness. When Desmond Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission(TRC) in South Africa after the end of apartheid, he stressed repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness. In Rwanda the 1994 genocide of over 800,000 Tutsis by the Hutu government was followed by a TRC instituted by the government. It had slow response. When a grassroots trauma healing and reintegration of offenders process was initiated by church groups led by Quaker churches, the process took hold and grew. They were following the same general method Dekha and her group had found worked.
Dekha drew from each movement to develop and formalize a framework – AFRICA – analysis, flexibility, responsiveness, innovation, context, and action/learning. When she went to Woodbrooke to study and work with the RTC organization in Birmingham, UK and the Peace and Justice Institute at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, she found affirmation and new structures for her work. Her colleagues actually used case studies from her work in their training! She was humbled and excited to share with her colleagues at home in Kenya. She also built friendships that sustained and enriched her life, giving her new insights into group decision making, spirituality, and service. She was invited to share with their Quaker churches and meetings. Evangelical Friends were touched by her “Let go, let God” way of dealing with life. She shared times when money had come to pay for conference trips and even an unexpected bed with close family and friends on a hajj to Mecca appeared because she waited calmly and sought God’s direction.
Whether she was sitting under an acacia tree with clan elders in the drylands of NE Kenya or standing before a gathering of international representatives at the UN, Dekha was connecting. Her gentle but strong demeanor, her colorful Muslim attire, her speech filled with stories and humor brought people together and gave them hope. It was a hope that they could “sort it out.” A friend told her once he lacked practical experience despite a graduate degree in peace education. He admitted, “I don’t think I can mediate between two chickens.” She simply smiled and encouraged him to find a place to take action, to be a facilitator and an enabler for peace. Empowered, he did just that!
Dekha was recognized and rewarded but spread the praise and responsibility for success to her co-workers. She told stories of their good work and highlighted what they had done. She formed peace organizations throughout Africa, the Middle East, UK, and Cambodia and kept up with every one of them. She worked with Muslim youth in UK, helping them become more comfortable with being Muslim and British. She encouraged governments to link peace practices with policies and helped them develop strategies to anticipate, contain, and manage conflict.
She was a prophet who found “honor within her own country.” In Kenya she received the Distinguished Medal of Service in 1999 and The Kenya Peacebuilder of the Year in 2005. In 2007 she was chosen for The Right Livelihood Award in Sweden, an alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize. in giving the presentation, the speaker praised her:
for showing in diverse ethnic and cultural situations how religious and other differences can be reconciled, even after violent conflict, and knitted together through a cooperative process that leads to peace and development.
The money from that award she donated to start a peace university in Wajir. In 2009, she received The Hessian Peace Prize in Germany. It was in 2009 that she was called to the Serena Hotel in Nairobi just after the national elections while violence occurred throughout the country. There were five chairs in the room. Two army generals, one high level police officer, and a politician invited her to sit in the empty chair to lead the others in finding a way to stop the killing. She activated 60,000 women with cell phones to call in to central locations and report what they saw out their doors and windows. Hot spots and safe cold spots were reported. This enabled violence to be quelled and shelter places to be protected. Three weeks later calm was produced and a compromise agreement reached. Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, also in Nairobi, paid tribute to Abdi. As was her way, she gave credit to the women who bravely made their reports and to those who cooperated to stop the violence. In July, 2011, when she was critically injured in the car accident near Garissa and airlifted to Nairobi by helicopter, officials closed the highway between the airport and the Aga Khan Hospital to enable the ambulance to reach the hospital as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it was not enough and she died several days later. Friends and family continue to sustain and enrich the lives of her four children, now adults.
She wrote many papers and two books, one published by her co-author Simon Foster after her death. Chapter 5 in that book, The Life and Teaching of Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, is filled with tributes by her daughter and her many friends and co-workers. When I read them, I cried.
Questions to ponder:
- Why do you think Dekha reached out to the women of Wajir to help her work out a peace agreement?
- To make sure that the peace agreement had a chance for success, what did she and the women due?
- What was the framework for bringing about peace? What do you think is the most important part of the framework?
- Dekha was often described as gentle or soft. What do you think those terms mean in regards to her leadership?
- How would you describe yourself as a peacebuilder?
- There are several YouTube videos of Dekha’s speeches. Seeing and hearing her brings this peacebuilder to life.
- The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games by Mary Scannell
- Talk and Work It Out (Learning to Get Along) by Cheri J. Meiners
- Emotional Judo: Communication Skills to Handle Difficult Conversations and Boost Emotional Intelligence by Tim Higgs
- Bunny and Bear Work It Out by Jason Anderson & Katherine Gutkovsky
- Working with Conflict, Skills, and Strategies for Peace with Abdi contributions