Monday, 28 January 2013 05:38

Cultures of peace in community museums

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Since 2008 Kenya has seen the rise of a veritable peace industry, devoted not only to forging post-election peace and reconciliation but also the prevention of renewed violence in 2013.

Critics may say that much of this has been top-down, however, and has not reached  citizens at the grassroots, for whom national peace charters and the work of the National Integration and Cohesion Commission are mere abstractions.

Yet Kenyans already had rich indigenous peace traditions, that were used for generations to forge peace and reconciliation between and within different ethnic communities.  Also known as peace cultures, these shared traditions include the use of material artefacts such as gourds, stools, honey and tobacco containers that symbolise peace in many communities, and the planting of trees associated with peace in earth-cleansing rituals, for example at massacre sites. Intangible traditions include prayers. Why are they not being used today, some may ask, to promote peace and prevent further conflict? 

In founding the Kenyan peace museums movement in the mid-1990s, ethnographer Dr Sultan Somjee (then head of the ethnography department at National Museums of Kenya, NMK), aimed to do just that. Though Dr Somjee now lives in Canada and is no longer directly involved in their running, community peace museums in different areas of the country are still going strong, and have a vital role to play in promoting a peaceful and united nation – particularly in the run-up to the next elections. Of the original 23 museums, 10 remain active. Many of their young curators were trained by Dr Somjee as  field assistants, who collected and documented different peace traditions by talking to elders.  Initially known as the Material Culture Project, it focused on peace traditions among pastoralist groups in northern Kenya, during a time of ethnic conflicts. The project aimed to respond to these, and explored ways in which peace traditions could be used in community development work. It resulted in the book Honey and Heifer: Grasses, Milk and Water (1997), a collection of peace traditions from the Boran, Gabra, Rendille, Samburu, Somali, Turkana, Pokot and Maasai communities. Dr Somjee also produced ethnographic films on peace cultures for NMK (which merit wider dissemination), and curated exhibitions at Nairobi National Museum, Kitale and Kapenguria. Later, the project’s focus broadened to include other communities, and the idea of peace museums was born.

‘The concept of community peace museums was appreciated because it ensured a “people grounded” approach growing from below’, says Timothy Gachanga, coordinator of the umbrella organization the Community Peace Museums Foundation (CPMF), and a lecturer in justice and peace at Tangaza College, Nairobi. CPMF belongs to the International Network of Museums for Peace.

New research by British and Kenyan scholars shows that these museums appear to be  unique in Africa, though community museums exist in other parts of the continent, notably West and South Africa. Unlike Kenyan state-run and private museums the community peace museums are not targeted at tourists but local citizens, including schoolchildren. They are usually small, non-profit making, and run on a shoestring. As well as promoting traditional peace cultures, they are simultaneously cultural resource centres that function as storehouses of material and intangible heritage, and aim to conserve indigenous knowledge.

Lessons from Lari
The Material Culture Project was supported by the Mennonite Church, whose relief, development and peace section has a presence in Kenya – the Mennonite Central Committee-Kenya (MCC-Kenya). For the past four years MCC-Kenya support has centred on  Lari Memorial Peace Museum(MPM) at Kimende, north-west of Nairobi. Here a remarkable reconciliation has been achieved between former Mau Mau veterans and Home Guards, who clashed in the infamous Lari Massacres of March 1953, which proved to be a turning point in the Mau Mau conflict (also known as the struggle for land and freedom). Representatives of both sides sit together on the museum board, and spread a message of reconciliation to local youth via peace clubs in schools. ‘The effects of the massacres are still being felt within the community,’ explains curator Waihenya Njoroge. ‘We started the museum to try and heal the internal wounds.’ It offers an example that other warring communities would do well to follow. 

Beaded peace tree
In July 2008, when the nation lay bleeding from post-electoral wounds, Lari MPM was at the forefront of a six-month initiative by the peace museums, with support from MCC-Kenya, to promote reconciliation among opposing groups. Many communities have long practised beading, and associate  particular bead colours with peace and peace making. On the advice of elders who came together in the Kenyan Inter-Ethnic Elders for Peace Initiative, it was decided to produce an artificial beaded ‘tree’ whose wire branches would be decorated by beaders from different ethnic groups. The very act of beading collectively was therapeutic, and encouraged discussion. Women are traditionally beaders, but this beading was done jointly by men and women. By the end of the project in December that year, the ‘tree’ had travelled to five provinces and 22 communities, each of which beaded a branch.  The ‘tree’ was passed from one community to another  like the Olympic torch, with the message: ‘We give you our peace symbol. Add yours and give it to your neighbours. Do not break the chain’.  It is claimed that more than 30,000 people took part. The project was supported by local government officers, some of whom also participated in beading. The aim was to bead 42 branches, representing all of Kenya’s ethnic groups, but only 23 were completed.

The ‘tree’ was not welcomed everywhere. ‘Where many communities readily accepted the beading idea and welcomed it, some others felt it was too early for any real healing process’, wrote Waihenya in a report for MCC-Kenya. The project met hostility in Eldoret, Kakamega and Kisumu in particular. In Eldoret, site of the appalling arson attack on a Kiambaa church in January 2008, tensions between Gikuyu and Kalenjin were understandably still high. When the visitors gave out books about peace, including Honey and Heifer, a suspicious Kalenjin elder cautioned teachers to ‘read them carefully’ before passing them to pupils.

Reaching the youth
The peace museums are particularly concerned with reaching out to disaffected youth, a vulnerable group prone to being caught up in politically-instigated violence.  Often jobless, marginalised and angry, young men in particular are sitting ducks for unscrupulous politicians to manipulate – something many Kenyans fear could happen again in 2013. Some 60 per cent of the population is under 35, and an estimated 64 per cent of unemployed Kenyans are youth.  Also, unrest in schools – which has sometimes led to fatalities – can be seen as a consequence of Kenyans moving away from amicable problem-solving to violence, a subject that came up at a Limuru workshop on peace education, organised for teachers by Lari Museum in August 2009. Participating teachers said they felt pupils had learned confrontational ways of resolving conflict from people who would ordinarily be their role models – politicians and other adults in positions of authority. At an Elders’ Forum in Lari the previous December, the Provincial Cultural Officer voiced the opinion that the ‘violence witnessed in Kenyan schools in May 2008 … was [an] imitation of [the] post-election violence perpetrated by adults’.

Seeing the role played by youth in the post-election violence, the museums decided to work with young citizens on peace issues. Some museums including Lari MPM launched peace clubs in primary and secondary schools, where pupils are taught how to communicate without violence, and developed youth programmes for those who have left school. ‘The goal has been to build responsible citizenship that can guide youth to become agents of change in promoting peaceful and democratic governance,’ says Njiru Njeru, curator of Aembu Community Peace Museum, Nembure, near Embu. Other museums where youth programmes have been carried out most effectively are Akamba, Abasuba, Agikuyu and Lari.

‘We take a civic education approach that seeks to enlighten young people to demonstrate respect for law in guiding a free, fair, democratic and just electoral process’, explains Njiru, who is applying the knowledge he gained from a BA in Social Ministry at Tangaza. ‘We also seek to inform youth about the need to promote good leadership practices in addressing social problems within the community.’ All the youth programmes are facilitated by curators working voluntarily. One-to-one dialogues between young people take place in the museum compounds, where they have the chance to discuss election-related issues. The evidence so far is that attitudes and behaviour are changing for the better.

Everyone hopes, of course, that there will be no repeat of electoral violence in 2013. But as we write this, violence has already broken out before by-elections in Ndhiwa. If the worst happens, the beaded peace tree (currently housed in Lari MPM) may well need to be resurrected, and youth peace programmes will be put to the test.

  • Community peace museums were a major focus of the research project ‘Managing Heritage, Building Peace: Museums, memorialization and the uses of memory in Kenya’ (2008-11), funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. Led by Dr Lotte Hughes of The Open University (UK), with Prof. Annie E. Coombes of Birkbeck College, University of London, and Prof. Karega-Munene of United States International University, Nairobi. For more details, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
  • There is more information on the beaded peace tree project in Annie Coombes’ Chapter 4 of a forthcoming book by the above three researchers, Managing Heritage, Making Peace: History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya (I.B. Tauris, May 2013).
  • Timothy Gachanga and CPMF can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

By Lotte Hughes and Karega-Munene

Read 4202 times Last modified on Monday, 28 January 2013 05:39