December 2007 marked the beginning of two months of unprecedented violence across Kenya in the wake of controversial presidential elections. It was one of the country’s most severe human rights crises since independence, and left 1,200 people dead and 600,000 more displaced.
Before then, 27-year-old Samuel Karita had seen little violence in his life. But witnessing young people set fire to buildings and hold running battles in the streets changed the course of his life.
“I couldn’t help seeing young people as both the biggest perpetrators and the biggest victims,” he says. “They were being killed in the saga. I felt that young people were being used.”
His anguish sowed the seeds of an idea to bring change by working with young people. By 2011, he and some friends had started a club called the Disaster Management Association, with the aim of ensuring the violence of 2007 would never happen again.
The club quickly proved a popular idea with disenfranchised youths, and over the next year the idea grew, inspiring Samuel to set up further clubs and begin a Peace Ambassadors’ project. And then things really started to take off.
“So far we have peace clubs in over 30 institutions in colleges and universities, with 5,000 active volunteers. We are now in Zambia, Malawi, and Nigeria and are beginning to move into Ghana.”
“We are also the first young people in a learning institution to work hand-in-hand with the Kenyan police. For a long time, there has been an attitude of suspicion between young people and the police, so we saw the need to rectify that. At the moment, any project we have at the community level, the police are willing to work alongside us, to promote sustainable peace within society,” he says.
Samuel says peace clubs are so important, “Education that does not change the minds of people is no different than the shirt you wear in the morning and remove in the evening. It must go beyond and change the communities we live in.”
He is keenly aware that without young people learning to live together and accept each other’s diverse backgrounds, they will remain vulnerable to manipulation by those who wish to fuel violence. The peace clubs now partner with various local organisations to train young people with technical skills and empower them to be change-makers in their communities.
The Peace Ambassadors’ Clubs also have a mentoring programme in which they pair university students with high school students, they now mentors more than 500 students.
Samuel says that the biggest challenge they have is engaging the political class. “We need the politicians to put aside their personal interest and work together for the benefit of our entire society, despite their ethnic background and political interests.”
If they could do this, and commit resources to the work that Samuel has been doing, then the fallout of the 2007 elections would never have to be repeated. In the meantime, Samuel will keep up with his own commitment to bringing peace. “I plan to continue mentoring young people to bring out the best in them, for peace and cohesion in our country.”