Ugunja Community activist addresses root causes

Please consider making a donation to Common Hope for Health who are working at grassroots in Siaya District. Executive Director of the Ugunja Community Center, Aggrey Omodi, reports on their recent work.

27th January 2008

Dear Friends,

Thank you for your ongoing support and prayers. There is good news to report. The violence has had far-reaching effects, but normalcy is slowly returning. The Ugunja market is back to normal, and traffic is reappearing on the streets. UCRC has continued to contract trucks to carry food and supplies to Ugunja and the surrounding communities from Nairobi. Of the approximately 114 people initially sheltered at the Siaya District Police Station, 60 people have returned to their communities to begin rebuilding their lives.

But we still have a great deal of work to do. Much has been speculated about the causes of the ongoing civil violence in Kenya. With the perspective of more than two decades of experience in community work, my own view is that the root problems are not tribalism, and not even politics (which has only been an inciting spark), but rather, a long history of trenchant poverty and the once-simmering, now boiling desperation of a generation of Kenyan youths who have been denied basic life opportunities. The primary perpetrators of the ongoing violence and unrest are ambitious young men, aged 15 to 35, with nowhere to go thanks to a soaring unemployment rate. Their anger has seethed at the surface for a long time. The post-election fracas has merely provided an opportunity for tensions to explode, and the aggression by youth has been carried out in an effort to gain attention to their “cause,” which, truth be told, is a thoroughly just one: economic opportunity, the ability to lead a life of purpose, the ability to provide for one’s family.

For this reason, the solution to the crisis lies not in combating tribal enmity or perhaps even in bringing our country’s political feuding leaders to a peaceful compromise. Rather, at the local level at least, we believe the solution requires addressing the deep-seated and psychologically debilitating material needs of our young people. This work has taken two main forms.

First, together with local community leaders and nationally-recognized peace activists, Ugunja Community Resource Centre has formed committees in our catchment area to address youths’ concerns, to allow for the constructive rather than destructive venting of frustrations, and to discuss ways to move forward and achieve peace and justice. Thus far, these committees have been established in six constituencies: three in Siaya District and three in Kisumu, with a total of 70 committee members. In this work, UCRC adamantly stresses that the key to success is having local leaders serve as committee members, who in turn help to promote the leadership among youths that their community has lacked.

Second, UCRC has begun to directly support youths who lack income-generating opportunities and have, out of desperation, gotten involved in ongoing criminal activities. An association has been formed to provide small capital for small business revitalization. To date, the association has been a success; it meets twice-weekly, and the participants are developing business plans and capital budgets of roughly Ksh 1,000 each (USD 15). This program has already helped to decrease tensions and improve day-to-day security.

The emphatic position of UCRC is that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in this situation. The police, for example, have been widely villainized, but we must also show them compassion. The police have been traumatized. They were never prepared for the level of violence and chaos that has taken place. They have been enormously provoked and are totally, totally drained. They’ve received no time off, little to eat, no time for sleep, and have not seen their families in weeks. UCRC is working with the police in Kisumu to reduce the impulse to shoot civilians. One police officer told me, “Before you came we spent 1000 bullets, now we have not spent one.”

Medical relief remains a central part of our role as a rapid response unit. St. Paul’s Health Centre is extremely stretched right now. Ministry of Health facilities are understaffed and under-equipped, and as a result St. Paul’s has received a great increase in patients. The importance of community health work right now is huge, and medicine and food needs continue to be critical.

What our community is experiencing now is unprecedented. Everyone is suffering and crying out for something to be done. Unhappiness, distrust, and traumatization are high. The past few weeks have taught us that the greatest and hardest work lies at the community level more so than the national level, because it is here—in the villages—that peace, compromise, and reconciliation are needed most.

We at Ugunja Community Resource Centre thank you for your relief assistance and support; we assure you that we are being as resourceful and conservative as possible, so as to stretch your generosity as far as possible. With trust in your continued solidarity, I have faith that our community of Ugunja—and Kenya as a whole—will emerge from this trial stronger and more united.

Yours faithfully,

Aggrey Omondi
Executive Director
Ugunja Community Resource Centre

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