Grace Lolim has always hated conflict. As a child, disagreements among friends left her feeling disturbed. Little wonder that today, her time is taken up working for peace in her home town of Isiolo.
I meet Grace busy training women from the different communities that make up Isiolo County on the contributions they can make to their lives, families and communities. The room is colourfully composed of veiled Somali women, traditionally clad Samburu women and a mix of others dressed in skirts, dresses or trousers. Grace herself is formally dressed in a metallic grey skirt suit, white blouse and modest heels. When she speaks, the women listen.
Over lunch, Grace passionately shares her work. She describes herself as a peace crusader, adding that peace is important enough to die for. She describes a time when she was accused of being a sell-out by her Turkana community because she was working closely with a Somali woman. Interestingly, the other woman was also being accused of selling her community’s ‘security secrets’ to Grace. The two women tried to convince their respective communities that there was no such thing but no one was convinced.
“Finally, we told the community elders that they should go ahead and kill us if indeed they believed we were traitors,” says Grace. “With that, they realised our association was genuine and the rumours stopped. We have continued working together and our results speak for themselves.”
Grace has been involved in peace advocacy since 2,000 when she worked at the grassroots level in the county. In those formative years she worked very hard to earn the trust of the ultra-conservative pastoral communities of Isiolo.
“I attended peace meetings everywhere including under trees in the interior,” she says about her tireless pursuit of a long-held dream to see the different communities in Isiolo joining hands and developing together. This is the gist of her training on the day of the interview. She talks to the participants about the need to work together for development rather than listen to those fanning tribal rivalries.
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Isiolo County is mainly made up of the Turkana, Somali, Borana, Samburu and Meru communities. Over the years, conflicts in Isiolo thrived around pasture and water, cattle rustling, boundary disputes and the arms trade. In 2009, there was conflict in Burat Ward, where Grace comes from. This was just before the district-level elections of the National Steering Committee on Peace Building.
“There was a development project that had resulted in some people being displaced and there was a lot of discontent. The people blamed the area chief,” says Grace. A dialogue meeting was called, which she attended. But when the speakers were identified, she was not among them.
“By then I was known as a fearless speaker who told the truth. People from my community asked for me to speak so the Officer Commanding Police Division invited me to say what I knew about the events leading to the conflict,” she says. “I spoke openly, giving the facts as I knew them.”
Unknown to Grace, the media captured the meeting and she appeared on the evening news. This had a big impact, especially because the conflict was resolved following the meeting. The result was that Grace was asked to run for a district position on the peace committee. Out of 15 committee members, Grace was the only woman. It followed that she was made the gender and youth co-ordinator.
“Whenever people hear gender they think it means women so the post almost automatically became mine,” she says. “It was not easy – I had to fight to be heard during meetings.”
In 2012, the United Nations Development Programme through the Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development (an organisation that promotes human rights issues, including peace) sponsored Grace to attend an exchange programme in Rwanda, where she could observe peace restoration methods.
“On the six-day tour I found situations that were very similar to what was happening in Isiolo,” she says. “I learnt about community policing, councils of elders and alternative dispute resolution methods. I believed if I could implement these in Isiolo, I could change my county.”
One week after the trip, Grace shared her findings at a meeting. Soon after, community policing in the area was revived, which involved a lot of training for the residents. In addition, grazing committees were established to deal with pasture issues. She also promoted a local version of the Gacaca court system of post-genocide Rwanda.
This community justice system saw the rise of councils of elders in every village as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism to deal with anything a normal court system would ordinarily deal with, including murder.
“Families were being rendered destitute from long-drawn out court cases – the bus fare to and from the law courts alone was enough to cripple these rural families financially and in the end, justice was never guaranteed,” says Grace. “The village court system greatly eased this burden.”
Grace says the system was accepted by the communities, including the Turkana Council of Elders to which she became an advisor. The local security committee presented the system to the Chief Justice’s office and in 2013, a pilot project was launched in Isiolo known as the Alternative Justice System.
“The initiative brought the communities and the police together,” says Grace. “And it has been improved – cases handled by the elders’ councils are now documented and the papers signed by the parties involved.”
Even if a case is brought before the elders’ councils, the rival parties can still decide halfway to go to court. “But they won’t have to start at the beginning because the documentation shows how far the case went,” she says.
Grace also noted that the Prime Minister of Rwanda as well as 56 per cent of the MPs were women. She came home wondering how to raise the profile of women in Isiolo.
“I decided to use the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security as my entry point and it worked,” says Grace. “Women started realising their role in decision-making. In one instance following some training, nine women went and took up positions in a school committee.”
Grace’s work has attracted the attention and support of organisations such as ActionAid and even the local CDF office, which donated office space from which she and her colleagues could run the Isiolo Sub-County Gender Watch Network. It is through this organisation that they mobilise women to step up and be counted.
“Women play a powerful role in peace building and development,” says Grace. “They can be catalysts to conflict – through rumour-mongering and being silent observers of killings and theft – or peace builders through the use of positive language. They can also object to their men keeping small arms in their homes and participate in disarmament drives, or refuse to cook for the men – warriors won’t go to war hungry!” she says.
Grace is also encouraging women to pool their resources to campaign and get elected to political positions. “Politics and peace go hand in hand,” she says.
According to Grace, the most effective peace-building method is dialogue between those directly involved – the fighters. Over the years, she has gained such a deep knowledge of the science behind conflicts that she can tell before a peace meeting is over whether it has succeeded or failed.
“For instance, if a peace meeting is called and both sides agree to all the proposals by the mediators, you can bet there is zero success. But if things get heated and the two sides get matters off their chests – including insults – then we know we are making headway. Those are the meetings we describe as successful,” she says.
Grace is on the road a lot for the sake of peace. On the day of the interview she is watching the clock because she must leave by 5pm for a meeting in Embu. How does this 46-year-old wife, mother of six (ranging in age from 22 to 11 years) and farmer handle her full plate?
“I try to keep two days of the week, especially Saturdays, for myself,” she says. “I also rely on my supportive husband who manages the casual farm workers and friends who will go to my farm and harvest if I cannot be there.”
And would she say she has made a difference? “Oh yes!” she says. “There are now five elected women in the peace committees and six women chiefs.”
She adds, “Women are also getting involved in returning arms and the early warning system – when they hear of planned conflict, they alert the administration and necessary steps are taken. These measures have gone a long way in restoring the reputation of Isiolo County.”