'We've helped bring peace to Kenyan tribes - but now we've shown them the way, the peace process is theirs'
AN Irish priest is being hailed for a conflict resolution project which is helping to end centuries of hate between rival tribes in Kenya.
Father Patrick Devine leads the multi-faith Shalom Centre in the capital Nairobi from where peace efforts are co-ordinated in nine rural conflict zones.
In the tiny village of Tuum, in the northern county of Samburu, children of former combatants now go to school together for the first time as a result of the initiative.
Through funding from private donors in Ireland and from the Irish Government through its overseas development wing, Irish Aid, the Irish-led centre has expanded or built 120 inter-ethnic schools across thousands of kilometres of rural Kenya.
Fr Devine and fellow SMA priest, Cork city native Fr Oliver Noonan, have been training 5,000 community leaders and village elders in resolving often ancient land and cattle disputes.
"Many organisations have done sterling work responding to the symptoms of conflict in Kenya for decades," said Fr Devine.
"But we wanted to go right down to the bottom of the conflicts, look at the root causes and train local community leaders in not just resolving conflicts but preventing new ones.
"Many conflicts exist in rural border regions where tribal tensions are often heightened by the nomadic lifestyle and disputes arise over land and animals.
"We wanted to end the cycle of violence and put down new roots with local people taking the lead roles and with children from once rival tribes going to the same schools.
"We have had great results so far but we know we have to keep working at it and expanding the programme to include more and more people."
In Tuum, members of the once-rival Turkana and Samburu tribes now meet regularly at peace camps and workshops.
"They trade goods and food at joint markets.
It's noticeable that those running the peace project are the people themselves.
Cipaku Alois, a Samburu, and Modester Alain, a Turkana, say life in this area has changed beyond recognition since the Shalom team arrived.
"We respect each other and recognise diversity is a strength," said Cipaku.
"The killings have stopped and now we are seeing a peace dividend for everyone."
Alain agrees with Cipaku and says that the work at the Shalom Centre "gave us the ability to make this work but we also continue our work every day so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past".
Raphaela Lelaono from the Samburu Women's Group says people no longer live in fear.
"It was bad here. One community would attack the other and then there would be a revenge attack and people lost their lives.
"It was very sad," she says.
"Father Patrick and Shalom have shown us a new way and it is working."
Over dirt roads 5km away, the village of Kawap lies deserted.
The church and once-thriving school buildings are a stark reminder of the ethnic tensions in a country carved out of map during the height of European colonial power.
An estimated 3,000 members of the Turkana tribe fled after a conflict over cattle theft raids. They haven't come back yet.
Shalom Centre peace worker Rosaline Serem says Turkana warriors from another region came to the village and used it - against the will of villagers - as their base for an attack on the Samburu people.
The village was decimated in a revenge attack.
"This happened in 2013 and memories are fresh.
"At this stage we have to build confidence with the Turkana people but it is too early to return."
Overseas Development Minister Joe McHugh joined our Ambassador to Kenya Dr Vincent O'Neill to see the work of Shalom.
"It was incredible to see two communities united in such a short period of time," says McHugh.
"But the peace building has to continue and it's important that Ireland continues to support Fr Devine in his work here.
"The Irish missionaries have left an incredible imprint on Kenya through health and education work for generations.
"Other communities around the world in similar situations could benefit from the best practice being adopted here."
The minister had dozens of engagements during his four- day trip to Kenya, addressing an international development conference and helping cement relations between companies which will see Irish potatoes grown here on a wider scale.
Fr Patrick says being Irish helps in his contribution to peace.
"The Kenyans and the Irish are very similar.
"Parents here are the same as parents back home - they just want a better life for their children free from violence and free from hunger and injustice," he says.
"We give them the structures and tools to build a peace but it is the people themselves who are the real heroes. The peace process here belongs to the Kenyans.
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