‘Mine is to bring lasting peace in conflict zones’

Saturday November 4 2017

Alice Wairimu Nderitu, Lead Mediator at Centre

Alice Wairimu Nderitu, Lead Mediator at Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and a former Commissioner of the National Cohesion and Integration. PHOTO| COURTESY 

By ANGELA OKETCH
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Alice Wairimu Nderitu, Lead Mediator at Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and a former Commissioner of the National Cohesion and Integration

 

Who is Alice Wairimu Nderitu?

A mediator in armed ethnic and religious conflict. I am also a 2011 Transitional Justice Fellow of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town and was named a 2012, Woman Peace Maker Of the Year by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, University of San Diego, USA. Above all this, I am the mother of a great young man, Mark Nderitu.

 

What kind of a person are you?

I am very empathetic. When someone describes a situation they are in, I am able to walk in her or his shoes.

 

What is your working day like?

Unpredictable. I usually do not know what the parties in the conflict may come up with. It’s not a job with a manual. But I can tell you I do a lot of listening, gathering of information on the parties and identifying the key people within the groups in conflict.

 

What were you doing prior to becoming a peacemaker?

I have had a very interesting professional life. I began teaching at Loreto Convent Valley Road while I was at the University of Nairobi.

After graduation I was posted to the Prisons Department as an officer cadet. I left as Senior Superintendent to join the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. I then joined Fahamu a UK-registered charity as director Education for Social Justice.

My next job was with the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) where I served as a commissioner. I am now working at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue as a senior advisor and mediator.

 

Your work entails mediation and conflict resolution throughout Africa, tell us more.

I worked in several African countries including Rwanda, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe for Fahamu.   I have worked in South Sudan and Nigeria. In Nigeria, I was the lead mediator of an extremely difficult process between 29 ethnic communities in Kaduna State, leading to the Kafanchan Peace Declaration and an even more difficult process of 56 ethnic communities in Plateau State leading to the Southern Plateau Peace Declaration.

You were recently chosen as an awardee by the Global Centre for Pluralism, for this year’s inaugural award, what was the feeling?

I am extremely humbled. It is such an incredible privilege.

 

What do you enjoy most about your work?

When I see impact that includes for instance markets and schools that were closed because of violence reopened mostly in conflict zones. I was one of three mediators of a process in Nakuru and at the end one of the men said “now we can pray in each others presence with our eyes closed” Such statements make me want to continue.

 

Did you always wish to have this job?  And how did you achieve it?

No, actually I always wanted to be a Professor of History or Literature. When I began working on human rights approaches to development, I found some of the solutions in its principles but in 2004-05 I joined a seventeen months distance-learning course sponsored by Oxford University, Fahamu and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on conflict prevention that provided a launch pad into peace building. I learnt that security; development and human rights were useful ingredients in a conflict prevention plan. This led me into the mediation field. To improve my skills, I went back to the University to study Armed Conflict and Peace Studies.

 

Which is the one decision, you made that, has made a difference in your life?

Accepting to lead a mediation of ethnic and religious communities in armed conflict in Nigeria was a major decision that marked me out as one of the few women in the world doing this.

 

To become a peacemaker as a woman in hostile environment is involving and challenging, how do you manage?

I have learnt to adapt to every situation I am in. I always want people to remember what I said, not what was different about me.

 

Who has been the most influential person in your life and career?

My parents, they have always believed in me. They have encouraged me to be exceptional.

 

Who inspires you?

People with Pan Africanist ideals who have a vision of a continent that is self-reliant, peaceful and harmonious and united by trade.

 

Which have been highest and lowest points in your line of work?

Seeing people I knew running away from violence zones with cooking pots and mattresses on their heads dampens my heart.  I am proud, to be often, the only woman at the peace table.

I am proud to have brought several women into peace processes to participate in decision-making, particularly the women in Nigeria.

 

How do you unwind?

I unwind by doing a lot of reading and writing.

 

Challenges you encounter? 

Forging national unity is a key challenge. We can overcome it by engaging constructively to learn from and leverage each ethnic community’s strengths. To this end a deeper understanding is needed of how ethnic groups function, what experiences shape their outlook on life, actions and decision-making.

 

What’s your favourite meal?

West Africans like to tell me that they have colonized my palate and it is true. I love kelewele (fried plantain) jollof rice, yam balls and egusi soup.

 

What is the one thing unique about you?

I never give up. When I believe in something and begin working on it, I hang in there till it is done. I am very resilient.

 

What advice would you give to women?

Mediating armed conflict is challenging and as a woman, one of the most effective ways of defeating ethnic and religious stereotypes that a woman cannot mediate armed conflict is by being very knowledgeable on the issues at hand. Before every peace process I do my utmost to read as much as I can. I approach every engagement with an open mind.

 

What philosophy do you live by?

That as a continent, we need to be kinder to ourselves; that we need to tell kinder stories of our experiences as pluralistic societies while working within the knowledge that any type of exclusion will always be a problem. Inclusion makes the peace processes I work in sustainable.