Nairobi Peace Talks

Nairobi Peace Talks

Good Afternoon everyone. And thanks to the organisers for giving me this opportunity to talk about Peace. What is Peace? For me, peace is not just an absence of conflict – it is a positive. It is living harmoniously with mutual understanding and respect for each other.

My three messages are: one that WE ALL HAVE CHOICES. We are choosing all the time but how often do we stop to consider what the consequences of that choice will be. Two – EACH ONE OF US IS A LEADER in their own situation. How often have you heard people say, if not said so yourself : ‘This is wrong but what can I do? I am just a nobody!’ There is always something you can do. Thirdly, ACT NOW. Don’t hesitate, don’t procrastinate – every little bit counts, it does not have to be earth shattering!

And now for my story. I am a Kenyan who grew up in Mombasa, a town on the Kenyan coast. I was born way back in colonial times and experienced colonial injustice and so rejoiced when my country won its freedom. But soon after, things began to change. I come from a tiny minority, the South Asian community which at the best of times has been less than one per cent of the population. It is small in numbers but it is economically strong.

So now we were labelled as ‘exploiters’ and were no longer welcome to some black Kenyans. Many of my community then emigrated, it was the Asian Exodus of the 1960s but I, and others, decided to stay. I not only stayed, but then chose to move out of my communal cocoon and on to involvement on the national stage.

I joined a Municipal Council committee, several school boards and supervised a cottage industries project. This work brought me to Nairobi to establish a Community and Race Relations project for the National Christian Council of Kenya. That is how I became a social justice and human rights activist.

I must tell you about another choice I made. In the heart of Nairobi is a 4-acre garden, the only green space in the city. Here people come to relax, study,  socialize or just enjoy nature. And they are all sorts who come regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or status – in Jeevanjee Gardens we are all one. In 1991 some greedy developers schemed to grab the land. I was in Mombasa, I had no stake in the Gardens but I did have a locus standii – it was donated to Nairobi in 1906 by my grandfather.

I decided to try and save the Gardens. Friends tried to dissuade me – we were living under a single party dictatorship and the land grabbers were high and mighty. But I persisted, the press joined me and together we were able to give a loud voice to the protests of Nairobi citizens. I am glad to say we still have Jeevanjee Gardens in our city today.

Right now, one of the biggest obstacles to Kenya’s development is ethnic hatred, a mind set whereby we condemn entire communities. When a person behaves badly, instead of saying X or Y is not a good person, we conclude that their community is either dishonest, unreliable, unpatriotic or exploitative and label it with a negative stereotype. Surely this is something we can all do: just correct our speech and that of others around us. I remember in colonial times I used to refuse to use the term ‘boy’ when addressing my African servant; now, as I fight for women’s rights, I insist on being called ‘Ms’, not ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. How people talk says everything about what they think; we must lead by example.

And finally we must act and ACT NOW.  In order to inform my fellow Kenyans as to who South Asians really are and the part they have played in liberating our country, I have written biographies of South Asian leaders who have worked shoulder to shoulder with African leaders. Together with my partner we publish AwaaZ magazine which is now in its eleventh year. It focuses on minority and diversity issues. Every two years we organize the SAMOSA festival. This 3-cornered delicacy signifies Asian-African-Fusion and is filled with a tasty cultural mix of art, music, dance, story-telling, panel discussions and films shows. The idea is to bring people together, get to know each other’s cultures  and create harmony.

Next August we shall be holding our ?? SAMOSA Festival and I hope to see you all there. Until then, Kwaheri ya Kuonana and PEACE BE WITH YOU.

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