A month ago I was privileged to attend the launch of Alice Wairimu Nderitu’s book on national cohesion and integration, Kenya, Bridging Ethnic Divides. Ms Nderitu was a founding Commissioner of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), and before and since she has enjoyed a distinguished career promoting the cause of cohesion and integration, in Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere.
The chief guest at the launch was Dr Fred Matiang’i, the Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Interior, and in his remarks he said that if he were still at the Ministry of Education he would have ensured the book was made standard reading at all the teacher training colleges, adding that he would recommend to his colleague that this be so.
Let me go further: in my view every Kenyan owes it to themselves to read this book. Not just Kenyans, but all those who seek a richer understanding of how ethnic tensions come about and sometimes get out of hand, and how thoughtful, purposeful people like Ms Nderitu, her colleagues in the NCIC and others set about identifying the root causes of the problem and seeing how to build a more cohesive and integrated society in which everyone can grow and prosper.
The NCIC is largely known for going after those who utter hate speech. But this is just the visible tip of their cohesion nurturing iceberg – the one the media relishes, as it is usually prominent politicians who are put on the spot by the commission.
Being taken behind the scenes by this former NCIC commissioner is therefore particularly valuable, as it reveals the almost unknown mass of the NCIC iceberg.
She writes eloquently about Kenya’s two-steps-forward, two-steps-backward history of ethnic relations (a great summary of the country’s past, from colonial and even pre-colonial times onward); about the build-up to the formation of this, the only permanent independent commission to have been formed following the 2008 post-election violence; about how they dug into their subject, consulting widely and evolving strategies to move Kenya forward on a more sustainable basis; and about how they have been engaging at all levels in our society and in all corners of the republic to move us forward.
At the launch Ms Nderitu told us that when she was a commissioner with NCIC what drove her was to make a difference. She talked about the establishment of the District Peace Committees, designed to provide early warnings of unrest, leading to swift responses. “We knew violence was coming,” she remembers being told, “but we didn’t know whom to tell.”
She recognised what a painful topic ethnicism is, and drew attention to the need to develop facilitators who can bring people together – from the youngest age.