PHOTO: The Right Livelihood Award (http://www.rightlivelihood.org)
At about 4.55 pm on 14 July 2011 a “rural woman from Wajir” was laid to rest at the Lang’ata Muslim cemetery, Nairobi. Dekha Ibrahim Abdi, the “key dropper” with whom I had had the honor to work in various peace projects in Kenya and other parts of the world, had received her final curtain call at 11:45am on the same day.
I first met Dekha in Nairobi some time in 1998. Dekha wanted me to facilitate a workshop in Wajir for the staff of the Wajir Peace and Development Committee (WPDC). She strongly felt that she and her colleagues at WPDC, which she had co-founded, were facing new challenges and needed an outsider’s perspective.
As I recall, she was passionate and persuasive and it did not sound like she would take no for an answer. She had already planned for my travel; I would take what she described as a “miraa flight” (small airplanes that transport khat to North Eastern Kenya and Somalia) from Wilson airport to the Wajir military airfield.
This experience introduced me to peace work in a part of the country I had never visited; it effectively helped me debunk the myths and stereotypes I had always held about North Eastern Province and her peoples. More importantly, through example, Dekha also introduced me to teachings of the Holy Qur’an and their implications to peace work. This was the beginning of friendship with a woman who effectively became an elder sister.
Over the years, I have witnessed Dekha affirm and validate many other peace workers whenever I met her in training workshops, teaching at university, in community peace processes or at high level diplomacy. Dekha was quick to learn and appreciate peoples’ strengths and talents then did what she did best: drop the keys for you; and she expected you to pick the keys and open whatever doors and passages that needed to be opened in the pursuit of peace and justice.
One recent memory I cherish happened during the start of the post-election violence in December 2007 when I was holed up with my family in Kisumu’s Tom Mboya estate. Dekha called me and made a rather unusual inquiry. “Do you have any credit on your phone” she asked and when I paused for moment she added: “OK, I am sending you Ksh 500 credit right away and when I get to Mombasa I will send you some more.”
Getting cell phone credit in Kisumu had been very difficult during the post-election violence of 2007/2008. And here was the “rural woman from Wajir” who had the presence of mind to inquire about a fundamental need during a crisis. Dekha continued sending me credit and regularly updated me on the civil society initiative, the Citizens Coalition for Peace. This was Dekha at her best, a woman of simple acts of great impact.
More importantly, during the post-election violence, Dekha and others used their international contacts to raise funds to support the burial of the young men who had died during the post-election violence in various parts of Kisumu. I remember her telling me that in the midst of all the chaos, we, as peace and justice workers, needed to ensure that proper and dignified burials took place. Again, as elder sisters are wont to, she “instructed” me to coordinate with other initiatives that assisted families hold dignified burials.
As soon as things calmed down in Kisumu in early 2008, Dekha invited me to be part of a team that would undertake a research on the viability of introducing peace education in Kenyan schools. We had a quick meeting with Dekha and her team and a staff from UNESCO that was funding the study. A few days later I was on a flight to Rwanda and Ghana, countries that already had components of peace education in their primary and high school curriculum.
In 2009, Dekha, Bhat Latumbo and I co-facilitated a workshop on leadership and peacebuilding with youth leaders in Garissa. On our way back, the vehicle blew the cylinder casket as we approached the small town of Matuu. As we packed in a fuel station around 6pm, while everyone was in panic, Dekha spread her mat and said her prayers. Thereafter, stoic as ever, she mobilized us in seeking alternatives as darkness was approaching. Her quick thinking, rapport and humor made it possible for us to hire a “matatu” (public mini van) that had closed business, and soon we were on our way to Nairobi.
Perhaps the most painful part of this personal tribute I last talked with Dekha in the afternoon of 5 July. We had just completed a consultative meeting on peacebuilding with government and civil society agencies working along the Kenya/Somalia border, convened in Nairobi by Pact Kenya’s Peace in East and Central Africa Program. At the end of the workshop we all pulled out calendars and marked dates for follow up.
In the afternoon of 5 July Dekha visited our offices at Umeme Plaza and quickly pulled a chair and updated me on some of the key issues that had been discussed in informal gatherings after the workshops. As she usually did, she asked me to pull out my note book as she animatedly generated options of engaging government agencies and civil society in peace and justice work along the Kenya/Somalia border.
The Nigerian novelist, Elechi Amadi, once wrote that “death is a bad reaper; it reaps even the unripe fruits.” Only two days later, I was speeding towards Wilson airport, this time, to finalize plans for Dekha’s medical evacuation from Garissa, following the accident that had claimed the lives of her husband, Abdinur Haji Ahmed and her driver, Jackson Ashiundu.
When I informed a former professor of mine, John Paul Lederach, about the accident and Dekha’s medical condition, he wrote a letter to Dekha and asked me to read it to her when the time was right. Unfortunately, I never got to read that letter to Dekha. I take liberty of quoting a section of that letter for I know Dekha is listening:
“[Dekha], I leave you with this short poem from Hafiz because I was reminded in reading it today that this great Sufi poet of so many years ago was describing you! I have changed only the gender. You are and have always been a key dropper!
On your low days, on your slow days, duck your head to miss the moon and think of the keys you will drop!
The small man
builds cages for everyone
while the sage,
who has to duck her head
when the moon is low,
keeps dropping keys all night long
for the beautiful
For me, the most powerful testament on Dekha comes from Abdi Billow whom I met when I first went to Wajir. Billow was then a youth leader working with WPDC. He has been nurtured by Dekha and now serves as Program Coordinator.
I make my own the words of Billow that he wrote to us in a recent email: “in knowing her as a friend and organizational colleague there were many aspects of her personality that moved me very deeply: her passionate commitment and idealism which translated into a continuous activism for social justice, her constant transgression of religious and cultural traditions in critically constructive ways, her fundamental refusal to be taken as a second-class because of being a woman, her openness in engaging even the thorniest aspects of the human rights struggle and her capacity to extend sisterhood to all and sundry, very different in beliefs from herself, her wonderful laughter, generosity and hospitality.”
Billow recalls that Dekha’s home was an “open-house” always full of people talking, eating, laughing, arguing. He writes “I was always amazed by her inexhaustible energy in juggling motherhood, work, numerous political commitments and an active social life.”
The best way of honoring the memory of this great woman, this beautiful spirit, is to continue the enormous work of peacebuilding and justicebuilding that she began. As we support her children, we must continue dropping keys for there are many “beautiful rowdy prisoners” who are waiting and willing to pick keys that we picked when Dekha dropped them for us!