Shalom, devised by Fr Padraig Devine, carries out research into the causes of conflict

By Breda O’Brien, Irish Times. 12/02/2017

Washing up in Nairobi. Shalom works extensively in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, the biggest slum in Africa. Kibera is home to 250,000 of the 2.5m slum dwellers in the city. Photograph: Getty Images

Kenya is undergoing yet more turmoil as Uhuru Kenyatta is sworn in for a second five-year presidential term after an unprecedented cancellation of the previous election. Kenya, and East Africa, are places that generally only intrude on our consciousness when the media cover controversial elections, ethnic conflict or catastrophic drought. Yet there are strong links between East Africa and Ireland, not least because of development agencies and missionary organisations.

Not all news from that part of the world is bad despite real and seemingly intractable problems such as widespread malnutrition and the prevalence of Islamic fundamentalism in the shape of Al Shabaab.

Some of that good news concerns the Shalom Centre for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation (Shalom for short). It was founded by Fr Patrick Devine (Pádraig when in Ireland, but it’s not a name that trips off the tongue in East Africa), who has spent more than 25 years as a missionary priest with the Society of African Missions and as a social entrepreneur.

After years of working flat out in development, he became frustrated with dealing with symptoms rather than underlying causes. He became convinced that peace is the key to real development. But peace-making is never easy, and is hard to disentangle from factors like poor education, poverty, systemic corruption, weak institutions and, in the case of East Africa, tribal conflict that sometimes goes back for centuries.

Cause of peace

Fr Pádraig was in Ireland recently to deliver the fourth annual Lieut Gen Dermot Earley Memorial Lecture, hosted in Maynooth University by the Edward M Kennedy Institute for Conflict Resolution in association with the Irish Defence Forces.

Fr Pádraig, like Dermot Earley, is a Roscommon man, and like him shared a passion for GAA football, though he never ascended to the heights of the two All-Stars achieved by Earley. Yet their greatest resemblance probably lies in their dedication to the cause of peace.

Both men undertook masters’ programmes in peace studies, and Fr Devine eventually completed a PhD. Fr Pádraig’s brainchild, Shalom, was founded with the aim of carrying out rigorous research on the causes of conflict, and of making use of the best possible international practices to draw on the ability of stakeholders themselves to come up with lasting solutions.

Even though Shalom is only in existence since 2009 it has an impressive level of success. To date over 10,000 key community opinion-shapers – elders, warriors, women, youth and influential chiefs – have been trained professionally in conflict transformation skills and peace-building skills in northern Kenya, traversing the borders of Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, and also among the Somalian community.

Shalom works extensively in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, the biggest slum in Africa. Kibera is home to some 250,000 of the 2.5 million slum dwellers in the city. Rape, assault, and alcoholism are rampant, and clean water facilities are very poor.

Trócaire, one of Shalom’s strategic partners, particularly praised the work in the slums, saying that one unforeseen but very valuable side-effect of training women in conflict resolution is that women’s voices, and their ability to negotiate in their own home, have greatly increased.

Shalom believes passionately in education. Over 300 schools projects, many inter-ethnic and inter-religious, have been completed. Peace syllabuses have been introduced, along with the practicalities of providing desks, books and equipment.

Real passion

One of the most interesting developments is the installation of 500 solar energy units, providing electricity for 150,000 students who previously might have studied by firelight.

Shalom is mostly lay-led, is inter-religious, and everyone who works for it must be qualified to at least master’s degree level. It is this insistence on professionalism coupled with real passion for peace that has driven its success.

Over 340 workshops have been held among 16 tribes in conflict zones. These are areas where there is an average of 1.6 AK-47 rifles per family and where lives are regularly lost due to tribal conflicts.

Fr Pádraig’s dream for Shalom is that it would spread right through East Africa, and that each new foundation in another country would be independent.

But it is easy to see that this approach has even more widespread application. For example, Fr Pádraig has pointed out that only a negative peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland, and much remains to be done. He defines negative peace as the absent of armed conflict, but positive peace is where both sides in a conflict see the benefits of protecting the security and wellbeing of the other.

The insistence on top quality research into the causes of conflict, the training of local people, and the implementation of inter-ethnic co-operation on issues of mutual benefit: these are all things that many areas of the developed world really need as well.

Most of us feel overwhelmed by massive and intractable problems and turn back to clicking and liking on Facebook. Others decide to gather like-minded people and do what they can. If you want to click on something, why not click on