An Interview with Adam Hummel: Founder of the Kenya Peace Project
“Those who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action.” These words reoccurred throughout Adam Hummel’s TEDTalk in Toronto, and reflect his personal philosophy. Hummel founded the Kenya Peace Project, a grassroots organization whose goal is to help build and bridge relationships within and between Kenyan communities. His book Amani Haki Yetu: Peace Is Our Right details his experience in Kenya as well as the experiences of those who survived the civil war following the election in 2007. Through fundraising money for the villages he worked with, he has assisted them in organizing soccer tournaments, workshops, and the building of a community centre. Through these initiatives, he strives to help build sustainable peace in Kenya. He strongly believes in the idea that one does not need to be rich in order to help others in need, and that anyone can be a philanthropist in their own right. In his interview with MIR, Adam Hummel elaborates on his project, tribalism, and how his methodology can be applied to conflict resolution worldwide.
Can you tell us about the Kenya Peace Project and how it all started?
This year the project is about six and a half years old. The way I got involved in Kenya was sort of a fluke. I did my undergrad at York, then afterwards I took a year off and went to live in the UK. What happened was I got a little more interested in working activism in Darfur, and what was happening in Darfur while I was over there. And because of that I thought, well it would be great to spend some time on the ground in Africa. I had the summer off in 2008 before I started law school, so I was looking for some projects to maybe go over to Africa and try to volunteer to, you know, anywhere and see where I could lend a hand. The only project that sort of fit the schedule for myself happened to be in Kenya. And it was run through this organization in the US that sort of let me come out…I ended up going over to Kenya on a whim sort of. They told me there were fourteen other people who were going to be volunteering at the same time as me, and the group was going to be working with each other in a rural area, and we would be working on peace-building projects because there were a few tribes in the area that were fighting with each other about cattle and land and things like that. They said that we would be going to develop peace-building projects and develop income-generating projects. So what happened was I arrived in Nairobi and at the airport I was told there were no other volunteers, that it was just me, and that there was obviously a miscommunication somewhere and that I was there alone. So I was alone there in Nairobi and I was terrified, but they told me that the village I was staying in was about a five hour drive from Nairobi, and that I would be going the next day. The next day I went out with a couple of bulls, and I met a volunteer who happened to be there from Japan. So the two of us and a few people went out to this village, and I found out that this project wasn’t vey well organized. What I realized when I was getting to Kenya was right at the tail end of the civil war, which had taken place in the first three months of 2008, and I didn’t know much about it but things were still really fresh. So I stayed in something that was a hot zone of where the violence took place, speaking to a lot of people who were impacted by it, people who still have really strong feelings about it. My advantage was that the program was so disorganized I was able to – outside of a formal environment – meet a lot of interesting people, talk to them, and then try to see where there was another opportunity for maybe another project to step in and see what they could do. So that’s where my project sort of came from, it was those connections on the ground there, they came to me and asked me if I can help them develop something of their own, and we started – the first thing that I did when I was leaving was I told them that I’d go back home to raise some money and start a soccer tournament, which could be used to build bridges with a few different communities and go from there. The first soccer tournament was held in September 2008, and three teams, one from each tribe that had been fighting with each other, they each came out to participate. A ton of spectators came out as well, and we sort of saw that this was a great opportunity to bring people together. I spent from May 2008 until May 2009 trying to put together sort of a structure for what could be a project from the ground there. So it would be a soccer tournament, but we didn’t just want to target the soccer players over there that were already being targeted, we wanted to target the spectators who were coming out to watch and see if they wanted to get involved in something. With the input of a lot of the people on the ground over there, we decided we would run a workshop in May 2008, and that’s when I went back to Kenya and had this tournament and ran this workshop, and in the end of the workshop the youths decided they wanted to start an organization called Youth Ambassadors for Peace…and that’s how it all kicked off from there.
Having lived in this “hot zone” did you ever encounter any tense or testy situations, and how did you learn to deal with that?
Thankfully I didn’t because if I had I don’t know how comfortable I would have been staying there or going back. When I first got there I was completely ignorant (as most people are) about trends on the ground there and I had no idea, and this is something that also came up, which is if I have no idea about what any of the real issues are then I’m not going to be the one guiding this project and telling them what they need to do or how they’re going to make peace…I didn’t really encounter any threatening situations but I started to learn about tribalism and the negative trends of tribalism…and I picked it up from hearing what some kids were saying to each other. I heard kids talking about what they thought about people from different tribes and it surprised me. I remember on our first trip we were hitchhiking on a truck and the truck driver said…he thought the Kikuyu [tribe] needed to be killed, just like that. It was very blunt and something living [in Toronto] you don’t really ever experience. I then understood how talk like that could lead to action which could lead to what happened.
How would you describe your approach or methodology?
My approach is that…for this project to be successful it needs to be run by the people who it targets. It doesn’t make any sense for someone here to go over to Kenya and say “I have the answers and this is what you need to do… The approach was very much from the beginning that I was interested in this and I had made some good friends, and to me it was how can I help you facilitate this? One of the things that I realized was that I was in a rural area and I was in a place where white people never really came to visit. So when I came there it was like a spectacle. People wanted to see me, touch my skin, pull my leg hair out so I realized that if that’s how people were going to naturally react to seeing a white guy walking through their town then maybe I can use that attention to try to get them out to do something productive. But that whole direction of what that thing that would be productive would be would have to come from the people on the ground. So immediately the youths were the ones I was the closest with; they were the ones who…from the beginning they indicated they wanted to start something… I had this idea that the line is that those who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action… My approach is very much it has to be grassroots otherwise it’s going to fail.
What obstacles have you run into with the Kenya Peace Project and how have you overcome these issues?
The biggest challenge is fundraising. I’m not a good fundraiser. I like doing the work on the ground but getting organized and doing that was not my forte by any means. I’ve been very fortunate because my network and my community in Toronto has been very helpful in terms of giving me private donations and helping with specific projects… one of the biggest challenges was fundraising, and that was one of the reasons I wrote my book, because all the proceeds from the book go to the project, and so I wanted to do it as kind of a way to get out of fundraising on my own all the time, and also to get information out about, you know, the content of the book. Fundraising’s number one. So number two was not having that formal organization or that umbrella, I’m relying on people on the ground in Kenya to run everything. And I have one guy who’s in charge of running all the tasks and all the projects, and he works with other people for specific projects but he’s pretty much my guy on the ground there. But at the very beginning it was difficult to find someone that was reliable and trustworthy over there, because what necessarily happens with these sorts of projects is that we’re just sending money over there, and we’re just sending money to people who don’t have any money and it’s very easy for these people to say, “Okay, I really want to do good with it but I really want to help myself as well.” They’re looking out for themselves and it’s a different atmosphere. I got burned a couple times in the beginning by giving money to the wrong people who just took it and ran which is difficult, [but] I found someone who is reliable and is capable of budgets and keeping the money when he needs it and only spending it on things that are worthwhile. But even with someone super reliable it’s difficult when you’re not on the ground…being so far away from the project and having to rely on other people, but at the same time I’ve found good people to rely on.
What are your goals for the Peace Project in the upcoming years?
We are trying to figure out what direction we want to take because…the civil war that happened in 2008 was a result of the last election in Kenya at the end of 2007. So the goal when I was there was to make sure the next election would be peaceful as well and we would contribute to that. I mean we would play a small role but thankfully based on all Kenyans themselves and the fact that they didn’t want it to happen again, the election in 2013 went off without a hitch and it was peaceful. So then after that we were trying to figure out what the goal of the organization would be if we weren’t going to necessarily focus on the elections and on peace-building [maybe] it could be a community organization and we could help youths empower themselves and make that a way to contribute to the community. The focus of our organization has been since then we’ve run a couple soccer tournaments because we want to continue to facilitate the communication between the tribes. And we have this chicken project which we’re really proud of. It’s an HIV/AIDS project where we brought up a lot of chickens and we donate the eggs to members of the community who are diagnosed. We work with support groups as well…for women who are HIV positive and a few months ago we bought an incubator so we are able to hatch our own chickens… My brother and I are really trying to expand the project to help a primary school…that’s very isolated and a lot of the kids are HIV positive and are orphans because of AIDS and the post election violence. So we’re really focusing on trying to help this school as well, and trying to get the youths at the school to help as well.
In your TED Talk in Toronto a couple years ago you spoke about redefining philanthropy. How do you continue to inspire others to become philanthropists?
I think that for me at least I thought of youths in Kenya first. The fact that they are people who really don’t have anything physical that they can give but they have a lot of heart and a lot of time to give and so I think that project has helped them feel like philanthropists in that way. Over here since the TED Talk I’ve had really great responses from people who attended as well who have been in touch with me and tried to run fundraisers, and have run actually, really successful fundraisers like the chicken project…a few thousand dollars has come from high school students for that. And I like to think there’s a little bit of inspiration from that as well. I do a lot of work in the community in Toronto and I try to get people who are members of this community to try and get involved in all different ways [and] try to get involved and also give back with their time. And I think that’s sort of in line with my philosophy, which is you don’t have to wait until you have a lot of money to play a constructive role in your community. Anyone has the ability at any time, and if I can inspire people who are able to do that and who might have the time to do that then they can find something they are passionate about and get their hat in.
When I first started writing in Kenya – I’m a bookworm and I love reading – I went to Indigo and I tried to find books any books I could find about Kenya to learn about it before I went. I found that there weren’t many books or any books about current life on the ground in Kenya except for stuff on colonialism and safaris and stuff like that. So right away I’m like okay here’s an opportunity. After I’d been to Kenya three times, I had kept notes on everything that had happened there at any time, I would always have a notebook with me. And I sat down and I said, “Okay maybe I have enough material to sit down and write something.” The purpose of the book was three-fold. One, I wanted to teach people about life on the ground in Kenya, and then I wanted to use our project we developed as a lens through which to learn about that life on the ground. I thought that that’s great and it’s a great opportunity to teach people what’s going on about those things. The third was a way to fundraise for the project. I wrote about what happened, how I personally got to the stage of doing this and what we were able to accomplish and the approaches that I took in order to do everything; and what’s going on with the project and some of my own sort of reflections on trends in Kenya and things that I saw happening there, and the influence of Barack Obama over there and things like that. So I put it all together, it took about two years to write. I wrote it while I was in law school; I would just sit in Tim Hortons and type chapters using the notes that I took. It was interesting, it’s self-published…I really wanted to make sure this book was out before the 2013 election to bring awareness to it, which is why I pursued the self-publishing route.
In your book you wrote that the definition of peace is subjective. What is the ideal kind of peace you hope to achieve with your work?
When I was in university studying political science I focused all my essays on this idea of peace and different conflicts and how peace could be achieved in certain parts of the world and I approached this idea that peace was the absence of war. What I realized was that when I went over there and saw what was going on that we here really take for granted how peaceful our society is that peace isn’t just the absence of war but it’s something you really have to fight for yourself. So I think that the project specifically in Kenya when I look at what’s happening in Africa in general my ideal peace I’m looking for is something people are willing to fight for because if they don’t fight for it then in certain places in the world it can be taken from them quickly. I think that the peace I’m idealizing in my project is a peace that’s sort of fought tooth and nail for that is achieved by people who made it come about, and don’t take it for granted like we do.
What conclusions can you draw from your work in Kenya that you could apply to violent conflict resolution worldwide?
A couple things: one is, I was surprised – one of the things we wanted to tackle right away was youth idleness, and the reason why we chose to focus on this is because we realized how…negative a trend idleness is [and] how quickly it can become violent. In Kenya, for example, when politicians right around the time of the election or after the election wanted to get people to fight on their behalf, they would get people who really had nothing going on and nothing to lose to take a couple bucks and fight on their behalf. So I never thought about that, I never thought that idleness could – idleness to me meant boredom. Here in Canada that’s very innocent. Only when I got to Kenya did I realize that idleness can lead to such negativity and can lead to that violence which is something that can definitely be universal as well because it can happen anywhere and people can be taken advantage of, and they have nothing to lose. So that’s one thing; the other thing is people really need to want to make a difference, and to have things change in their world in order to get that. For me, like I said I do a lot of work in the Jewish community, and that includes a lot of work [related] to the Arab-Israeli conflict. For me I’ve written so much about that specific conflict as well and I’ve spent a lot of time advocating in that realm and I find that a lot of people say to me because of my background [as a member of the Jewish community], “Why go to Kenya? There’s plenty of war happening in the Middle East where you have a stake, why not jump in there?” Something I realized when I met with the Kenyans and this project: people really need to want it in order to get it, and I found that there’s a lot of fatigue in the Middle East with conflict and that people are maybe resigned to the fact that this is how it is, and it’s not necessarily going to change…In Kenya this conflict was totally fresh to them, they had never experienced civil war before[,] it was new to Kenyans and they realized that it happened and they felt burned by it and they really wanted to help themselves. I guess in order to globalize that and that lesson, people worldwide need to realize that they don’t necessarily need to be stuck in a conflict situation…If they do really want to take action then there are people who will help them to facilitate that action and if you feel invested enough in taking that first step forward, then you can start to make that peace happen.
Adam continues his humanitarian work with the Kenya Peace Project while living full-time in Toronto. To learn more about the project, further information is available on his website http://www.kenyapeaceproject.com and in his book Amani Haki Yetu, which is available on Amazon or Chapters. His TEDTalk can also be found on YouTube.
Photo credit: Jasmine Lee
Other images from the Kenya Peace Project website.