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A health worker adjusts a mask on a colleague. Kenyans have been urged to wear masks when in public places.

Fifth Estate

Community Elders Role in fighting violent extremism during COVID-19

Elders are the custodians of a community’s culture and traditions and the repositories of its history and collective knowledge. In traditional African societies, elders play an invaluable role in crafting solutions to the community’s problems.  

They also ensure community norms promoting peace and stability are safeguarded from one generation to the next. Elders are regularly consulted on diverse facets of community life and governments recognize their instrumental role in maintaining social order.   

As such, elders especially those who form part of the Nyumba Kumi initiative at the grassroots play a vital role in building resilience to violent extremism fuelled by political, social, religious, environmental and economic challenges facing communities.

Some communities are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 social and economic challenges and thus more prone to radicalization and extremism. Building the resilience of such communities to extremism therefore requires a deeper view of the pandemic’s influence on their social and security dynamics. 

Since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Kenya in March 2020, the government has adopted two approaches to containing the pandemic.

The first approach has been to promote mass behavioral change and personal protection, by providing guidelines and rules on social distancing, personal hygiene, wearing of masks, and prohibiting public gatherings.  

The second approach is about curbing the spread of the coronavirus through identification, isolation and treatment of infected cases. This also involves targeted testing, quarantining suspected cases and patient contact tracing.

Two groups of people have emerged as critical to the success of both approaches. One comprises frontline health workers and the other the Administrative and security agencies. Under the latter group, the Nyumba Kumi Elders at the grassroots play a critical role in supporting the National Government Administration Officers and the health workers through the nyumba kumi initiative which is housed at the Ministry of Interior and Co-ordination of national Government.

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This group of community-based actors is crucial in the fight against COVID-19. Incidentally, community actors within the auspices of nyumba kumi are also involved in preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE).

I understand that in some communities where PCVE activities are ongoing, village elders under the auspices of Nyumba Kumi Initiative have teamed up with health volunteers in enforcing COVID-19 guidelines and other activities like contact tracing. These elders thus play a dual role of managing the health and security needs of their communities.

For example, in Nyeri Foundations for Dialogue, an NGO involved in PCVE activities has been facilitating vigilance and resilience training for Nyumba Kumi elders and health workers.

The project is targeting 300 nyumba kumi units and has roped in 25,000 elders and health workers. The elders assist in identifying persons most vulnerable to COVID-19 and to radicalization by extremist elements seeking to exploit the prevailing situation.

The Nyumba Kumi elders should therefore be involved in guiding and mentoring youth as the latter are most affected by loss of jobs, family stress and mental health pressures related to the pandemic.

They should also be at the forefront of instilling positive values in our youth to prevent them engaging in destructive behavior. The youth should also be involved in COVID-19 prevention and mitigation as well as sensitizing their peers and other community members on the dangers of radicalization.

Through community policing, the Nyumba Kumi elders have a role in strengthening PCVE surveillance and identifying emerging local grievances related to COVID-19 for further monitoring and action.

This entails a bottom-up approach combining COVID-19 response and PCVE agenda at the grassroots – key to countering both the pandemic and extremism especially in the most vulnerable communities.

Even where coronavirus prevention and control strategies prove to be effective, failure to address underlying social and economic challenges undermines the national PCVE strategy.  

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Community participation is crucial in ‘flattening the curve’ of the pandemic but more importantly, the ensuing ‘democratization’ of the process serves to reinforce positive PCVE outcomes. Besides fostering a culture of openness, it boosts community resilience against both COVID-19 and violent extremism.

But community resilience strategies must be aligned with the prevailing social reality. Nyumba Kumi Elders must work and consult with other cultural elders as  custodians of the community’s traditions, culture and history  and who are best placed to advise on the appropriate approach to the health and security needs of the community.

The Nyumba Kumi Elders’experience in managing community affairs places them are in a good place to make important decisions regarding the community’s health and security.

However, this does not mean we exclude or alienate women and youth. They too have a vital role in making our communities and the country at large safe from COVID-19 and extremism.

Mr. Mwachinga is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a Partner at Viva Africa Consulting LLP. [email protected]  

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