Nawiri-Africa is a youth-led community organisation based in Kilifi County, Kenya, which was founded by Peally Salim Swaleh, a gender practitioner, human rights defender, and counselling psychologist. The organisation has been at the forefront of countering violent extremism through the transformative power of creative arts.
It supports underserved locals, and advocates for peace and security with a focus on youth and women, particularly young mothers. The use of creative arts provides safe spaces for dialogue, promotes empathy and understanding, and challenges extremist narratives.
In my interview with Peally, she sheds light on their innovative approaches and the importance of using creative arts and a decolonised lens to empower women and promote sustainable peace, all while countering extremist narratives.
Ms. Peally Salim Swaleh, Executive Director at Nawiri-Africa, Kilifi County, Kenya.
Kilifi County has long been a target for terrorism and radicalisation. Witnessing the rise in religious divides, organised crime, and human rights violations. Peally and her team recognised the urgent need to address these issues and prevent further violence. They explored the potential of creative arts to bring together different religions and tribes, foster understanding, and restore peace.
Creative arts, particularly theatre, have proven effective in conveying messages of peace and countering extremism as theatrical performances easily capture the attention of many, especially youth. This avenue has proven to be impactful to create awareness, especially when performances are done in native languages. Using skits and performances to bring real-life situations to the community has enabled the audience to relate and learn.
Through theatre performances, focus group discussions, community dialogues and theatre street storms (flashmob theatre performances) on busy streets and crowded business areas, these spaces capture the attention of the community, including disengaged youth who might otherwise find speeches less engaging.
Nawiri-Africa’s production on 26 March 2023, in partnership with Kisauni Social Justice Centre, for the campaign “Pamoja Tukatae Kutumika” (let us work together to not be used). Kisauni, Kenya.
Taking an intersectional approach
Kilifi’s strong cultural norms have marginalised women, leaving them vulnerable to violence since many have been made to believe it’s taboo to speak amidst men, or even differ in opinion. The prevailing strong cultural norms have bound women to menial roles, leaving them overwhelmed with unpaid care work and depriving them of agency in engaging in advocacy. This is due to patriarchy's entrenched influence, which has been evident since pre-independence times.
Peally looks to Mekatilili Wa Menza, a prominent Kenyan Giriama woman who led the resistance against British colonial rule during the early 20th century, and whose bravery and determination in fighting for the rights and dignity of her people have made her a symbol of women's empowerment and a legendary figure in Kenyan history. Peally believes that if women in the coastal region had been able to exercise resistance like Menza’s, perhaps they could have the courage to assert themselves and embrace leadership roles today.
Empowering women and promoting their inclusion in peacebuilding is essential for challenging these structures. By recognising women as agents of peace, they are empowered, and their contributions to countering extremism, as well as their well-being, receive greater acknowledgement and support. It is important to take an intersectional approach that not only recognises the need for women’s leadership in this area of peacebuilding but also recognises the importance of decolonisation.
Beatrice Nzovu, a peacebuilder and African feminist scholar, echoes Peally’s sentiments by pointing out that women face challenges from the prevailing Westernised jargon and conceptualisation of violent extremism, which tends to portray it as a masculine and military-centric issue.
“By decolonising the terminology, we can expand our understanding of who can be a violent extremist and acknowledge women’s experiences and expertise in this domain.”
She emphasises the significance of creating meaningful spaces for women’s engagement, moving beyond tokenistic inclusion:
“It is crucial to avoid presumptions about women’s knowledge and perspectives on countering violent extremism. When male practitioners speak to women, they discover that women’s engagement in countering violent extremism stems from a different perspective. Women who have family members involved in violent extremism, approach the issue with a broader knowledge sphere. They seek to be critical and understanding, and they advocate for including women in the agenda. In doing so, women can support ongoing efforts in countering violent extremism and play a role in preventing their loved ones from joining extremist organisations. They can also help individuals disengage from these organisations and reintegrate into their communities.”
Sustainable positive impact
Engaging women as leaders and promoting their participation in peacebuilding not only brings equity in this space but also leads to more effective and sustainable peacebuilding. These women-led efforts, utilising creative arts, have proven highly effective in promoting peace and countering extremist narratives. Nawiri-Africa has engaged with 1450 youth over the last year alone, addressing gendered dynamics and patriarchal structures in Kilifi County by promoting gender mainstreaming and inclusivity in their projects.
Through performances, Nawiri-Africa has successfully reformed youth from criminal gangs, encouraging them to focus on nurturing their talents. Young women have chosen to serve as Human Rights Defenders, responding to injustices and violations, and steering the Youth, Peace, and Security Agenda.
Their work exemplifies the power of creative arts in promoting peace, fostering empathy, and encouraging individuals to reject extremist ideologies. Nawiri-Africa’s experiences in Kilifi County offer valuable lessons, emphasising the importance of collective efforts involving local leaders, justice actors, and civil society organisations.
Through embracing decolonisation and empowering women, they’ve showcased the potential of creative arts and community engagement in countering violent extremism and building sustainable peace. Their work serves as inspiration and provides insights for practitioners and academics in the field, encouraging inclusive and transformative approaches to peacebuilding.