Many of us are familiar with the concept of crisismapping through the work of organisations like Ushahidi. Two students have recently started asking the question: Why only map crisis? Why not also map peace? It seems only natural then that Sisi Ni Amani, a peace-mapping initiative has, like Ushahidi, also come out of Kenya.

What is Sisi Ni Amani?

Sisi Ni Amani, which means “We are Peace” in Kiswahili, is a project that aims to map peace initiatives to help highlight and coordinate positive peacebuilding initiatives in and across communities. In the same way Ushahidi mapped instances of election violence in Nairobi in 2008, Sisi Ni Amani, a Digital Democracy project, will be using similar technology to “raise awareness of peace efforts within Kenya by mapping peace initiatives across all segments of Kenyan society.”

Started by two undergraduate students at Tufts University, Rachel Brown and Cody Valdes, Sisi Ni Amani plans to roll out their project in Nairobi within the year. As I mentioned in a post on the Ashoka Peace Blog on business plan competitions, Sisi Ni Amani has been structuring its ideas through forums like the Dell Social Innovation Competition and more recently the World Bank’s Moving Beyond Conflict Innovation Fair, where they were selected as one of the top winners for their proposal.

Interview with Rachel Brown and Cody Valdes, founders of Sisi Ni Amani

Priya: Tell me about Sisi Ni Amani. How did you come up with this idea?

Rachel: I was studying abroad in Nairobi and conducting research on the role of corruption in government there. I realised that everyone I was interviewing already knew what I thought to be discovering through my research: that corruption was starting from the top. After doing research for many months only to realise what locals already knew, I thought to myself, what was I contributing if I was just stating the obvious?

Through my research, I had met a number of anti-corruption activists, and in their view the only way to prevent violence from happening again was to bring corruption to the forefront.

Priya: So how did your research lead you to think about “peace-mapping?”

Rachel: I studied power structures for a long time and left feeling really pessimistic, yet at the same time noticed a very interesting phenomenon unfolding during my time in Nairobi. I kept noticing a lot of, what I would call, “peace graffiti.” The words “Keep Peace Alive” were graffitied in a lot of the violence-prone areas and particularly in the slums. But in the same place, you would also see graffiti that would say “No Raila, No Peace”. (Raila Odinga was the opposition leader in Kenya during the 2007 presidential elections). I was confused why both of these signs were together and wasn’t sure if it was a group or a single person.

At the very end of my stay I found out that it was a local graffiti artist, who calls himself Solo 7. He told us that he noticed that the places that said ODM (the opposition party that didn’t win the elections) were being left alone during the riots. He noticed that the power of written words and symbols could, in some cases, have a bigger impact than perhaps spoken words. And that was his trade: he was an artist. In some cases, intimidating groups would tell him to write “No Raila No Peace.” But he would also go out every day and write “Keep Peace Alive” in as many places that he could. People started noticing. He began to run weekend art workshops with children from different tribes, making them “ambassadors for peace” in their communities.

I realised that everybody knows what the problem on the ground is, and yet, that these people, despite the established power structures, were standing up and risking their lives to promote peace. I began thinking to myself, how can I play a role in supporting them?

Priya: So what would Sisi Ni Amani do?

Rachel: Well, I was very careful to think about how I could support them, rather than trying to start something totally new. They are working on solving the problem and there were many such homegrown solutions sprouting up from within the community.

Despite reports warning of potential repeat violence, these people were still standing up for peace. Based on all of my conversations with different organisations, it seemed that a lot of them didn’t know about each other, and there wasn’t a comprehensive mapping of where all the peace initiatives were. Also, most news reports only conveyed stories of violence and conflict between tribes, while the stories about speaking for peace were not being told.

A mapping of these initiatives could help the peacemakers connect with each other and help highlight these initiatives and the desire for peace to the general public.

Not surprisingly, most individual initiatives aren’t putting resources into finding out who else is doing this in a large-scale and comprehensive way, they’re putting their limited resources into their projects. If you can provide a resource to them, it’s helpful.

Priya: How would Sisi Ni Amani work?

Rachel: In order to give Kenyan peace leaders the opportunity to fully leverage the network available to them, Sisi ni Amani will use the same crowdsourcing technology that Ushahidi used to crowdsource information about violence to map peace initiatives. We will conduct follow-up interviews for information verification and bring groups of peace leaders together in “peace workshops”, where they will have the opportunity to meet face to face, share experience and knowledge, and teach each other valuable skills. In addition, we are using an innovative media approach to publicise both the platform and the peace initiatives we find.

Priya: How does peace-mapping affect the conflict?

Rachel: One often thinks about ‘staying away’ from danger zones and this changes our relationship to the map. Not only does mapping peace enhance the work of peace leaders, but it also provides a network that can be drawn upon if early signs of conflict begin to emerge and in the event of conflict.

Priya: What are the biggest challenges you foresee?

Cody: The need to verify. We are operating on a different timeline than traditional crisis mapping, which needs to be updated quickly and accurately in live time ... With peace initiatives, we luckily have the luxury of responding to text/email messages in person - either Rachel and I or our team of Kenyan Sisi ni Amani researchers (predominantly university students, we anticipate) - will be conducting interviews with those organisations/individuals. We'll be verifying their legitimacy and gathering information for other aspects of our project.

Rachel: Another big challenge is security. We are aware that mapping, when made free and publically available can be used by anyone and can have unintended consequences. We’ve decided the best way to address the tension between highlighting peacebuilders and protecting the peacemakers is to leave the mapping to the decision of the peacebuilders. By promoting peace they are already in a risky business, and it will be completely their decision whether they want to identify their location on the map, and if so, in what form (anonymously, in Nairobi, or exact coordinates). How their information gets publicised is their choice.

Priya: What is next for you?

Rachel: Cody and I will be moving to Nairobi in July to start the mapping.

Priya: Why do you think it’s important to map peace?

Rachel: The thing people don’t realise is that you have to make just as much of a decision to engage in peace promotion activities as you would for violent activities – peace is an active choice to do something (cooperate, communicate, etc.) and it’s important to recognise those promoting peace for the incredible decision that they’re making. The cost of participating in peace activities can actually be quite high. Violent groups often offer large incentives to encourage youth to join the violence, and many choose still not to participate. Peace is assumed as a default, yet it’s not. Why do people choose peace and publically promote peace even when it’s not in their personal interest or safety?

We hope Sisi ni Amani will serve as a mechanism for positive reinforcement for these peace initiatives, so that the story of peace is told, and peace is recognised as an active decision that these Kenyan organisations and individuals are making, even when incentives are not always tipped for peace. We hope that by providing peace leaders with crucial information about the full network available to them, we can enable them to leverage this network to learn from and support one another.

This post was originally published on the Ashoka Peace Blog.