Hamisa Zaja: Peace and security remains the air she breathes

Hamisa Zaja, a member of Mombasa County District Peace Committee. The committee has been holding trainings to counter violent extremism. Photo: Odhiambo Orlale
Hamisa Zaja, a member of Mombasa County District Peace Committee. The committee has been holding trainings to counter violent extremism. Photo: Odhiambo Orlale

For the past three years, issues of peace and security  as well as violence against women and girls have remained at the core of Hamisa Zaja’s passion.

Zaja, who wears many hearts, has spent many sleepless nights criss-crossing Mombasa County as a member of the District Peace Committee. In this endeavour she has had to face criminal gangs, Al Shabaab recruits and sympathizers as well as radicalised youths preaching peace and holding meetings with various stakeholders on security issues.

Zaja who formerly held the position of treasurer in the Mombasa District Peace Committee says: “Our work has not been easy but we have soldiered on because of the passion we have for promoting peace in this County.”

She notes: “We are dealing with the over 33 illegal gangs as well as Al Shaabab recruits, ex-recruits, returnees from Somalia and local criminal gangs whom we have programmes to transform.”

As part of the team of women leaders dealing with issues of peace and security as well as violence against women and girls, Zaja says they have also been holding trainings to counter violent extremism. This is to enable them address the rising cases of insecurity in the Coastal region, whose Regional Police Commandant is Nelson Marwa, a tough-talking administrator.

The women leaders at a recent training organised by African Woman and Child (AWC) Feature Service in Mombasa intimated that crime rates have reduced, thanks to Marwa’s controversial shoot-to-kill order.

At the height of the radicalisation last year, the County Commissioner, who has been promoted to Coast Regional County Commissioner, had announced that over 200 school children were missing from their schools, colleges and homes. At the time Marwa appealed to parents to help track the children, help them reform and return to school. There has not been any official update todate.

Zaja, who is also an official of the Coast Association for Persons Living with Disabilities, says they have also changed their approach to have dialogue meetings with the different groups in order to address the vice.

Capacity building

“We are now focusing on counter violent extremism trainings, we do it in groups of 40 youth each, so far we have done six groups, one each from the six sub-counties in Mombasa,” Zaja explains. The intensive trainings are held monthly and last for four days each.

The County has a population of 1.2 million people living in the five sub-counties of Changamwe, Jomvu, Nyali, Mvita and Mvita. It is one of the six Counties in Coast region; the others are Lamu, Tana River, Kilifi, Kwale and Taita Taveta.

In an exclusive interview with the Kenyan Woman, Zaja identified on-going secret recruitment of youths by Al Shaabab and militant extremists; radicalisation, especially of the youth and drug barons who take advantage of the high unemployment and idle youth among major security concerns in the region.

The 40 trainees include returnees from Somalia who had been recruited by Al Shabaab, and those in illegal groups calling themselves Wakali Kwanza, Wakali Wao and Vampire among others.

Asked why they had turned into crime and/or allowed themselves to be radicalised by their religious leaders, most of the youth blamed it on marginalization and bitterness with the authorities for allowing their social amenities like playgrounds and social halls to be grabbed; other complaints was that they were jobless and had no businesses to run; while others said they were idle.

Intervention

Says Zaja: “The illegal group also had women and girls among them. We identified 23 whose stories were shocking, some were orphans while others were victims of drug and substance abuse, rape and/or teenage pregnancies as well as school drop outs.”

Looking back at their intervention as members of district peace committees, Zaja says their efforts in reforming members of the illegal gangs have not been in vain.

“After talking to some of them in the dialogue and trainings forums, some have been reformed and abandoned the radicalisation and extremism groups but there are others who have continued with their bad ways,” notes Zaja. She adds: “We are aware that out of the 150 members who we spoke to, at least 50 have reformed and are helping us engage with their colleagues as role models.”

Zaja says they have helped some of the youth start their own businesses and income generating projects such as garbage collection among others.

Some of the worst areas mapped by the District Peace Committees in Mombasa County were identified as Kisauni, Mvita and Likoni where the criminal gangs attack in broad day with no fear of being arrested. Others just slashed members of the public at dawn or dusk indiscriminately.

During the AWC train organised under the UN Women programme on peace and security, some of the participants revealed that in an area called Vietnam, the youth were so bold that they had the audacity to write on a wall in Kiswahili:  “Bwaga pesa na simu uende (drop your wallet and mobile phone and flee),” before you are slashed and mugged! Some of those gangs were reported to be recruiting schoolboys as young as 7-years of age.

Says Zaja: “We must act before it gets out of hand. We as women in the District Peace Committees must be involved.”

Some of the participants said the criminals had changed tact saying that during a recent police raid in a slum in Mombasa, 10 women were identified posing as Muslims by wearing buibui (veils) but were not.

In the past they used to have youths being armed with stones and homemade explosives but now some are armed with light weapons.

Forum

“We must also unite and address the political issues and politicians. We must be our brothers’ keeper,” reiterates Zaja. She notes: “In the post-election violence of 2007 we had youths hired to protect property near Mtwapa.” Other women leaders blame Al Shabaab for other political militias.

“We should form the Mombasa Peace Forum and look for support from donors and well wishes,” Zaja’s colleagues say.

Zaja reminded the forum that no one is safe during riots, demonstrations and or terrorist attacks “whether you are a woman, man, girl, boy a disabled or even a police officer”.

As the meeting ended, Zaja led the women in forming a social media group beginning with WhatsApp to enhance their communication, network and work.

“We must work with the County government and Governor Hassan Ali Joho and his team to succeed. We will not succeed unless we work with all stakeholders who must also recognize us and what we are doing,” Zaja says.

In a parting shot, Zaja says: “Uoga ni maskini milele (cowardice is a slave of poverty forever.”