Center for Community Engagement

‘You can’t just turn a blind eye’: Agostine Ndung’u ’12 awarded Dalai Lama Fellowship for initiative aimed at reducing ethnic violence in Kenya

Agostine Ndungu '12

May 2011—Story by Jenny Morgan, photo by Kate Berry '12

In the fall of 2008, Agostine Ndung’u ’12 moved from Kenya to the United States to join Amherst College’s class of 2012. Like his new peers, Amherst was the school of his dreams— and 2008 represented opportunity and hope. In spite of his excitement, however, he was deeply troubled by what he was leaving behind in Kenya.

After the highly contested 2007 presidential election, Kenya was devastated by post-election violence that internally displaced 350,000 Kenyans. Ndung’u watched as refugees set up camps in his hometown of Nakuru, making him acutely aware that as he left his home for college, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were forced from theirs. This summer, Ndung’u is returning to Kenya as one of the first Dalai Lama Fellows to launch the Youth for Peace Initiative, a leadership training program that stresses reconciliation and non-violence aimed at rural youth in the Rift Valley.

Ndung’u is developing the Youth for Peace Initiative to address the post-election violence that continues in Kenya today. What makes the 2008 violence so defining is that most of the internally-displaced persons, or IDPs, are yet to return home. The government’s failed resettlement program has exacerbated ethnic tensions, particularly in the Rift Valley. As Ndung’u explains, “People are being rejected in every community. [The resettlement program] basically has been the sparking point, because [the government is] trying to plant groups of people in what other people consider their ancestral lands. It’s an issue of who does and who does not belong.”

The Youth for Peace Initiative will specifically target young people in rural areas from IDP communities and “host communities” — the areas where IDPs are to be resettled. Ndung’u chose to work with youth because they “are the most prone to engage in politically instigated ethnic violence.” The first phase of the initiative will focus on the leadership development of five to seven youth leaders, who will participate in a leadership training camp facilitated by peace activists and local community organizers. Ndung’u plans to build enduring relationships with the youth in the leadership camp, the trainers, and community leaders outside of the YPI to generate interest and support for the initiative. Ndung’u’s greatest hope is that the new leaders are fully supported by a wide-ranging network in their efforts to build peace across “ethnically diverse rural communities.” Moreover, he hopes that this group will be “a voice for their larger communities” and that the growing relationships between different ethnic communities will help defray potential future violence. With elections slated for 2012, and the enduring refugee crisis, Ndung’u is aware that Kenya remains very much in a “transitional phase.”

 As a Dalai Lama Fellow, Ndung’u will receive $10,000 to financially support the Youth for Peace Initiative.  He’ll also receive ongoing mentorship from the organization, beginning with a one-week training in California with the 13 other fellows. The week will focus on developing skills in social entrepreneurship, sustainable leadership, and coalition building, as well placing a heavy emphasis on learning contemplative exercises. The Dalai Lama Fellowship program is a “secular, non-partisan organization” that invests in the “leadership development and the impact projects of emerging social change makers.” Program Director Chris Simamora explains that each leader is also selected because they “advance the values that have distinguished the life and the teachings of the 14th Dalai Lama.” Amherst College was selected as one of the inaugural institutions invited to nominate a fellow for the first class of Dalai Lama Fellows.

Simamora believes that Ndungu’s preparedness and vision will make him a successful fellow and life-long leader, commenting, “A lot of people have really great ideas, but we also have a lot of faith in his ability to execute [these ideas].” Simamora, like many others who know him, recognize that the Youth for Peace Initiative is one part of Ndung’u’s development as an emerging leader in- and outside of Kenya. Ndung’u, a double-major in Black Studies and Political Science, has deliberately crafted his undergraduate education and leadership training with an aim to be active in helping solve Kenya’s most pressing challenges. He firmly believes that his Amherst education is a privilege that he must now use. “You can’t just turn a blind eye to the violence that happened in 2008. I can’t just sit and watch, and being a Dalai Lama Fellow is an opportunity to give back.”

Jenny Morgan is  a CCE staff writer. She loves vinyasa yoga, fresh figs, and cheap art. She welcomes comments or questions at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.