In July of this year, Africa lost one of its premier peacebuilders in a tragic car accident in Kenya. While Dekha Ibrahim Abdi’s passing is a loss to peace efforts in Africa and around the globe, it’s also a loss to me. I lost a friend and mentor.
Where do I begin to write about how Dekha has shaped my peacebuilding and my life? So many good memories, so much learning, and so many things yet unlearned.
Others will write of her brilliant mind, her analytical skills, her ability to see connections, her incredible teaching and facilitation skills. I’ve learned much from her in all of these areas and will miss them. And yet during these last weeks as I’ve remembered Dekha and the very deep lessons I’ve learned from her, it’s her personal qualities that stand out. I want to share a few stories that illustrate this.
First, Dekha had a seeming inability to stereotype people; she was able to see beyond the title, the uniform, and the ethnicity, to the heart and soul of the person in front of her. The last time that Dekha was at EMU, just a few weeks before her death, we went shopping for gifts for her children and friends. We wandered into a shoe store, and staggered out three hours later with thirteen pairs of shoes for her daughters and others. During that time in the shoe store, I again watched in amazement as she made friends with one of the salespeople – a young, tattooed woman who, by the end of that encounter, had an entirely new understanding of Islam and women who choose to wear veils. By sharing her humanity, humor, and joy in buying those shoes, she connected with the saleswoman in ways that went far beyond that of customer.
Second, not only have I learned from Dekha the importance of not stereotyping myself, but of helping others break the prejudices that they have. Dekha’s first visit to EMU in 1998 was during the time that money was being collected to build a mosque in Harrisonburg. During that time a local Presbyterian Church had set aside their fellowship room on Fridays for the local Muslim community to have a place for prayers. Dekha was very pleased to be able to donate money for the mosque, and through the years talked often about how important it was for her to share the story of a church that shared their space with a Muslim congregation.
And Dekha taught me the importance of living by faith and values. Her rock-solid grounding in Islam became more and more evident during the years that I knew her and her work. Dekha’s life, her being, flowed out of that. We had many conversations through the years about Islam, Christianity, and faith. Knowing this deeply religious Muslim woman has moved me to a deeper commitment to my own Christian faith.
Finally, Dekha taught me about enjoying life. Her smile, her enthusiasm at each new experience, her joking and chuckle, even in the midst of difficult times, will stay with me forever. She loved life, she loved her children, her family, her friends, and her colleagues, and she welcomed everyone and every experience into her wide, opening acceptance.
Dekha once told me a story about when she was in Nairobi, in a shop purchasing butter, and two men behind her started speaking in English about “why this Somali woman was taking so long just making a simple purchase – that’s how all those Somalis are.” Dekha turned around and explained to them that actually she was contemplating why butter imported from New Zealand was cheaper than local butter, and trying to decide whether she should place more importance on her family’s budget by buying the butter from New Zealand, or whether she should support the national economy by buying the more expensive local butter. She laughed with pleasure as she remembered the way the men looked at her, and kept chuckling, still hoping she had changed the way the two men viewed “those rural women.”
The last time I was with Dekha, just a few weeks before her death, she spoke over and over again about her family, about how happy she was with her children and about how much her husband, her mother, her brother and others meant to her. Her smile as she talked about them engaged not just her entire face, but her whole being. Her life was very full, and she was content.
I will miss you, Dekha: my colleague, my friend, my sister. And the lessons that you have taught me will remain with me, in my work and in my life.
See also: EMU Grieves Peacebuilder’s Death in Kenya (EMU News)
[Jan Jenner (MA ’99) is director of the Practice and Training Institute at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Jan’s expertise in project planning, development and management, community-based peacebuilding processes – particularly in Africa – has helped contribute to the literature of the field of peacebuilding.]