DU Alumni

Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award goes to founder of Africa’s International Peace Initiatives

In May 2015, Karambu Ringera was awarded the Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award from the Divisions of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Photo courtesy of International Peace Initiatives

In May 2015, Karambu Ringera was awarded the Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award from the Divisions of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Photo courtesy of International Peace Initiatives

Even before she claimed her PhD in human communication studies in 2007, Karambu Ringera began using her University of Denver education to help the people of her native village, Meru, and her home country, Kenya, contend with the challenges arising from the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

While still a doctoral student, Ringera founded International Peace Initiatives to help families affected by the disease, and after graduating, she returned home to accelerate her efforts, helping women start jewelry-making enterprises, ensuring that children who lost a parent to the disease could go to school, and creating the Amani Home for orphaned and vulnerable children. The home — which has emerged as a model for other such endeavors — keeps children within their village, allowing them to attend their local school and maintain close relationships with extended families.

Ringera’s early work was chronicled in a 2004 University of Denver Magazine article, and in spring 2010, she returned to campus to share her vision at a TEDxDU event. In May 2015, she was awarded the Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award from the Divisions of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. While in Denver to accept the award, Ringera sat down with the University of Denver Magazine to talk about her recent activities and latest projects. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


DU Magazine: Please refresh our memories about your work with International Peace Initiatives and update us on what you’ve been up to?

Ringera: I created International Peace Initiatives (IPI) as a network of people who want to mitigate the effect of HIV/AIDS, poverty and violence on women and children in Africa.

At that time Meru, which is really a very small town, was the epicenter for HIV/AIDS. For me, the scary part was hearing stories of people we grew up with every day being buried and dying and leaving children. So on one of the summer holidays when I went home, I met with the [survivors], who really didn’t know what to do with this situation. So they asked me to help them, and I said, “I don’t know how to help; I’m a struggling student.” I wanted them to tell me what they can do for themselves. And they organized themselves, and after half a year they came to me and said they wanted to create a group of women living with HIV/AIDS, so they could support each other.

After about one year, they came up with the idea that they can make jewelry. They got someone to train them. The next step was looking at ways of developing the entrepreneurship skills of the women — teaching them how to write proposals and actually giving them seed money so they could create an income-generating business themselves. And after that, the women were ready to fly.

Then we started working hard to get students not only through high school, but also through university. So far, we have graduated 10 [from a university]. We have three who have completed their master’s degrees, and I know two of them want to do their PhDs. We have six in Kenyan universities right now, and we have one in Australia, one in England and one in the U.S. The good thing is they all come back home and they want to do programs that give back to the community. They support their families and they support their siblings.

Beyond that, we have also constructed a children’s home — now it has also become a center for sustainable development. We have a vocational training school for young people who dropped out of mainstream educational systems, and we have trainings in catering, tailoring, hairdressing, jewelry, weaving, and now we are looking at organic food production using permaculture principles. We are also looking at the environment and how we can help the environment by changing certain things we do, like cutting down forests and things like that.

And I am working to bring this way of thinking about food production to schools, so they can produce feeding programs for children who are not able to get food at home. We are working with the schools to produce the food — and not monocropping like we used to.

[Through these efforts] we have dovetailed into becoming a training center for women, men, institutions and systems.


University of Denver Magazine: Your approach to problem solving has been lauded as revolutionary. How would you distinguish your approach from others?

Ringera: Well, revolutionary is quite a strong word to use, but [my approach] is changing the way people think about things. In mainstream thinking, when we have a problem, our premise is: This is a problem; there is something wrong. And when something is wrong, [we] look for an expert, someone who will come and assess and study us and tell us what is wrong with us and give us a solution. In that kind of mindset, people don’t have the agency to speak for themselves. Someone else assesses them and speaks for them.

Looking at [the women affected by HIV], a lot of the interventions that the NGOs have created are speaking for them, but what we’ve done at IPI is let them speak for themselves and tell us what they make of this disease and what they want to do with it. … The women actually speak among themselves and they encourage each other. They talk about what they’ve experienced, what is going on in their lives, and they help each other to think about solutions.

We have created what we call circles of peace. And in these circles, people talk about what is peaceful for them and what is not peaceful for them, and what they are doing to make their unpeaceful situation peaceful. … And in those circles, women have realized, “Oh, I’m not the only one experiencing this, and when this person had the same problem, this is how they resolved it.”

So what is different in our approach is that the people we serve tell us. We listen to them. I tell them I do not know how to help you. Tell me how you want to help yourself. And if it takes six months, two years or whatever to come up with a solution, that is what we will do.


DU Magazine: How has your DU education served you in this work?

Ringera: When I came to DU, I was actually on a search for a solution — for why the news is the way it is. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, ethnicity was a big problem in my country. The political elite were using tribalism to divide and to cause us to fight each other. I was looking at the media and seeing that they were not helping people come together. The only voice you had was the voice of the politician or the local administrator. The people who were killing each other were never given the opportunity to talk on the radio or in newspapers or on television. I was like, why, why, why?

So I decided I wanted to study mass communications — how the news is constructed. In my first [DU] class in mass communications, Intercultural and International Communication, I found my answer: that there’s a whole variety of reasons why media houses operate the way they operate.

I wanted to do my doctorate, so I chose human communication studies. My classes were structured through a critical-thinking lens, and critical-thinking systems and institutions really helped me. They opened up a box from which I could draw tools to dismantle everything as I knew it. We looked at things relating to racism, ethnicity, class, all those things that divide us. They were very relevant to the situation I was seeing back at home. Actually, that was how I developed International Peace Initiatives — my NGO was a class assignment that I created. My classes here taught me that what I get from these spaces are tools to resolve, or transform, circumstances.


DU Magazine: What’s next for you?

Ringera: I have been looking at the way the environment is being affected by the things that we do as human beings. I’m also looking at the systems we have created — with governance, with food production — and listening to the global food-security paradigm that is being touted all over the place and thinking, “Unless we do something about resilience in communities, unless we rethink what is community, unless we rethink modernity and the things it has offered us, we are not going to develop, whatever development is, in terms of creating freedom.” But freedom here means being in my community with what I have, happily and free.

You know, it’s like being in the forest, or in the desert, wherever you are, and finding resilience there. Being free and happy with what you have, which is very radical thinking, of course.

In Europe, they are doing something called “ecovillage design education,” [where] they are teaching people how to create resilience villages. [Then] they are coming back to Africa to teach us how to live in community. In Africa, we still live in community, so really, we should be teaching them.

I started thinking, the education that I got trained me for a job in the city. It trained me for waiting for a salary and thinking that rural life is backwardness. And now, I’m going back to the rural spaces and seeing that actually, this is where the salvation of modernity lies, [with] communities recognizing the resources they have, using them to produce their own food. We’re not talking about food security; we’re talking about food sovereignty: I know what I want to grow, how I want to grow it, when I want to grow it.

Africa can feed itself, but the systems have been set so that doesn’t happen, so the food comes from somewhere else. So it is up to communities to figure out their food issues. That’s why I’m creating an eco center that is going to be a permaculture training center for us to rethink food production. And again, [just as] the children’s home has become a model that other people are using, we’ll use this as a model for communities to see how they can have food sovereignty.

So that is my next thing.



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