Author: Jackie Christie, July 30 2015 - The BBC’s roving bureau 'Pop Up' did exactly that in Nairobi last week. Kenya was its first destination outside of the United States and timely too, arriving on the cusp of US President Obama’s visit to the country.

The idea of Pop Up is to talk to ordinary people about stories they think the BBC should be covering in their country. I saw this as an opportunity to crowd-source information for a new piece of research which BBC Media Action is about to begin on the drivers of extremism in East Africa. We want to understand more about radicalism in Kenya: what’s the role of the media, who in society is most susceptible, what motivates them and how can people be persuaded to stop.

So my colleagues and I joined the Pop Up audience to ask a few questions. Pop Up ‘Face of Kenya’ presenter Anne Soy handed over to our moderator Victor Muyakane, news anchor from our broadcast partner KBC (Kenya Broadcasting Corporation), and the floor was ours.

Defining radicalism

Sadly, Kenya is no stranger to violence. Some regions are regularly associated with repeated and often deadly militant attacks.

The audience began by discussing their understanding of the meaning of terrorism and extremism. One woman described it as “an extreme form of caring for a certain type of truth or community” and that people take extreme measures “as a result of seeing instances of injustice”. Another suggested that young people are particularly vulnerable, “radicalisation is when our youth are being transformed into the terrorism community.” Whether people become radicalised by stealth or actively pursue it, it was clear to this audience that this new type of “waging war” has rapidly become a feature of Kenyan society.

An “extremist” in the family?

At one point, an older woman who had been quietly listening spoke up. She talked about her cousin who she described as “an extremist” affiliated to Al-Shabaab (an Islamic militant organisation based in Somalia) and what it felt like to have him in the family. The cousin was recently killed in a shoot-out with security forces at the Kenyan coast. “He is my relative, I have to cry over him. Every time I watch TV and see a parent crying I am mourning him,” she explained. The tension she felt over the loss of a relative involved in perpetrating violent acts was evident, “he was buried last week but for us as a family it was a relief because [at some point] we knew it was going to happen.”

As a Muslim, she strenuously denied that such acts are connected to religion: “They do it because of frustration. It was something that was planted in their minds. Something they could have avoided doing.” One member of the audience questioned the silence among families: “What do we do with the families of those people who have had radicals within their families? Do we push them away from the community just because they had those people in their families?”

Media profiling

Stereotyping racial groups in Kenya was considered by many in the audience to be the fault of the media, “When it comes to violent extremism, the one thing that comes to mind is what the media has painted for us. A Somali looking person.” Another felt this racial profiling has gone further, “If it’s an Arab, it’s a terrorist, if it’s a black person, it’s a thug and if it’s a white person, they are mentally ill.”

Others were more optimistic about the role media can play in telling a different story: “We have a singular narrative that people become terrorists because they have no opportunities. It’s not true.” After the excitement generated by the arrival of US President Obama in Kenya, it’s worth noting that high on his agenda was the need to find new ways to reach out to disenfranchised groups in this part of Africa.

An insightful observation came from a young woman who sees communication as a weapon against radicalisation: “Talk, if you see a problem talk. Do not be afraid to speak. I would honestly rather die for speaking now than to die ten years later with 100 people because I did not say anything.”

Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in Kenya.
Image credit: BBC Media Action

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