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By ALICE WAIRIMU NDERITU
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Decades ago, we rode in public transport minibuses that Kenyans call matatus and that were designed for passengers to sit in two rows facing each other like adversaries. Passengers had nowhere to look but at the person sitting opposite obscuring any other view.

When the journey took hours, one would disembark from the matatu with the face of the person opposite imprinted on their mind; an accurate count of the crows’ feet around their eyes if they smiled, the exact contours of their hairline, even the length of the spaces between their finger joints.

We called these matatus “Face Me.” What I found most unnerving about them was not the forced stare, but the silence. People stared stonily ahead, and hardly anyone ever spoke except to the conductor.

The silence is now gone thanks to the creation by radio presenters of engaged matatu audiences. Today’s matatu has a never-switched off radio. Radio presenters often call out greetings to matatus, naming the route and number plate, encouraging people to call in and engage in conversation.

Passengers quickly forget they are strangers, engaging in discourse on topics as varied as farming, health or politics. Radio presenters are distinctively, cutting-edge advantaged in being exposed to opinions different from theirs on a daily basis through radio call-ins.

Passengers often speak of radio presenters they have never met with familiarity. It is not rare to hear a person say, “It’s true! I heard it from the radio presenter”!

After an extremist attack, people enter matatus expecting a discussion led by radio presenters. Although the presenters are in a distinctively influential position to help their audiences engage across divides, they often opt not to discuss such a “sensitive” issue to avoid exacerbating tensions.

The often disjointed and opposing conversations about extremism serve to divide not only radio audiences but presenters as well.

Yet, radio listeners hear of extremist actions such as religious confrontations in the Central African Republic, xenophobia in South Africa, race-based discrimination against migrants in Europe, monk-led attacks on the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and the racial profiling protests in the US, on an almost daily basis.

As a result, people still stigmatise specific identity groups, hatred, bias and stereotypes, some of which they have suffered, perpetrated, witnessed or heard about.

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Though it may feel overwhelming in the wake of an extremist attack, it still remains important to respect diversity. Societies are kept going by hope for a better future and dignifying difference plays a key role.

In circumstances when an extremist attack happens, how do radio presenters continue to make a case on the need for pluralistic societies?

Potential entry points could begin with the presenter setting rules for respectful, constructive conversation, especially for radio call-ins. Invite problem solvers such as Yusuf Hassan, MP Kamukunji, himself a survivor of an extremist attack to speak.

Discuss the actions of Salah Farah, Muslim father of five and deputy headmaster at Mandera County School, who made history by refusing to be separated from his Christian colleagues, a decision that led to his summary execution by Al Shabaab terrorists, or the woman who served homemade tea to responders to the terrorist attack on the dusitD2 complex in Nairobi.

Point out that extremists are always a minority in a religion and extremism is not unique to any particular faith.

Invite returnees to provide first-person accounts on why they joined extremist groups. Connect those tempted to join extremist groups with people who overcame similar challenges.

Discuss articles from newspapers that explore solutions on divided societies and respond with facts to people with confirmation bias – defined as “actively seeking information as evidence to support a biased opinion and refusing to take into account any facts that contradict it.”

Radio presenters are heavily quoted influencers whose actions in fostering productive dialogue, promoting inter-religious understanding, and correcting prejudiced statements have a multiplier effect.

Unlike the “Face Me” silent era, radio presenters now equip listeners to engage with and respond to similar conversations.

I remember Paul Kelemba aka Maddo the celebrated cartoonist describing a meeting between “Face Me” passengers, say, a year down the line. The effect of the “Face Me” stare would be so pronounced that both of them would know they knew each other but could not remember from where.

A boisterous shaking of hands would be followed by a scratching of heads and the request, “Please remind me, where do I know you from. Did we attend the same high school”?

Alice Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides.

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