By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Ever since the 2007-8 post election violence, Mary Ann Burris has dreamed of building a proper Peace shrine or sanctuary in Nairobi.
This past Tuesday afternoon, the former Program Officer at Ford Foundation in Nairobi saw her dream come true with the formal opening of ‘The Peace Path’ at the Nairobi National Museum.
It almost looks like an ordinary ultra-green grassy lawn but the carefully situated stones—some granite, other mica and soap stone in multiple colours, sizes and shapes—strongly suggest that something else is going on. The well-manicured ground has far greater significance for Ms Burris than it being a park situated just behind the Museum where passersby can relax.
“It’s a labyrinth,” she explains, noting that a labyrinth is a universal, ancient symbol-often a spiral- that’s been used for centuries in many different cultures for spiritual ceremonies that involve meditation or prayer and also healing.
It’s even been found at ancient African rock art sites, but Ms Burris first took an interest in labyrinths after finding one in France while attending a course at the Wisdom University in Chartres several years ago.
Having studied non-Western healing practices as a Chinese-studies graduate student at Stanford University in the States, and having a Cherokee grandmother who was a shaman healer, it’s no surprise to Burris believes the deeper, more psychological, invisible wounds suffered by Kenyans during those traumatic days still need to be addressed.
But her dream of doing something to affect healing didn’t happen until she met several Kenyan sculptors who helped her realize the best way forward.
But before the sculptors got involved she first had to get a green light from the Nairobi National Museum’s director general, Dr. Farah, to use that previously ‘neglected and unused’ piece of land to develop a peace shrine.
“We always establish an MOU with the Museum whenever we propose a project,” said the founder of TICAH, the Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health, who already had developed two other projects with Dr Farah before the Peace Path. One is a Plant Medicine Garden; the other is a Sculpture Garden made after she found four felled gum trees on the Museum Ground and called local artists David Mwaniki and Anthony Wanjau to create sculptures out of them.
She’d tried several times to get her labyrinth idea going because she had both seen and read about so many people who’d benefited by walking through labyrinths elsewhere in the world. But her efforts always came to naught, until she met Gerard Motondi, the award-winning sculptor who initially proposed they collect different kinds of stones from all over Kenya to construct the peace path.
“I liked that idea because the labyrinth is a symbol of unity and wholeness, so that the different stones could symbolise the different communities of Kenya working together to become the peace path,” she said.
But then, when Motondi introduced veteran sculptor Elkana Ong’esa to Ms Burris, she said everything quickly fell into place.
The two men, assisted by another outstanding stone sculptor Charles Kombo, were able to obtain tons of various stones from all over Kenya at very low costs.
It was they who implemented her idea and design, creating a spiral walkway that she said only takes right turns (“never left ones that lead to dead-ends which is what happens in mazes” she added).
Burris said she has already witnessed the healing effects of the Peace Path. It may be simply because someone has to slow down to actually walk the peace path. It may even be that the power of mental suggestion is operative since Burris is very clear the Peace Path is especially valuable as a site for prayer or meditation which she feels can definitely result in healing new and even old wounds.
One thing she has especially values along the path are the two sculptures donated by Ong’esa and Motondi, The Prophet and The Eagle, both of which are also universal symbols of peace and freedom.
“Some people thought I was crazy to pursue this project but we have had tremendous support from friends all over the world who, as I, want to see lasting peace come to Kenya,” she added.
Just before the launch of the Kenya Museum Society annual Art Fair last weekend, Kuona Trust opened an exhibition of David Mwaniki’s children’s toy entitled ’30 Years Ago’.
“Making toys out of old wires and scrap metals was what we did then, in contrast to today when plastic imports have flooded the market,” Mwaniki said. So his show is a three dimensional ode to nostalgia, and to the time when Kenyan artists first got a glimpse of what creativity and imagination could achieve, namely fun, freedom and the joy of self-expression.

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