Ezra Kigondu facilitating a citizen reporter workshop at the Mt. Elgon Peace Center in preparation for the 2017 Kenyan election.
John Vincent, an Africanist Quaker from Princeton Friends Meeting, sent me an article titled, Here’s What This Island in Congo Can Teach the World about Peace. If you would like to read the article see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/19/heres-what-this-island-in-congo-can-teach-the-world-about-peace/. The article describes Idjwi Island which is in Lake Kivu between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is controlled by the DRC. In relationship to the continuing violence in North and South Kivu, the island, with over 250,000 inhabitants, has been remarkably peaceful. John asked me if I could comment on the ideas in the article. I am responding with what I think a community in a violent prone area of East Africa needs to do to become peaceful. Some of these have been implemented on Idjwi Island.
1. Resolution of internal issues: The community needs to first address local issues of conflict that may have been festering for years or decades. The initial step is to have one or more listening sessions where everyone is invited and everyone is allowed and encouraged to speak as long as they conduct themselves properly without abusing their opponents. The purpose here is to get the issues that need to be addressed laid out in front of everyone in the community. AGLI often does this immediately after violence has broken out in a community and it is remarkable how effective a listening session is in lowering the temperature of the conflict. Just the ability to convey one’s grievances and, moreover, to listen to others’ grievances has an extraordinary ability to calm violent situations. The next steps in peacebuilding can usually be determined from the listening sessions.
It is naïve to think that people can heal their wounded selves, solve problems nonviolently, mediate disputes, and reconcile automatically. This is why there needs to be a sufficient number of trainings like Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC), Alternatives to Violence (AVP), transformative mediation, and much later in the process, campaigns for nonviolent social change which can address social, cultural, and/or political issues. There are certainly other similar programs done by other organizations that are necessary and effective.
During the time when these workshops are being conducted and the community seems receptive, community dialogues can begin. Again, everyone in the community is invited to participate and all are encouraged to give their opinions concerning the conflict and problems in the community. This step comes after the listening sessions as the purpose of these dialogues is to suggest solutions to the issues and problems that have divided the community. We have found that communities are quite receptive because the people are actually worried and afraid of the tension that has arisen and of potential violence.
During all this work – we are talking about months and months of activities – natural leaders in peacemaking emerge. Frequently these are not the designated “leaders” of the community who tend to have their own agendas and work commitments. They are the people who “have the heart for trauma healing and peacebuilding.” Another characteristic of these new leaders is that they are neutral in the conflicts, which is not to say that they may not be from one side or another, but rather that they put aside their biases and are seen by all sides to be neutral.
As a result, the community begins to work on solving their problems. Furthermore, these new leaders are available so that when something happens they can respond quickly and all sides respect them. For example, if a person is killed, the new leaders and those they have trained in their workshops arrive at the home of the deceased as soon as possible, ask the family if they can make a peace statement at the funeral (which in our cases has always been agreed to), and then make sure that as many of the peacemakers as possible attend the funeral.
Often it is advantageous to develop a Peace Committee composed of those most involved with peacemaking in the community.
2. Relations with surrounding communities: Once issues and peaceful relations are established in the home community, it is necessary to develop relationships with those communities nearby. Hopefully, after seeing what the home community has accomplished in cohesiveness, they will do likewise. Regardless, conflict is often between adjoining communities, perhaps due to ethnicity, tribalism, clannism, or other sometimes long standing disputes.
Again, the first step is a listening session where both communities can air issues that they might have between them. Then relationships between the peace activists and leaders in both communities need to be established so that, if a conflict develops, communications can keep conflict from escalating. For example, the local Hutu youth near the Ruhororo Internally Displace Camp of Tutsi in Burundi organized a march though the camp, destroying some property and chanting anti-Tutsi, pro-government slogans. The Tutsi youth then wanted to retaliate by destroying some of the Hutu homes nearby. The Tutsi HROC coordinator in the camp talked with the Hutu HROC coordinator in the community and each spoke to the youth involved in this clash. They got both youth groups to agree that the Tutsi youth would march to the government offices as a protest, but that they would not destroy any property. On the Hutu side, the Hutu youth agreed that they would not harass or attack the Tutsi youth during the march. So an incident that could have quickly gotten out of hand was contained.
Peace Dialogue in Bujumbura with soldier participating.
3. Relations with government officials, police, military, and rebels: In the countries in East Africa, government officials must be informed of and approve any workshops or community gatherings. Often the local official will come at the beginning or end of the workshop to address the participants – this is to be encouraged. At other times a government official may even be willing to be a participant in a workshop. We have found that government officials – although at times they need some convincing – are very supportive of any peace activities that we do. This is because they are appreciative of anything that might lessen the possibility of violence in the communities for which they are responsible.
Contacts must also be established with police and military in or near the community. Police and military often have a bad reputation since they are slow to respond and often use violent responses that can escalate the conflict in the community. It is necessary to remember that police and soldiers may have been taught to shoot guns and teargas, or do riot control, but they have had no training in mediation, nonviolent responses, reconciliation, and/or many other approaches that would work better than the usual strong-armed ones in which they have been trained. Therefore, if possible, police (as in the picture above) and military personnel should be included in trainings. In some circumstances the workshops might be for only police or military personnel.
Even more difficult is to establish contact with rebels or armed groups in or near the community. There is no doubt that meeting with such people is scary. When we did a listening session with the former leaders of the Sabaot Land Defense Force on Mt. Elgon, we found that it was very effective because, as they indicated, no one had ever listened to them before. They asked that the government officials and police not be at the initial dialogues as they were afraid of retaliation, but by that time we had established sufficient rapport with the local officials that they trusted us to meet with the former rebels.
4. Relations with youth: Much of the violence in eastern Africa is done by youth, meaning mostly males under 35 years old. These youngsters frequently have no jobs except dead-end ones such as motorcycle or bicycle taxi drivers. Some are even quite educated but do not have the necessary connections to get a paying job. Peace work needs to focus on these youth. In particular the youth need to realize how politicians and elders use them, often paying them a small amount plus alcohol or drugs, to destroy their opponents’ property or even lives.
For example, in 2008, after the post-election violence in Turbo Division in Kenya where half the town of Turbo was burned down, we did over 150 Alternative to Violence workshops mostly with the youth – including some who admitted that they had participated in the violence. Some of these 3000 or more participants became our contact people as citizen reporters and election observers for the 2010 referendum on the Kenya constitution and then the 2013 elections. The result in 2013 was a relatively peaceful election in Turbo Division, although it cannot be ascribed solely to the work that we did. We will be working there again for the 2017 Kenyan election.
5. Relations with larger political entities: Many organizations promote peacemaking at the national level with the top policy and opinion leaders. This, of course, is necessary. Yet peacemaking at the local level is much more difficult because it covers so many people and communities, each with their own agendas and conflicts. If peace is not obtained at the local level, any spark can reignite violence which can easily spread from community to community as happened in the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. On the other hand, if local people have developed peaceful methods of resolving their conflicts and have become tired of and opposed to further violence, they can influence and even force those top opinion leaders to negotiate peaceful resolution of the conflicts. Even during the Rwandan genocide there were a few places in the country where the local people and officials refused to participate in the killings and thereby defied the central government.
Disclaimer: Communities must do this work with their own resources. They cannot wait for the government, the UN, outside NGOs, religious groups or anyone else to promote and fund this for them. If they wait for outsiders, their peace will come only at the end of the world. What organizations can provide is the trained facilitators that can teach people in the local community in the various peacemaking programs that are needed. In our work this included listening sessions, community dialogues, Alternative to Violence (AVP), Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC), transformative mediation, campaigns for non-violent social change, citizen reporting, civic education, voter education, and election observing.
This, in my opinion, is how communities, and then countries, bring about peaceful coexistence. Clearly this is a large undertaking in any one community. Then when all the communities that need this peace building are considered, the task becomes enormous. A tee-shirt I once bought at George Fox University said on the front, “Peacemaking is hard work…listening, risk, endurance, forgiveness, service, prayer, courage, faith, perseverance, confronting, hope, empathy, patience, love, repentance.” On the back it said, “But consider the alternatives.”
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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues with his peacemaking work in East Africa. He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. He is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region.
Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC)
P. O. Box 189, Kipkarren River 50241 Kenya
Phone in Kenya: 254 (0)726 590 783 in US: 301/765-4098
Reports from Kenya: www.davidzarembka.com/