Reflection on visiting a mosque as a non-Muslim

Visiting another religion’s place of worship and joining them for prayers can go a long way in fostering understanding among the religions. It can also help those interested in inter-faith dialogues to understand the practical similarities or differences in various religions and denominations. Thursday’s visit to the mosque took me down the memory lane to when I was a teacher and head of student life at a newly established school in Nairobi that mainly catered for Muslim students. I was young and had just graduated from college, thus, my experience with other religions was limited to the little I had observed in college. Interestingly, my first duty as the head of student life was to decide whether to allow students to pray during lunch hour.

My colleagues, like me, were Christians and had little knowledge about Islam, leave alone knowing anything about the daily ritual prayers. I convened a meeting with teachers and with the help of a local Muslim leader we set aside two rooms for prayers – for both girls and boys. This seemingly simple decision was to later change how we ran the school and consequently inspired so many Muslim parents to bring their kids to our school. I put teachers on a duty roster to supervise students during prayer time and accompany them to the mosque on Friday. For the two years I taught at that school, I learnt a great deal about Muslims and the importance of prayer in their lives.[1] Parents regularly invited me to their homes and I got to share meals with them. My take away from these experience is that we can coexist with other religions if we understood how they worship their God. Having a ‘beyond basic knowledge’, which comes from participating in their rituals goes a long way to foster mutual relationship.

On Thursday as I walked into the Mosque I wondered how many Christians have ever thought of visiting the mosque to attend prayers and possibly a sermon. Will they feel that they are in the presence of a different God? I don’t think so. Will they feel that their prayers will not be answered? I don’t think so. I want to believe that God accompanies His beloved to holy places and to wherever people call upon Him, hence we shouldn’t build walls around ourselves.  Visiting the mosque on Thursday clarified one important controversial thing: that there is a good reason why Muslims would prefer to wear Kanzu to the mosque and why they would probably recommend women to pray in a separate room. It is basically to maintain decency during prayer and avoid disruptions.

I asked the Imam on how he caters for his congregation given that they may have diverse backgrounds and come from different sects of Islam. He responded that in their community they are ONE. They do not relate along sectorial basis. This set me thinking on the unity of believers in a diaspora. How come this kind of heavenly thinking is lacking in many mosques especially in Muslim majority countries? I was interested to learn on the kind of sermons the Imam gives – whether they are anchored on any school of thought. My understanding is that a sermon is a powerful tool that changes and shapes how people think about issues. And here is where I think religious leaders can collaborate a lot. In times of crisis (like a terrorist attack), ministers and imams can use the sermon to pacify people and clarify misunderstandings.

Thursday’s visit was fruitful and I would like to do it again, perhaps stay for a sermon.

[1] Most of my Christian colleagues later got jobs at International Muslim schools. They were perhaps employed because they understood Islam by virtue of interacting with students.

A Table for each Gender

In August 2011, I was invited for dinner by my student but she never showed up in the dining. I was new in her school but I accepted the invitation because most teachers had also been invited to other families to mark the end of Eid celebrations.

I was received by my student’s dad, Abdul and we went straight to the dining. Abdul and his two brothers sat on my side of the rectangular dining table, three boys and another man sat on our opposite. We shared dinner. There were no different plates or forks or knives. We used our hands. From time to time, a woman who I later assumed was my student’s mother, filled the plates. They conversed loudly and almost entirely in Somali. When I attempted a conversation with him, because he sat by my side, he continually clicked. I thought he was being disrespectful. The meal was delicious but I did not enjoy it. There were a lot of things running through my mind.

I chose this encounter because it was new to me and because it served as my orientation to a new school community. I was first disappointed then angered. I thought I was being played. Why did they invite me? Where was the student who invited me? Whenever the men laughed, I thought they were laughing at me. They were all dressed in Kanzus and the woman who kept filling the plates was in a buibui and a hijab covered her head. I was in casual business clothes. I kept silent most of the time except when occasionally Abdul asked me a question. Only he seemed to understand my responses. At one point I thought he was trying to explain to his brothers what I had said. It then dawned on me that he could be the only one who understood English well.

I started thinking that to some of them I may have appeared as an intruder. Looking back, I now realize that they may have felt my silence the way I felt their loudness. We never introduced ourselves till tea time, which came much later when I was about to leave. I should have attempted to participate in conversations. After all Abdul could have translated. I had allowed the first impressions to crowd my judgment.

Later I was to learn the culture by interacting with my students. I learnt that boys and girls valued their different ‘spaces’. Surprisingly, I learnt that when one clicks, it means he or she appreciates what you’re talking about. It signifies understanding.

The culture seemed barbaric to me but I have since learnt to appreciate every bit of it. I do not subscribe to some of its aspects, but I am glad I understand them. The experience taught me how to be a better pupil in a new culture.

By the way, I never saw my student that day because she was with women in another room.

Strength comes from an indomitable will

I am proud of Kenyan Muslims for standing up to defend Christians when Al Shabaab attacked them. Standing up for fellow Kenyans of different religion is an act of bravery and a demonstration of a commitment to fight terrorism in Kenya. The Kenyan Muslim stood up for what we all should do – resist any force that seeks to divide us a long religious lines.

The fact that the Kenya Muslims refused special treatment by the Al Shabaab militants shows how far the country has traveled in the fight against extremism. It is an indication that the power to defeat the enemy lies with the people. How ironical that we have so much relied on the government to protect us yet it is us who have the powers!

By standing with Christians, the Kenyan Muslims risked their lives. They were ready to die for the right reasons. This selfless act reminds me of the last chapter of Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families:

During an attack on a school in Gisenyi, students, teenage girls who had been roused from their sleep, we’re ordered to separate themselves – Hutus from Tutsis. But the students refused. The girls said they were simply Rwandans,  so they were beaten and shot indiscriminately.

While I do not wish for anybody to die in order for others to live or in order to send a message, I do believe that the fight against terrorism will require unusual sacrifice from all of us.

R.R. Vincent
Editor

Engaging Educators in Peacebuilding: A personal Reflection on Creating a Culture of Peace among Children through Collaborative Writing

Peace education is important in achieving a peaceful society. However, educators in Africa have not given adequate attention to peace education especially in lower levels of learning. Children naturally absorb the spirit of violence from their environment. Therefore, it would be important for educators to guide them in filtering the happenings in their environment so as to build a peaceful culture through education. Past efforts in peace education dealt in teaching conflict resolution or negotiation skills. This presentation provides an alternative method of building a “Culture of Peace” through collaborative story writing. Though studies have been conducted on the power of narratives in conflict formation and transformation, the power of narratives to build communities and seek social justice, teaching contested narratives, and peace education, there is no adequate studies on how collaborative writing can help children create new narratives that builds a “Culture of Peace.

Introduction
Five years ago I asked my students to write a one page personal essay on their greatest desire. I expected them to write about normal things that concern 14 year olds. But my students were not ordinary teenagers, they were refugees, born to refugee parents from Somali, Sudan and Congo. Some of them had never been to their countries. I noticed a pattern in their essays, they wrote about the past and the desire to be remembered. At first I thought this was a manifestation of trauma, that is, their brains had registered a traumatic experience in indelible images to which they were returning to again and again. But as I later learnt, my students had not experienced direct violence, they were being haunted by images of a different kind. They were haunted by images only words can create. They had grown up on a diet of narratives about their lost native homes, people and culture. Analyzing these narratives gave me insights on how the students perceived their current world and their role in it. I learnt about their fears, insecurities and threats to their identity. I realized that my students were trapped inside narratives, passed down to them by their parents, religious leaders and peers.

Some of these narratives made me uncomfortable, for instance, in a personal essay about building a legacy, three quarters of the class expressed a desire to engage in violent acts. In some essays students wrote in a manner that rendered the image of the “other” problematic.  I noticed that though my students had never been to war or experienced it directly, their views were not different from the dominant narratives about the wars in their parents fled from.

I had conducted some independent research on narratives of peace and conflicts, focusing on the place of literature in the reconstruction of a society and I figured out I can use the personal essays as an entry point in building a “Culture of Peace”.
My aim in this presentation is to briefly explore the power of narratives, the importance of building a “Culture of Peace” among children and then share my personal reflection on how my students used collaborative writing to create mediated narratives.

The power of narratives in conflict formation and transformation
Scholars such as Nathan Funk and Abdul Aziz Said have extensively written on how narratives bind individuals together in a community and reinforce their collective identity by providing a reservoir from which members draw from to form the basis of interaction with the “other” . Mark Howard describes these narratives as “frameworks for action” through which members understand their world. Scholars generally agree that narratives play a big role in understanding a conflict. They provide insights on power dynamics and on solutions that can be acceptable by a particular community. Narratives give information on how a society interprets a conflict, and how they perceive the “other”. They reveal the fears of communities in conflicts and as John Paul Lederach explains, “one way to understand cycles of violence and protracted conflict is to visualize them as a narrative broken.”

Often, narratives are passed from generation to generation mostly by the elderly members of a society through multiple media. Children are encouraged to memorize these narratives and in some contexts, for instance, in some African communities, these narratives form the core of informal education, hence, an important part of the education of the young members of a community. It is the duty of parents but mostly grandparents to pass generational knowledge and wisdom to children through stories. These narratives validate the claims of a community regarding who they are as a people and a place.
Often, through narratives a society glorifies its past to legendary levels, hence, positioning themselves in time and place. In the case of a conflict, the narrative might be confrontational, that is, “us” versus “them” or vice versa. Most of my students clearly understood the narratives that defined their communities; their essays dwelt on how their narratives had been disrupted. They mostly wrote about a glorious past when their communities flourished.
Students do not necessarily know how their communities frame these narratives, actually they do not know at all, they just receive them from elders.

Teachers who are trained in peacebuilding can exploit the opportunities writing forums offers to create space for students to write new narratives. This does not mean that the students will discard their narratives, as John Paul Lederach says, “we have the capacity to remember the past, but we have no capacity to change it. Not even God can change the past.” But we have the ability to create a different future. This process will require a clear understanding of what this future entails. In my teaching, I envisioned this future as one that incorporates elements of “Culture of Peace”

Culture of Peace

The United Nations defines “Culture of Peace” as a set of values, attitudes, modes of behavior and ways of life that reject violence and prevent conflict. “Culture of Peace” was first expressed officially at the International Congress on Peace in the Minds of People, held in Ivory Coast in 1989. 11 years later, the United Nations designated the year 2000 as the ‘International Year for Culture of Peace’ and on September 1999 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Declaration on a Culture of Peace” and the Program of Action on a Culture of Peace”.

The Culture of Peace decade was launched in 2001 and it ended one year before I started my career as a professional teacher. This decade was marked by many changes such as enshrining culture of peace in school systems, conducting trainings on conflict resolution skills, creation of peace groups, designation of youth ambassadors, and inclusion of peace education in school curriculums.

These initiatives were good but they fell short of expectations mostly due to wrong methodology. For instance, teaching children about peace and its importance, is not enough. Neither is it satisfying to teach them about conflicts and how to resolve them. Their understanding of conflicts and peace is shaped by the narratives that bind their community, hence, proper peace education that seeks to build sustainable Peace should involve the participation of children in what Lederach calls “the art of restorying”, which means providing students a platform for the narrative voice to create a desired future. I used collaborative writing as a platform for this transformation.

Now I will share my experiments, and I call them experiments because at that time, I wasn’t sure whether they will lead to any positive change

Collaborative Writing

Collaborative writing rests on a social constructivist view of learning. Its roots are based on Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory (1978). Vygotsky believed human learning is inherently a socially situated activity. He believed everything is learned first through interaction with others, and then integrated into the individual’s mental structure. Collaborative writing fits into this social cultural perspective since it enables students to engage in collaborative process of making meaning through planning, negotiating, writing and revising a story together. Scholars have argued that when students write collaboratively, they are exposed to alternative narratives and have potential to negotiate the inclusion of their own narratives . I won’t  talk much about this technique, a lot has been written about it, Let me explain how I used it. (more…)

Wars do not end when peace agreements are signed or when years go by, they will echo on until all widows and orphans are gone

The reality of women’s lives in the midst and aftermath of war poses a challenge to the notion that reconciliation is a linear process. For women, violence does not end, nor does it decrease, after the signing of a peace accord.

When Blood and Bones Cry Out, Pg. 157

Contrary to conventional thinking, the signing of a peace agreement does not mark an end to a war or suffering, especially to women. According to John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach, this suffering extends to post-conflict period. Though the Lederachs wrote the quotation while describing violence against women in West Africa, its truth reflects the condition of women in many post-conflict societies. To most people including peacebuilders, the image of war is synonymous to a young man with an automatic weapon, fighting for women, who will be struggling to care for a child, mourning the dead, fleeing or being sexually abused. This is an assumed reality devoid of practical reality which according to Lederach[i] and as we will see below is something different.

In the midst of war women bear the brunt of the conflict; they face the danger of sexual assault and rape, get abducted and forced to marry rebels and if one escapes that fate, the whole responsibility of caring for children and the elderly falls on her. Others endure the pain of watching their children forcibly recruited into the army and sometimes witness those children dragged back into the villages to execute the remaining family members. Women also have to bear the pain of seeing their children being used as sex slaves at night and fighters during the day. Others have to sit by and watch their husbands and/or their fathers being taken away and in most instances these men get killed, and buried in unmarked graves. This perhaps explains why in some post-conflict countries such as Angola and Mozambique, widows accounted for half of the adult population. This suffering may not catch the attention of leaders or receive any acknowledgement as people tend to assume they know what women go through in a conflict. The reality is that every woman goes through a different experience.

The other reality is that women are also active combatants in a war, whether voluntarily or by force. They fight alongside men, taking every risk that comes with war. This has been experienced in many wars in Nepal, Nicaragua and Sri Lanka as well as in other countries in Africa such as Algeria, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa. War being conceived, planned and fought as a manly affair, these women often face more risks than their male counterparts. Those who may not be in active combat, serve as cooks, messengers, couriers of arms and ammunitions and bomb ‘planters’. Lederach has drawn our attention to this often ignored image of women in active combat, which goes contrary to the victim image that people have come to identify with women.

Lederach uses war aftermath to refer to ‘post’ war/conflict, which is the period immediately after the signing of peace accord, and including the reconstruction activities that follow. How does this stage affect women? Reading Lederach’s quote, one gets an understanding that women’s participation in war and its consequences on them never get acknowledged. Notwithstanding this omission, women are always at the forefront fighting for peace, often very active in civil society and peace movements that have brought conflicting parties to a negotiating table. Yet despite this, they are often neglected in the post-conflict situation; excluded from peace talks, denied opportunity to participate in disarmament and demobilization exercises (Liberia is a good example of this), and being locked out of post-conflict reconstruction. This is not surprising given the assumptions people make on the women’s role in the midst of war. These negotiation processes often result in settlements that do not benefit women.  These experiences of women do not fit within the linear process of reconciliation designed from a male perspective of war.

Pre-conflict and (during) conflict attitudes toward women usually resume in the post-conflict period. This complicates the lives of many women. For instance, since most economic programs (including disarmament and reintegration) are designed from a male perspective of war, they only target men hence excluding women who needs them most. Society overlooks the fact that most women do participate in war or conflict and that some women head households having lost their husbands in war, they are in this case, the sole breadwinners of their surviving children and the elderly. The jobs they may have held during the war while men were fighting now reverts to men as part of reintegration or such related programs. In addition to this, women have to deal with their ‘broken’ sons and daughters who return from the bush. That is the reality of women that according to Lederach, challenges the notion of reconciliation as a linear process.

We can infer the meaning of reconciliation as used by Lederach as both a goal to achieve and a process. Ideally it is meant to prevent war or a conflict from reoccurring. It is meant to bring about the healing of survivals, restore justice through reparation of past injustices, build non-violent relationships among people and communities and promote acceptance by the former parties to a conflict of a common vision and understanding of the past. Most importantly, it aims at enabling victims and perpetrators to live well together. Conventionally and according to Ledarach’s quote, it seems that people think of reconciliation as process that happens in stages, moving from A to B or phase one leads to phase two, but the reality is that this kind of reconciliation is not practical and is not easy to achieve. Furthermore, it assumes the roles women play in conflicts hence, does not acknowledge the reality of women’s lives in a conflict. This perhaps explains why these processes often fail, an example that comes to mind is Liberia and its disarmament exercise that excluded women even after the crucial contribution of women that led a peace agreement. This exercise failed and was rescued by women.

The linear aspect of reconciliation tends to focus on the immediate impact of the conflict while ignoring the impact of the small conflicts that lie beneath the main conflict. Often, these conflicts must be addressed first to create space for dealing with larger conflicts. For instance, linear reconciliation may not treat the cases of women who are raped in war or conceived in war and who have to raise children born of war as a priority (or put them anywhere in the first phases). They may not give space for these issues in the first phase of reconciliation as they will probably dealing with such issues as disarmament or demobilization. But how can we talk of nation building when half or more than half of the population is carrying the burden of a whole nation? Failure to address issues affecting women leads to their extreme suffering, which may be worse than what they went through during the war. You can imagine a widow in need of compensation for the death of her husband but getting turned down by the government for lack of a law to address this consequence of a war. How can anyone then claim that a peace accord signifies an end to suffering? People might put down their automatic weapons as a sign of peace but the suffering of women does not stop as they are haunted by different weapons.

Lederach’s quote rings true in the contemporary society and at a time when peacebuilders have access to a wealth of information and research about the reality of women’s lives during and after (post) war. It calls for peacebuilders to evaluate their programming habits and assumptions to capture these realities. It also calls upon policy makers to reconsider their perceptions about women’s roles in conflicts. Understanding a woman’s unique position in the midst and aftermath of war will definitely lead to true reconciliation.

 

 

[i] Though the book is written by John Paul Lederach and his daughter Angela Jill Lederach, the quote under discussion is in the part of the book written by Angie Jill Lederach. The reader will be right to assume that Lederach as used in the essay refers to Angie Jill Lederach

Restoring Broken Narratives

“One way to understand cycles of violence and protracted conflict is to visualize them as a narrative broken. A people’s story is marginalized or, worse, destroyed by the dominant culture, and this act, meaning, identity, and a place in history are lost. This is the deeper challenge of peacebuilding: how to reconstitute, or restory, the narrative and thereby restore the people’s place in history. For many of us who come from outside the settings of protracted violence or are from cultures that have not had their stories destroyed, we have perhaps a hard time understanding this notion of peacebuilding as a narrative restored.” The Moral Imagination, pp. 146

Protracted conflicts are forgotten conflicts which are seemingly irreconcilable and violent. They have become hopeless cases with no possibilities for resolution. Some of these conflicts have spurn decades, compelling actors to develop rigid narratives about them. Often, peacebuilders look at these conflicts from a political, economic, geographical or social lens omitting the distinctive quality of these conflicts as a peoples’ broken narrative.

Narratives are stories people tell themselves, about themselves and in relation to the “other’. They define them as a people and explain their collective identity in this world. More importantly, they explain a people’s entitlement to a place in this world. Narratives serve as reservoirs for a people’s collective memory; they orient a community to what was, what is and what should be. They give a people a sense of immortality (even though they are not immortal) by connecting them with the past, future and present. Elders are the chief custodians of narratives. As the oldest members of a society, they have an immediate link to the dead. They carry narratives and pass them to younger generations, hence, through this process, a people’s past gets to live in the present through narratives. Therefore, a narrative is like a chord, in a form of a circle, that ties a people to their past, which is paradoxically before them since they know it. This awareness helps them to envision the future. As long as a people’s narrative is undisrupted, they enjoy a peaceful existence.

Narratives, just like life, can be threatened, trampled on, abused, or worse broken. Ideally, different narratives should coexist; live side by side, every one in its own spot. Unfortunately, the narratives people tell themselves can sometimes portray unfounded superiority that tower over other narratives. Such narratives break a people’s history by challenging their claim to a place in this world. Such threats can take a form of genocide, which seeks to completely wipe out a people’s narrative from the world or they can take a form of invasion or war, which disrupts or breaks a people’s narrative. Whenever this happens or is even anticipated, people rise to defend their narratives, hence the many wars and conflicts around the world.

Sometimes, narratives occupy a divine place in a people’s lives perhaps due to their ability to connect people to their past, present and future. In a protracted conflict, people are aware of the decisions made in the past that have impacted or caused the current conflict. They are also aware that decisions they make will definitely affect future generations. Understanding this concept as a peacebuilder boosts one’s chances of a finding a lasting solution to a conflict. However, it is challenging for a peacebuilder who has never had his or her narrative broken to understand this concept. One should begin by visualizing a people’s past in order to identify its potentiality for a peaceful future.

Peacebuilders are trained to analyze conflicts and design solutions so as to build sustainable peace. Unfortunately, their training sometimes blinds them from seeing what lies before them – a people’s past, which often explains the current conflict. Many a times, often with good intentions, peacebuilders design projects based on proven theories of change. But what they fail to grasp is the importance of narratives in understanding the root causes of conflicts. Sometimes, those who are able to grasp the importance of these narratives, are reluctant to take into account the uniqueness of ‘time concept’ in a people’s narrative, that is, the past living in the present etc. This process has nothing to do with science or technical expertise of a peacebuilder, it takes creative imagination.

A peacebuilder must visualize and understand a people’s broken story in order to help them restory. Whereas it is understood that a peacebuilder cannot fix the past, one can however provide a space for people to make discursive shifts. This is perhaps the most challenging task in peacebuilding – to have different voices (narratives) on a table, listen to each other, deconstruct the dominant conflict narrative and create an alternative relationship story. This is not the same as simply asking people to forget their narratives and embrace a new one, it is rather a process of helping them understand how their lives can be enriched or constrained by each other’s narratives. It is helping them acknowledge the power of imbalance in their narratives. It is helping them understand deeper meanings in their narratives that cause conflicts.

Reading about a people’s past in history books is not enough, peacebuilders must go a step further and position themselves in a people’s timeline and immerse themselves into a people’s past in order to understand a people’s fears and insecurities. To gain access to a people’s collective memory, is to live their live. It is this kind of access that enables one to visualize how past decisions have come to affect future generations. Some narratives bear a stamp of a people’s blood and sacrifice, it is not enough to read them, one has to live them, albeit imaginatively.

Such is the importance of understanding narratives in protracted conflicts. The story is at the core of the conflict. Mediating between contesting narratives gives hope for a peaceful society and it is a creative process.

Reference

John Paul Ledarach (2005) The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: OUP)

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