Last semester I enrolled in a class on “Africa and (Neo)liberalism.” As part of the course requirements, I kept a weekly critical journal about the class readings. The following series of articles detail my observations throughout the 15 weeks the class lasted.
What is Neoliberalism?
The recent academic literature on Africa is replete with debates on neoliberalism and its effects on the social, political, and economic lives of people of Africa. But compared to other common concepts such as capitalism, socialism, democracy or even liberalism, this concept is yet to be definitively defined. Moreover, it has become an academic expression that is repeatedly and conveniently used by scholars to represent political-economic changes, particularly those influenced by World Bank and International Monetary Fund programs, commonly known as Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs).
I first came across the concept of neoliberalism during a Medical Workers’ strike in Kenya. Medical health professionals and other concerned wananchi pointed out that the Kenyan government had become a neoliberal client state because of its plans to privatize health care. The government denied these claims and argued that their strategy was merely to collaborate with the private sector under the framework of established public-private partnership policies in order to provide excellent healthcare to the people of Kenya. The government’s strategy hinged on the assumption that the private sector is more efficient in delivering public services, and it can easily be regulated. This idea that everything including public services can be privatized, monetized and be distributed in a market is perhaps the common denominator in all the definitions I read about neoliberalism. As I wrote in my journal during the second week of class:
Reading Harvey (2005), Peck (2013), and Lemke (2001), one learns that neoliberalism does not have a single definition because the concept cuts across multiple disciplines. But at its core, neoliberalism refers to an assemblage of social-economic, political, and cultural relations that favor market-based initiatives.
But what I found more interesting is Jamie Speck’s discussion of neoliberalism as an analytic framework that is always becoming. Furthermore, this concept tends to operate differently from one region to another. In other words, how we discuss or analyze neoliberalism in the context of Africa need not necessarily resemble Eurocentric analyses. This view does not disentangle Africa or any region from the world economy. It merely shows that political-economic concepts are rarely one size fits all concept as they are interpreted and applied differently across the world. For instance, one question we discussed during a presentation on James Ferguson’s Global Shadows, is why Africa is poor despite its abundance of natural resources. I wrote in my journal:
Scholars confuse the issue of “political-economic inequality” in Africa with the concept of development. They divorce inequality from its global consideration and discuss it at the nation-state level as “development” issue. This articulation is inaccurate as it ignores the historical contribution of Africa into what we now call modernity or globalization. Furthermore, scholars who look at global capital flows often ignore Africa. Obviously, to them, Africa is not part of the global capital equation. The few who look at global flows in Africa, constrain themselves to capital related to mineral-resource extraction.
Ferguson goes to great lengths to explain how capital flows to specific enclaves in Africa while it bypasses national economies. In other words, it does not benefit all citizens. In this case, global is reconceptualized as a point-to-point connection as opposed to a focal point of convergence. As Ferguson indicates, there is a danger to this new conceptualization of global because it poses challenges in dealing with complex issues such as global warming, which does not work point-to-point.
Reading Ferguson contributed greatly to my understanding of capital and how neoliberalism manifests in Africa. His discussion in a chapter about “paradoxes of sovereignty and independence: ‘real’ and ‘pseudo-nation-states and the depoliticization of poverty” enabled me to see that our understanding of global inequality and cultural differences should be examined from a global social, economic, and political perspective as opposed to the localization of such. Perhaps the story of Lesotho and Transkei illustrates this concept better. Despite Lesotho being a sovereign country, its economy, especially during apartheid, was worse than Transkei, a formerly Bantustan enclave in South Africa. Lesotho could not (and perhaps still does not) have an independent economy that is not dependent on its neighboring countries such as South Africa. As I wrote in my journal, all these underscores the fact that there can be no local culture that is divorced from the wider and encompassing sphere within which they are conceptualized and articulated. Thus, Ferguson concludes that anthropologists should reconsider ideas of “the field” as a unique site of culture.
During our third and fifth week of class, I realized that although neoliberalism is a recent phenomenon, its roots can be traced back to the era of slavery and colonialism. In other words, concepts of capital, capitalism, and neoliberalism are neither alien in Africa nor late entrants. On the contrary, capitalism is entrenched in the African past, and as Cooper points out, it has been slowly “coming.” Furthermore, as I reflected in my journal, slavery and colonialism are not departing point for African economy, or its entry into the world economy as African suppliers of slaves were not necessarily part of the global economy that this kind of trade created. In fact, they did not even know what happened to the slaves once they crossed the Atlantic (see Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste).
Africa had its own economy that catered for their needs and adapted to its ecosystems, but slavery and colonialism disrupted this economy. Karuna Mantena’s Alibis of Empire and Mahmood Mamdani’s Define and Rule trace transitions that led to political-economic changes in Africa. Their discussions enabled me to understand how colonialism was conceptualized in the metropolis and how colonizers interpreted their “mandate.” Of importance here is the idea that colonial practices continue to have adverse political-economic effects in Africa. Ato Quayson’s book, Oxford Street Accra, in a way, is an exposition of some of these effects. Quayson employs a cultural lens to trace the genesis of Accra city and its development into a neoliberal city. The history he discusses situates Accra as a commercial coastal city that became the gateway to Gold Coast (now Ghana). The centrality of commerce or business in slavery and colonialism cannot be underestimated.
Over the course of eight weeks (the first part of the class), I learned a lot about neoliberalism including the concept of human capital and technologies of subjectivity, which most African scholars tend to ignore. These ideas provide new frameworks for interpreting economic changes taking place in Africa.
The following sections of my journal highlight some of the major points from class readings and discussions.
Tawia’s story captures the challenges young video games entrepreneurs face in Africa as they work with new technologies. Due to low access to broadband internet, lack of well-developed technology infrastructure, and uninformed market, the video games industry took a long time to develop. Often, pioneers like Wesley Kirinya and Tawia could not raise enough funding for their projects. Despite the abundance of talent and enthusiastic young people, governments did not prioritize this creative industry. Instead, countries like Kenya supported other crafts such as carpentry or masonry while ignoring the video industry.
The establishment of iHub in Nairobi and other hubs across Africa has allowed developers to collaborate and have access to human and financial capital needed in the development of video games. Kenya’s Vison 2030 includes the construction of Technology cities – Silicon Savannah, Tetu City, and Konza City – that will support young entrepreneurs. These cities will provide larger platforms for local and international developers to collaborate as video game development involves an amalgamation of specialties such as computer programming, design, and creative writing among others.
Broadband internet and wide access to smartphones has ignited an interest in video games and increased its demand in major cities in Africa. For instance, in Nairobi some cyber cafes specialize in video games playing. Furthermore, universities are running competitions that encourage students to develop video games, and the Kenyan government initiative to provide primary school pupils with iPad gives a platform for distributing educational video games. In short, this is a great industry with rising potential for both developers and entrepreneurs.
Tawia’s book reads like a motivational book and a guide post for those interested in developing video games in Africa. He has given a map of his journey from a boy reading comic books, creating them, and developing video games based on some of those books. Some of the challenges he faced such as lack of access to high performance computers can now be addressed in many ways. But the greater challenge – gaining funding – is still prevalent. Although this is not unique to Africa, it is well pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa where the idea of Venture Capitalism is in its infancy.
Another challenge Tawia has highlighted is the cultural orientation of most consumers in Africa. Most people are used to, and to some extent prefer western super heroes. So, young companies interested in African culture must go an extra mile to persuade consumers and investors on the significance of developing African heroes.
It seems that Tawia learned a lot from attending local and international video game developer’s conferences where he met experienced people in the industry who mentored him. But as he noted, most of these conferences are by invitation only, thus locking out many interested young people. Governments in Africa or institutions of higher learning can solve this challenge through organizing their own conferences to enable young entrepreneurs to meet investors, and learn new skills.
Tawia’s success story encourages young entrepreneurs to actionalize their ideas. Do not wait for a perfect time. Just go out and do it!
You can buy the book here.
Two years ago, Kenyan authorities arrested a Chinese restaurant owner who allegedly had a “no African” policy in his restaurant. The restaurant, simply known as Chinese Restaurant, is located in Kilimani, an affluent suburb for the upper class in Nairobi. Local newspapers reported that the restaurant only allowed tax drivers or Africans accompanied by Chinese, European or Indian patrons. Most Kenyans were outraged by these reports; they took into social media calling for the deportation of the Chinese business owners. The government was at first reluctant to act but they finally gave in to public pressure and arrested the restaurant owner for running a business without a license – but not for racism as most Kenyans would have preferred.
The restaurant cited security concerns as a reason why they barred Africans into the restaurant but this does not hold considering that they even barred prominent Kenyans, a former cabinet secretary, and a permanent secretary who would not by any chance be members of Al-Shabaab, the militant Somali based terrorists that the Chinese patrons were afraid of. Even if the threat was plausible, it is not a viable reason for profiling people and singling out a race as potential terrorists. Most Africans considered the actions of the Chinese patrons as racist but there is no way of knowing their true motive. It could be that they were truly concerned about their safety or they did not simply consider Africans worthy of their company. I have considered this question carefully, and I contend that what happened in Nairobi was a matter of misguided cultural power dynamics between Africans and Chinese patrons.
Most Chinese in Kenya have no previous experience with the various ethnic groups that make up the country. Even though Chinese contact with Kenyans dates back to Sung Dynasty (960-1279), it’s only recently that their presence in Kenya has become noticeable. There is archeological evidence of Chinese presence in the Kenyan coastal region, particularly in Lamu. Local legend has it that 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors washed up on the shore hundreds of years ago, and the locals rescued them. The sailors converted to Islam, intermarried with Africans, and were assimilated into the community. A report on China Daily, July 11, 2005 indicated that DNA tests conducted on Kenyan women in Lamu confirmed that they were of Chinese descent. This indicates that Africans and Chinese have had a cordial encounter and are not incapable of living together. However, the recent wave of Chinese migration into Africa while beneficial economically, it poses new type of cultural challenges.
China established diplomatic relationship with Kenya in December 14, 1963, shortly after Kenya’s independence. Despite the two country’s different economic models – Kenya having embraced capitalism while China favored communism – they have continued to enjoy a cordial relationship. According to the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Studies’ 2008 report on China-Africa Economic Relations, The Chinese embassy in Kenya is arguably their largest embassy in Africa both in terms of size and employees. This may perhaps explain the surge in Chinese immigrants to Kenya in the last two decades. The Chinese contractors are managing major government and private constructions across the country.
Despite the thriving construction industry, the major Chinese immigrants are mostly merchants, importing merchandise and selling to retailers in Kenya. I have observed that Chinese traders in Kenya rarely deal with the locals directly; they prefer working with middlemen, thus avoiding the necessary contact that can boost their familiarity with the host. Furthermore, the Chinese construction companies do not hire Kenyans; they do all the work and sometimes prefer living in their own quarters. With this kind of lifestyle, the Chinese have little exposure with local people, and have no way of learning about local culture, leave alone embracing it.
Interestingly, due to Chinese investment in Kenya, some Kenyans are learning Mandarin through the Chinese sponsored Confucius Institutes around the country. However, one cannot stop to think that the cultural literacy is only happening one way, hence creating a cultural power dynamics. Howard French’s 2014 book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New empire in Africa, has extensively covered this aspect of cultural power dynamics between ordinary Chinese investors and Africans. French writes a story about a Mr. Hao Shengli, an investor in Mozambique whose belief about Africans is in the lines of “I didn’t think they were so clever, not so intelligent…we had to find backward countries, poor countries that we can lead, places where we can do business, where we can manage things successfully” Obviously Mr. Hao does not hold Africans in high esteem. To him African culture is subservient to his.
As much as Mr. Hao is not a representative of Chinese people, in a way he is typical of most investors who now flock various cities across Africa. Most countries in Africa have yet to reflect on the impact of Chinese investment in their countries. But with the increasing immigration of Chinese businesspeople into African cities, this kind of reflection is inevitable. As often is the case, the most noticeable effects are on cultural compatibility. The Nairobi incident demonstrates that there is a wide cultural divide between Africans and Chinese. This issue must be addressed with utmost urgency lest the cordial relationship China enjoys with African countries be ruined.
Of course it is upon the Chinese businesspersons to learn the African philosophy of Ubuntu (humanness), and African Values of community. There is a lot to be gained through mutual respect and honest dealing. As much as the Chinese government is investing in Africans who are trying to learn Chinese culture, it should do the same to the Chinese who want to learn African cultures. For China to represent a new awakening, it must do, and behave better than the European colonizers at whose hands Africans were humiliated and their dignity violated.
The incident in Nairobi, for all we know, may have been a misunderstanding but nevertheless it sowed seeds of discord and loss of trust that the Kenyans had for Chinese business-people. Deliberate steps must be taken to restore the relationship to its better form. It seems to me that cultural knowledge may be the most important business skill that any Chinese hoping to invest in Kenya or Africa ought to possess. History shows that most Asians who have come to Africa for whatever reason usually prefers to build a home in their host countries. The Indians who built the railway in East Africa are now part of our proud heritage. Even though most of them never made any effort to integrate or assimilate to the local culture, they somehow found ways of maintaining a healthy relationship with Africans. There are a few exceptions to this, for instance, the tragedy that came with Dictator Idi Amin of Uganda who in the 70s expelled Asians from Uganda. The Ugandans saw the Asians as a threat to their economic lives. Of course they were wrong but populist ideas and reasoning often do not go together.
There is no better way of securing the future of Africans and the Chinese than to invest in cultural programs that foster mutual respect. Such programs might include student, farmers, businesspeople, and government exchange programs among others. Of course, such programs often take long in impacting a society. But they are worthy looking into.
I recently attended a beer festival at Taybeh, an all-Christian Palestinian village in Ramallah. The village has about 1, 500 people. Taybeh is an historical city that has changed hands several times – from the natives to the crusaders to Saladin to Ottoman Empire to the British, to Jordan, and to Israeli Occupation Army. It is believed that Jesus retired to this city after resurrecting Lazarus. It was a place of safety far away from the Pharisees who wanted him dead. I counted about three ancient churches including St. George Church, which was built in the 5th century.
Taybeh festival is more than a beer event; it is a reconstruction of Palestinian cultural image in an effort to maintain the relationship to the land and a sense of hominess in the face of the Israeli physical isolation of Palestinians. The brewery was founded in 1995 by David Khoury who was buoyed by the wave of optimism that followed the signing of the Oslo accords. This is an indication that a peace agreement can potentially bring more investments in Palestine. Palestinians in the diaspora will be more than happy to return to the homeland and develop their economy.
Outside Teybeh Factory
This brewery that has made the city famous and attracted many tourists is surrounded by Muslim villages that abhor alcohol consumption. The brewery owners are cautious not to offend the Muslims. Thus, we were requested to not to carry beers beyond the gates of the factory because villagers do not want to see people drinking alcohol.
I noticed that the event attracted many people especially foreigners and Arab Christians. There were people even from the US embassy. To me Taybeh project represents the unlimited economic activities Palestinians can engage in if they were allowed to. One of the reasons why Palestinians are suffering is their lack of economic opportunities.
Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims by Robert C. Gregg
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often referred as “Abrahamic” faiths due to their common ancestral heritage and their belief in one God. But do these religions worship the same God? Six years ago, Stephen Prothero, a professor of Religion at Boston University, wrote: “for more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into fantasy world in which all gods are one…but this idea of religious unity is wishful thinking and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naïve theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide.” This argument is gaining grounds in some recent scholarly works that emphasize differences in religions as a foundation for interreligious dialogue. Gregg C. Roberts’ new book, Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is an example of a work that seeks to explain how “Abrahamic” religions have developed different interpretations of their shared stories. Gregg, a professor of religious studies at Stanford, observes the overlap of these religions with the aim of exploring “how interpreters told the stories using story expansions and noticeable twists in order to advance their communal interests.”
The book departs from the usual narrative common in some interfaith dialogue literature that seek to show how common religious traditions can join hands and enhance each other by demonstrating that Abrahamic religions bear in common the potential of mutual understanding due to their shared stories. Gregg shows that these religions have difficult and irreconcilable differences in beliefs and practices. He reasons that understanding and appreciating these differences instead of romanticizing similarities will enhance mutual understanding.
Gregg advances his argument by tracing five shared (scriptural) narratives as they were later understood by Jewish, Christian and Muslim interpreters. They include: Cain’s murder of Abel, his brother; the clash between Abraham’s two women, Sarah and Hagar; Joseph the young Hebrew slave in Egypt, tormented by the sexual advances of the wife of his master; the disobedient prophet Jonah and the whale, and finally the saga of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Through exploring sacred scriptures (Bible and Quran), text interpretations, sermons, and artistic works such as paintings and sculptures, Gregg shows that these religions “shared sacred stories but lived by rival interpretation of them.” He further reveals how interpreters deliberately sought to build and sustain their own religious society’s identity, purpose, and confidence in their uniqueness as God’s special people. In order to accomplish their objectives, interpreters often employed combative and satirical techniques to discredit the other religions. This is manifested in the manner in which they twisted the five stories to enhance the development of their tradition and to lay claims to a unique identity. They used shared stories to draw lines of exclusion and distinguish “us” from “them”. Gregg’s book exposes major points of contention and how interpreters fashioned their commentaries around this points, thereby developing unique identity.
All stories except Mary’s (the Hebrew Bible does not have the account of Mary) seem to follow the same pattern – Judaism tells the story of the one God, the creator and his holy people, Christianity takes up that story but incorporates Jesus as a bridge between God and his holy people and finally Islam recapitulates some basic components of the same story, affirming Judaism and then Christianity, but taking the story onward to another climax where they assert their superiority. It is through such interpretations that the core theology of these religions is revealed. For instance, Jewish interpretations of the story of Cain and Abel portray their belief about the world – it is based on God’s justice and equity. Thus, their interpreters sought to examine whether the world works in accordance with God’s judgment of what is right, or in accordance with God’s (unjust) favoritism. Their conclusion – Cain is punished and Abel considered right – help us understand their belief that God is a deity whose dealings with his covenant people are fair and equitable. This further explains why they tended to make Cain’s crime and his criminal nature the chief point of the story. Their working system finds its dynamic in the struggle between God’s plan for creation – to create a perfect world of justice – and man’s will.
On the other hand, Christian interpreters sought to demonstrate that followers of Jesus were on the side of God-approved Abel, the righteous brother, and were called upon to battle Cain-like people who threatened them both within and outside their own church communities. These early Christian interpreters strove to creatively enhance the shared stories in order to educate and build up the faith of believers. They understood their religion to be anchored in the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ who is God became human. At the center of their religion is Jesus – who is a fulfillment of the prophecy told in the old Hebrew Bible and also as a fulfillment of Gods promise to David. Hence, the Christian interpreters whose work Gregg analyzed tried to present their commentaries in a manner that reinforces the centrality of Jesus in God’s covenant with Abraham. For Christians, the story of Abel, Sarah, Jonah, Joseph and Mary points to Jesus and his mission.
Saint Matthew was concerned with linking Christ with Old Testament prophecies. Therefore, his account followed a formula explanation (e.g. all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the lord) with a strategy of proving to the believers that indeed Jesus was the promised messiah. On his part, Saint Luke was preoccupied with filling gaps in the Jesus narrative through using versified speeches declared to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Neither the Jews nor the Muslims bought this idea of Jesus being the messiah for it sought to contradict the very foundations of those religions.
Given the significance of Jesus to Christians and their claim that he was the promised messiah, Jews interpreters were obliged to challenge devotion to Mary and her child and to annul their places in the divine scheme of things. They mocked writings or interpretations that reinforced the idea of Jesus as a messiah, and insulted Mary, his mother as a whore. They portrayed Jesus as an illegitimate son – fathered by a Roman soldier (Joseph Pandera), hence discrediting the immaculate consumption of Mary. The interpreters argued that Christians misinterpreted Isaiah’s prophecy – they pointed out that Isaiah prophesied about the birth of King Hezekiah and not Jesus. Since the story of Mary and Jesus is not contained in the Bible, Jews interpreters were generally reacting to Christian interpretations. In fact, they managed to use the real events of Jesus’ life against him. This reality of being aware of the other interpreters’ works perhaps explains how Muslim commentators approached their interpretations.
Gregg demonstrates that Muslim interpreters had knowledge of both Jewish and Christian doctrines, hence they did not have to retell the five stories in their entirety – even the Quranic narrations gives the indication that the audience was familiar with some of these stories. They retold the stories, filled the gaps and offered extensions that reinforced their beliefs that Muhammad is God’s prophet and that the world order is based on God’s justice and omnipotent sustenance of the universe. Their major goal was to prove that Islam was the true religion. For instance, Gregg presents the Qur’anic instance where the Muslims fault Jews for claiming that they killed Jesus. He also presents a Quranic verse that demonstrates that Jesus was not God. All these reinforce the Muslim interpretation of Jesus as just a Prophet, hence reinforcing the claim that Muhammad was the last prophet of God and there is no such thing as Jesus being God.
These shared stories though different, are connected through their intended outcome – to show that these religions had different beliefs and they did not necessarily care for the same things. Stephen Prothero developed four-part approach for distinguishing religions whereby he argued that at the heart of every religion is a problem, solution, technique and an exemplar. For instance, Christianity has the problem of sin, hence their solution is salvation, which can only come through a combination of good works and faith through the examples of saints and ordinary people of faith. Islam unlike Christianity does not believe in the concept of original sin, thus their problem is different. Prothero’s approach though simplistic, can actually help us understand the differences in the five stories Gregg has presented.
Gregg has demonstrated how “Abrahamic” religions interpreted five shared sacred stories to reinforce their beliefs and position themselves as God’s chosen people. For instance, through the story of Cain and Abel, we saw how they focused on those elements that defined their belief in and about God and through the story of Abraham and his two women, Gregg demonstrated how the narratives of these women were fashioned to serve each community, resulting in their becoming mothers to three families – three diverging religions.
Gregg’s book is unique in that it goes beyond the textual interpretations to incorporate artistic works such as paintings and sculptures. These include archeological works going back to second century. Gregg’s exploration on its own does not help peacebuilders or practitioners trying to promote interfaith relations. However, it does help counter the notion that the way toward interreligious understanding among the Abrahamic faiths is through emphasizing similarities in the religions. Stephen Prothero’s work goes a step further to suggest a new path for interfaith relations – Interfaith Dialogue 2.0.  This path open to all religious traditions and its foundation is the genuine recognition of the existence of boundaries and fundamental differences in religions.
Perhaps the major weaknesses in Gregg’s book are that he does not explain how the differences in the religions can utilized in interfaith dialogues. Even Prothero does not comprehensively explain how this can be implemented. This could be area peacebuilding scholars and practitioners can do more research.
Prothero, S (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP.
 James L. Heft, S.M (2006). Passing on the Faith: Transforming traditions for the next generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 598
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP.
 Neusner, J., Chilton, B., & Graham, W. (2002). Three Faiths, One God: The formative Faith and Practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers.
 Ibid. Pg. 16
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 463 – 472.
 Ibid. Pg. 517 -518.
 Neusner, J., Chilton, B., & Graham, W. (2002). Three Faiths, One God: The formative Faith and Practice of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Boston, MA: Brill Academic Publishers. Pg. 27.
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 543
 Gregg, R.C. (2015). Shared Stories, Rival telling: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. London, UK: OUP. Pg. 545 – 546.
 Stephen Prothero (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins. Pg. 26 – 27.
 Stephen Prothero (2010). God is Not One: The eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. New York, NY: Harper Collins. Pg. 434.
My interest in working with children and youth is well known among my peers, friends, and even teachers. But I don’t think I have ever explained why and how I became interested in children. It is unlikely I would have ever deliberated on this issue had I not volunteered with Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli NGO based in Jerusalem. I think knowing why you do what you do is important especially in peacebuilding where our personality and background can easily encroach the decisions one makes. As far as I can remember, I have always had a great love for children and a passion to work with them. This may have something to do with my upbringing.
I was born at a time when my family was battling challenges of living with wanton neighbors. We occupied a piece of land some our neighbors considered theirs despite my grandfather genuinely acquiring it from his friend. The idea that our neighbors could hurt us (children) made my parents extra careful. They only relaxed when we went to boarding schools far away from home.
When you are young and have to largely depend on the generosity of other people other than your parents your life changes. At least mine changed. At school, I was with teachers who probably had other responsibilities beyond teaching but they took care of me and nurtured me into a boy my mother was proud of. They did not owe me anything beyond their classroom duties, yet they took it upon themselves to ensure that I never missed anything. That sense of duty and devotion to people you do not have blood ties with was to influence my later life and career. I think this is partly the reason why I was in the first place drawn into the field of education, and perhaps the reason why I have mostly worked with children. So, you can imagine my excitement when the Comboni sisters, and Rabbis for Human Rights requested me to design some programs for the summer camp they had organized. I was looking forward to such kind of opportunities!
I was convinced the education I had received at Kroc and in other institutions coupled with my experience working with refugee children in Kenya and New Haven was more than adequate to help me pull through the task. But I was to learn a week later, sometimes when it comes to running projects in a conflict zone, no experience or education is ever sufficient. At times the best one can hope for is “Say yes to the mess” and that is exactly what I did a week later when a single technicality rendered all my projects useless (more of this later).
Here is how I prepared for the summer camp: I spent hours poring over articles on the internet and on World Vision website, which has excellent materials on building a peace culture among children. I designed some activities patterned along the world vision model. I honestly felt that I had done enough and the children will be pleased. On the morning of the summer camp, we drove from Jerusalem to the West Bank where we were to have the camps in three different villages. It was my first time traveling through this road and I enjoyed observing how beautiful Jerusalem is and how ugly it gets as one drives further south. Except for the well irrigated settlements whose greenness stand out like an oasis in the middle of a desert (which is true), it was difficult to understand why people fight over such dry pieces of land. I understand when people fight over land in my village or in my country; they probably want it for farming or to accommodate their ever expanding families. But here was I, driving through a desert on a road surrounded by huge rocks on both sides, and on a piece of land which may or may not have significant economic value to Bedouins who happen to be shepherds, or Israelis who already have enough land, yet that piece of land has become the reason for so much bloodshed.
I was very much aware of the kind of schools we were visiting because my supervisor had informed me about their condition – they were not permanent structures. But I clearly did not understand the gravity of that statement for I walked into structures in worse conditions that I have never seen anywhere. Before that day, I was pretty convinced that the wretched of the earth are only found in the poor villages of Africa. As I observed those shanties, and contrasted them with the magnificent schools I had seen in Jerusalem, I began to understand the inequality that is eating our societies. How can some sections of the society live in affluence when others are wallowing in abject poverty?
There was no road connecting these villages with Israeli highways. It is as if somebody did not expect them or never wanted them to travel anywhere beyond their caves and shanties. We had to use a strong car to access the place despite the fact that there is a settlement nearby with a dedicated road that Palestinians aren’t allowed to drive on. In fact, as I would later observe, for every ‘unrecognized village’ I came across, there is an Israeli settlement nearby. In my home city of Nairobi, we have something similar; we call them slums – informal settlement near developed and high income residential places. I imagine there are theories explaining this phenomenon but in Israel we needn’t a theory. It is complicated. In most cases the Bedouin were there first to inhabit the land. They were living in caves and leading their semi-nomadic life till Israeli tried to modernize them by sending them to urban areas. When they refused to go, their land was seized and their homes became unrecognized villages.
The beautiful first impression I wanted to make was already ruined when I finally met the children. What followed was the disappointment of my life. I discovered that I could not communicate with the children. We did not have a common language – none of them spoke English and I did not speak enough Arabic to even make sense of their greetings. The only person in our group who could speak English and Arabic, the Comboni sister was working with a different group. I was really ashamed and for the first time since arriving in Israel, I felt helpless. I had made all preparations except the one that mattered most. I felt that this was one of those moments when a person must expect nothing short of a miracle. I asked myself so many questions: how come I did not think about language? Why did I assume I would meet people who speak English? I suddenly realized that even the activities I had prepared, all those materials I had have no place in this context. The children were between the ages of 4 and 12. Very young kids who would rather play than engage in the kind of peacebuilding activities I had prepared.
So I had more than two hours to spend with these children and I had no idea what to do. Worse I had no language to communicate with them or even let them know that I was clueless. I remembered the hours I had spent at Kroc learning on conflict mapping, and conflict analysis as a prerequisite to designing projects. Had I carried out this analysis I would have known that language barrier is a big issue in working with children in the West Bank. It dawned on me that in peacebuilding, if one has a chance to prepare, the basics should be taken care of first and I think language is the first fundamental. Those projects we assume we know enough to implement are the ones we end up not doing so well. My experience and attitude had blinded me, it had given me an illusion that I was overqualified for this job. I learnt the hard way that having experience is good but every conflict context calls for a different kind of experience. Thus, one can never truly say that he has adequate experience to intervene in a certain context. In conflict zones, no experience is ever enough and embracing uncertainty is highly recommended. One must always be willing to learn. I could not escape thinking about Severine’s Peaceland and her critique of thematic knowledge vis-à-vis area knowledge. As I stood in front of those children trying to figure out what to do, I realized that an excellent mastery of area knowledge could have come in handy.
It was time to play the “Say yes to the mess” card. I had to improvise. Through a combination of signs and demonstrations, I managed to put the boys into two teams and have them play soccer. As the game picked up and my presence became less important, I sat on a bench beside a donor bill board. It read in English: ‘The European Union’ and below it ‘Humanitarian Affairs’. Given that I was yet to meet any person who can read English in this village, I assumed the billboard was meant for people like me. It was like a code for those in this thing we call “Humanitarian Affairs”? In fact, I was not sure whether ‘Humanitarian Affairs’ referred to a department of the European Union or to another organization. But I got the sense that they were informing me that they had done their part by putting up the structure that the children called ‘school’, now it was my turn to do my part.
I became so engrossed on what being a humanitarian worker really means. I have used that title several times, in fact, even on my bio at the Kroc website indicates so. But did I really understand its meaning? What does it really mean to consider oneself a humanitarian worker? Does it involve working with children in the middle of a desert, in informal settlements where people live in tents overlooking mansions that are surrounded by super irrigated olive trees? Does it refer to a worker who cannot even speak the language of the children he is working with and he is forced to let them play football by themselves? For the first time since 2008 when I first volunteered with a peacebuilding NGO, I questioned my mission. How has my presence made the world better? Was I really useful? Actually, was any of us, the so-called foreign workers in Israel/Palestine, useful? I visualized the Kroc peacebuilding wheel and saw my spot (structural and institutional change) and thought that it must be the least of all!
My stream of thoughts were interrupted by a loud thud, the ball had hit the billboard I had been staring at. The boys were signaling me to pass the ball. I hit the ball and was about to sit and continue my reverie when a thought occurred to me, why not join them for a while? I trudged myself into the field and became the player without a team. As you would imagine, my lack of allegiance to any team meant that I would have few instances of hitting the ball (if any) because all teams tried to wrench it from me as soon as I laid my feet on it. It was really fun. Doing all that running around the field and probably burning some calories and laughing on top of my voice and behaving like a boy among boys. For a very long time I had wanted to do this but I never knew how. To go back to boyhood where all that mattered was what was at the table – no need of scratching your head so much for the past or the future. You just played your ball and kept your happiness and in the evening you went home to your parents. My adult life has been enveloped in many challenges. In fact, weeks before I legally became an adult, I lost my mother and overnight I transitioned from a boy to a young adult with responsibilities not only to myself but also my younger siblings. That life had been a fruitful but equally challenging marathon – never having to stop or knowing when it will end. But now here was I, so happy running on rocks playing with boys. By all means I could tell that we were all happy. It made me wonder whether peacebuilding can just be for the present. My approach has always been to geared to designing programs with the future in mind. That is why I was so much concerned with the lessons and activities I had prepared and it had not occurred to me that playing soccer can actually be ‘the main activity’.
The two hours went fast and the first day of the summer camp was over. I had survived. I could not speak even a single Arabic word, yet I organized a soccer team and also took part in it. As we drove back to Jerusalem I reflected on the events of that day and how relevant they were to my training and growth as a peacebuilder, and discovered that I have been looking at my role in Israel/Palestine in a role way. My takeaway was that it is easier to overvalue the things we can measure and undervalue the ones we cannot measure. Perhaps the little things one does, like bringing a ball and helping children play does really matter. I would later learn that the children have never seen a black person, so it was a wonderful opportunity for them to have me play with them. Given the Israeli policies that do not permit them to travel and see the world, we have to somehow bring the world to them – that is what my presence achieved.
Interestingly, later when I was preparing an evaluation plan for the summer camps, I discovered that Rabbis for Human Rights had started the camps with the sole aim of helping Palestinian children participate in recreational activities that they would not normally have access to due to the occupation. This should be a good reason to make me feel my work is indeed meaningful. But I still can’t help feeling that the kind of ‘happiness’ that I would wish the Palestinian children is one that lasts. We all deserve that! However, most summer camps in the West Bank run for a week or two. Assuming summer camps are the closest the Palestinian children ever come to having a normal school day, you can imagine what happens to them when the volunteers and NGOs leave.
Discovering a common language
After the shock of the first day, I went back to the drawing board and tried to learn all I could about the Bedouins and how they fit the Israel/Palestine conflict. I then spent more time on the internet searching for activities one can do with children they do not share a language with. I did not find any relevant or interesting activity but the following day in the morning, as we came out of the car, one little girl, her name is Yasmin, handed me a drawing of an elephant. For a split second, I felt that somebody has just pumped too much energy onto my body. I will forever be grateful to that young girl! Giving me an elephant, which is one of our national treasures, the girl was trying to let me know that she now understands where I come from. For the first time, it dawned on me that after all we have a common language: the painted word. We can draw and through drawings express ourselves.
I remembered Lederach’s Moral Imagination, and the idea of serendipity. I seized the moment and used drawing as a tool to talk about the conflict. The kindergarten had three roundtables and plastic chairs. I motioned the children to sit. Gave them pencils, crayons, and paper. Given that I could not give any further instructions, I let them exercise their imagination and come up with all sorts of drawings. During the first couple of days, they drew what I have come to call ‘images of conflict’ and as we progressed they drew less of those pictures and started drawing things like the sea.
I remember, one boy drew an unmanned riffle shooting women, who were running. Another one drew a military craft dropping a bomb on a mosque. Almost all images depicted a violent environment. Examining these pictures, I thought about the people all over the world who are dedicated to working for peace, holding high level meeting with parties they consider important in situations of conflicts. Often, they seek peace in the name of children and for children. But do they ever think about children as beings capable of expressing themselves? Why is it that we assume children must be spoken for? That they do not have a voice? Clearly, the pictures they drew spoke louder about their world view than volumes of words can. The drawings I was looking at carried some of the most profound critiques and insights about Israel government.
How well did the Bedouin children understand their situation? Very well to be able to draw it. I doubt words would have expressed these deep depictions of their tragedy. On that particular day, the painted word became a live and stronger than written or spoken word. I had no reason to feel ashamed any longer. Through drawing the children were able to speak to me the unspeakable. Their drawings displayed how Israeli violence permeates every aspect of their life. The pictures of bulldozers razing down their houses and schools, demonstrated that the children understood the fear of living with a demolition order over your head. I could not help wonder how these children are able to bear the burden of knowing that while they are at school the military might be busy demolishing their houses or the same can happen to their schools while they are at home.
As a matter of fact, one of their schools was under imminent threat of demolition. The school, named Khan al Ahkmar, is one of those few schools in the West bank one can consider a sanctuary for children. Before its construction, children from neighboring villages used to commute for about 10 miles to attend school in Ramallah or Jericho. A dozen children lost their lives to road accidents as they had to cross many dangerous highways before getting to school. Some nuns together with Rabbis for Human Rights and international NGO from Italy came up with an ingenious plan to build a school made of mud and tires. Israel does not recognize the Bedouins living in this area and they do not allow them to build any permanent building. So the school had to be a structure that had the quality of permanence but with an appearance of a temporary structure.
The settlers harassed them daily as they struggled to build the school. They even sued and accused them of putting up permanent structures in an recognized village. The court ruled in their favor and ordered for demolition. In Israel where power dynamics is a key feature of politics, a demolition order is a very powerful tool. The state does not have to implement it immediately; it dangles it up over your face like the sword of Damocles. But in the case of that school, the settlers’ organization, Binyamin, sued the government for contempt of court. Hence, the government was compelled to demolish this school that has become an oasis of hope in a desolate land.
Local NGOs including Rabbis for Human Rights, and International organizations led by the UN lobbied top government officials and held week long demonstrations (I participated) protesting the government’s plan to demolish the school. On Friday, August 26, the Israeli government announced that the demolition would be postponed. I think they made the decision because of the international outcry against the demolition.