Kathryn Smith Derksen will share about their recent visit to South Africa, and talk about what it is to be a peacemaker. Our worship service will be Africa-themed, with African music from our Mennonite hymnals.
What is a peacemaker?
I believe it is easier to say “I’m a salesperson,” or “I’m an engineer,” or any number of other professions that give people a succinct, or at least sufficient idea of what someone can do as a career – but the word “peacemaker” is not so easy. As peacemakers, between Dan and I, to describe what we do we have said things like, “I’ve taught English, I’ve directed a peace choir, I’ve supported war orphans, I’ve designed and installed solar panel systems, I’ve taken dictation for a Bishop, I’ve driven Mothers to comfort families attacked by rebels, I’ve organized a library, I’ve taught typing.”
So what is peacemaking? In a narrow sense, it is doing direct mediation between conflicting groups or individuals, and teaching others to do the same. Pastor Meg talked about the processes of reconciliation in her sermon last week – a good lead-in for me this morning. Every culture is going to do this differently, so hopefully, a good mediator and trainer is taking into account the culture and setting. In Uganda, our first assignment, I observed that the processes I had learned in the US were not going to work there – and I worked at developing some alternatives with my local colleagues. Here, a mediator listens to both sides and is given authority to make a recommendation for resolution, or leads the conflicting parties to a resolution themselves. But in Kitgum, many sides are consulted and involved in a resolution, and rarely do the individuals who are most directly affected have more say than anyone else involved. For example, one common situation that kept coming up, one that can divide a community and lead to violence, is when a young woman does not want to marry the man her father has picked out for her. She must involve her uncles as mediators, and at a meeting it is the extended family, church members, and even the future husband’s family that discuss a resolution. While this makes it much more complicated, it also gets deeper into the heart of what peacemaking is all about – shalom.
As Mennonites, many of us have probably heard that word, shalom, and may know that it means a “whole” peace, a peace that includes all. Mediators in the US often talk in terms such as “meeting in the middle,” or “making things right” if there has been some wrongdoing. This is a good start, but the meaning of shalom, the word in the bible for reconciliation, has a meaning based on context. Many words are used to translate the actual word “shalom” in the Bible – salvation, justice, peace, health, well-being, security, wholeness, integrity, abundance, intactness, honesty, prosperity, right relationships, harmony, blamelessness, just to name some of the different ones. So maybe that explains peace work as Dan and I see it, and why it encompasses such a variety of work for us.
One way I describe being a peacemaker is to say I am a creative problem-solver. Something is missing, or broken, or needs another set of helping hands – what can I do? I remember the moment I really got this – in our first year working with the Acholi Religious Leader’s Peace Initiative, Uganda. I was sitting in the meeting as asked, thinking there was nothing I could contribute to the exciting things that the religious leaders were saying – they were reacting to a recent attack on the town and coming up with some amazing statements that they all agreed to – Protestant Bishop, Catholic Monsignor, and Muslim Imam. Half-way through, I realized no one was taking minutes of this important ad hoc meeting, and I could write these things down for them! Those notes turned into a letter to the General Secretary of the UN. Yes, we also do peace-trainings, help develop appropriate curriculum, write up advocacy materials to help pass Amnesty laws, support returning child-soldiers, and create safe spaces for Muslim
and Christian youth to be together. But ultimately, it is our ability to be another set of eyes to help see a problem differently, helping hands to add a special skill, and sometimes courage to do something new.
In our second assignment, in Chad, I spent a significant amount of time working to organize a library. This began when I first walked into it, a room holding the largest collection of books outside of the capital city, a day’s drive away. Schools don’t have textbooks for students to take home, and so they must come to this library to borrow books to do their homework each day. Students stand in long lines outside the library collection room and request the book they want, and the librarian finds it from one of the many hundreds of books, carefully stacked on tables, while empty shelves line the large room. I especially love solutions that don’t need money – I explained that we could put the books on shelves and let the students SEE the books! Simple. But involved. One important part of this process meant creating a Dewey decimal number for Africans that wrote fiction in French – Dewey would have done it himself if he had lived in these times, so I believe, and so we did it. The French librarian in the capital was very upset by this suggestion, but our library was for Africans, not for her, as I kept telling the librarian I was working with, and so this resulted in all the fiction written by Africans being together and easy to see in our humble library in Moundou. And why is this peacemaking?
Chad is a very poor country, and is in the top five of most corrupt nations in the world. In general, young people in Chad have a bleak future – very high unemployment, immoral government (students were attacked on school grounds by the army more than once while we were there), recent civil war that continues to threaten away investors, etc., etc. They work hard in school, desperately wanting to believe something bigger than what they see every day. And so, I will never forget the look on their faces when they were able to walk INto a library, and then find the shelves of African-authored books – “Africans write books?” and then I would point to the shelf of Chadian books and their eyes just about popped out “Chadians write books?” And you see a whole new world open up to them, just in that moment.
Shalom is as much about process as it is about outcome; shalom is about the means as well as the end; in other words, the journey, how you get there, can be even more important than the destination. Teachers know this, too, and a large part of what we have done in Africa as peacemakers is what is now called “capacity building.” In the above example of the library, I was also training Chadians how to build a database, how to work as a team, how to develop and manage a budget, and any number of other practical things. Less concrete but equally important was the faith I put in the students – allowing them INto the library and to touch the books was a big step for my colleagues. Even bigger was my standing up to the colonial power – the French librarian who didn’t approve of how we organized our library – modeling these values was empowering our partner, another important aspect of peacebuilding.
In January we begin our next assignment, in South Africa. Our next partner, the Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency in the Capetown area, is much smaller than our previous partners, but with a mighty vision. Working with Pastor Oscar Siwali, we will be doing training ourselves – in schools, community centers, and with pastors and churches. And we’ve been told that HOW we do this, how we follow Oscar’s leadership and model power-sharing dynamics as white people in an office of black people is going to be as important as other aspects of the work itself.
Oscar has a tremendous vision for the reconstruction that needs to happen in his beloved country. The effects of Apartheid are still felt in every realm, and much work is needed to build a functioning, democratic, equal society. Even with all of the work that has been done, reconciliation is not possible because the restitution piece is missing. I’ve already heard this simple illustration several times: “The white man has come to the table and apologized to the black man for taking his bicycle, and then he rides away from the meeting on that same bicycle.” I would go so far as to say that there is a new generation of disenfranchised Afrikaner youth who might even deny ever taking anyone’s bicycle.
I was shocked to find on our recent visit that it seems there are no school peer mediation programs of any kind – it is as if the non-profit world has overlooked the needs of this large country and assumed that now that Apartheid is over there is not work to do. Schools have been desegregated and children have been left to sort out how to interact with each other (there has been a huge spike in gang membership and activity) and on top of this, leadership and even administration of institutions changed at the same time. The first school we visited with Oscar is one he said “SADRA has been involved.” We learned that this meant that he has been mentoring the new headmaster, an eager and likable black South African. We meet him out on the playing field with the older boys, getting his dress shoes muddy as he interacted with them. Oscar described, “the previous headmaster was a strict, distant man – you never would have found him out with students, and he had been at the school a long time, (and so is a white man) managing the school exactly so. Now the makeup of the school has changed, and this headmaster does not have the experience to deal with conflicts that come up with staff or students, and so I’ve been meeting with him regularly to guide him, while another staff member has been meeting with the boys to talk about how to deal with problems as they come up between students.”
Oscar also trains community leaders – we briefly attended one of these the next day. Women and men greeted us, and the head of the women’s organization referenced the long history and heavy burden that the mining industry took on the family – men were separated from their wives and children for years at a time, causing stress on the mothers and leaving an ongoing legacy of infidelity. And now these communities are having to compete for space and jobs with the immigrant refugees that arrive daily – anyone that can make it out of the difficult situations of Congo, Burundi, Angola, and other neighboring countries are coming to South Africa, resulting in a new wave of black-on-black violence. One pastor we met later on our trip is doing meetings specifically for this – he invites South Africans to visit in the refugee communities and listen to the stories of the refugees to encourage empathy. He has seen positive changes as he ministers to these populations, and he has invited us to join him sometimes as we could use our French to communicate with these immigrants from French-speaking Africa.
One exciting project that I will be working on specifically with Oscar in 2016 is his preparations for the upcoming elections. Next year potentially sees great change on the South African political landscape – the massive support of the ANC has been slowly subsiding as other parties develop and come into their own, and this election will see much more diversity of interest and background. South Africa is one of the youngest democracies on the continent, and its sheer size, large resources and unique history in apartheid makes it a case study in developing civil society. As Oscar said, “People are so used to expecting nothing and getting nothing, and then once their leaders were in power, they expected everything, but they didn’t know how to be involved.” He is working with community leaders so that
they can voice their needs to their government, and work actively and positively for change. Oscar sees this next year as a perfect time to further educate local people about democracy, their rights as citizens, and empowerment in the process. He has already forwarded me background articles as he plans for us to develop curriculum and hopefully publish training materials – SADRA is one of the only organizations working on this area of reconstruction.
You can partner with us for peacework in South Africa. We need partners, both in prayer and financially, to support this important work and the mission and vision of our Christian brothers and sisters across the world. But you don’t have to move to Africa to be a peacemaker. As you go about your lives here in North America you will have important opportunities to value those different from you. You will be given chances to build capacity and share with those who can learn from your skills. Seek out situations where you can empower someone - you can actively show that all lives matter, even when it might mean you have a little less. And you can share what you have in a way that builds up the “other,” you can model respect, wholeness, help provide safety and health to those around you, no matter where you spend your day.