The first time I put my foot down on African soil in Ghana, I wanted to cry. Feeling the heat that borders on oppressive with not a single hint of breeze may not be everyone’s idea of paradise, but I loved it. Now I’m here again, in The Gambia this time, enjoying the sun as my dark skin absorbs its rays.
Rewind to 20 years ago when Africa was little more than another name on a map, my parents worked hard to make sure that my brother and I had every opportunity not always afforded to people of color. One huge step in this process was packing us up and out to the suburbs of Philadelphia.
My school district was extremely diverse, and I am only now just realizing that my circle of friends looked like a cheesy brochure promoting diversity. I got the odd racial joke of being called an Oreo, and my family and I made a game of seeing how many Black people we saw when we went to dinner, but I lived my childhood blissfully ignorant of present-day racism and prejudice.
And then there was college.
My choice was between a HBCU and a Pennsylvania state school in the middle of farmland. In the end, I couldn’t ignore the money. State school it was. I have never regretted my decision, but I was definitely a black speck of ebony in a sea of ivory.
So, when I graduated and joined the Peace Corps, I told them I didn’t care where they put me, but it needed to be Africa.
I spent the next 2 years in Ghana where I was different, but not obviously so. I was a Black person in a Black country. People assumed I was one of them, and I loved it. There were challenges—Ghanaians had a lot less patience with me compared to white volunteers when teaching their culture—but I was finally among what felt like my people.
And then there was grad school.
I knew I wanted to work in the international field, but the international aspect was missing from a lot of these international programs, so Notre Dame in all its homogeneity it was.
I love the Keough School, but its demographics don’t spill out to the rest of the University. I have found myself more racially defiant than ever, wearing my Nah- Rosa Parks shirt with my fluffy halo of hair all the while secretly wondering how Black is too Black for ND.
Now how does any of this relate to my time in The Gambia right now?
Well, this time, I feel lost.
Before college, I was just an American kid. In college, I gripped my identity as a Black woman tight. In Ghana, I was able to celebrate being around Black people. At Notre Dame, I played the woke Black American. Now, I am acutely aware of how American I am because here, there is no Black and white America. It’s all America, and America is white.
Where does my Blackness fit in? Do I subscribe to the American identity I grew up with, or the African identity that is my history, no matter how distant and forgotten?
I’ve done 23&me, so I know that my DNA test says I have a lot of West Africa in my blood (along with a significant amount of European but who would accept that), but I can’t tell you generations back what my ancestors did. I don’t find it a privilege to live with my parents until I marry, which apparently should have happened already. Even my name, with the Br, is hard to pronounce here.
And I LOVE personal space, a concept severely missing here.
It’s not that these differences didn’t exist in Ghana. I was just so excited to be around Black people that I minimized them.
And now I’m confused.
I’m too Black for America and I’m too American for Africa.
And it’s only worse when I hang out with the white expats. Visually, I can pass for Gambian so when I go out, I feel the Gambian eyes linger on me a little longer. It’s like I’m too similar for them to understand that I’m not like them, and by not acting like them they see it as me rejecting their Gambian culture.
So for all of you who look like TV’s version of America or know the origins of your people, make a little effort to appreciate that privileged knowledge and comfort in knowing exactly who you are. We don’t all have that luxury.
Top Photo: A decidedly not personal-space friendly lounging area at the beach.
“The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past.”
― Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
Old historic buildings, tall gothic cathedrals, ancient marble roads, magnificent Flemish art coupled up with modern infrastructure, and the smell of dark chocolate were just some of the scenes that welcomed me to Brussels, Belgium in the summer of 2021. During my five-week stay in the European country, I was treated to infinite doses of an incredibly rich culture that immersed me in a highly intriguing moment of history. As I made my way through the touristic streets, I would be taken aback by the magnificence of the Art Nouveau architecture surrounding the city. My online research of the city did not do me any justice and I often found myself sidetracked by the hundreds of pictures I took. As much as I wanted to enjoy the present, I did not want to miss anything and, as such, took pictures of everything—from gargoyles to landscape, food, performances, street art, and artifacts.
Among the fascinating places was Grand Place, which had some of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. These buildings date back to the 14th century and stood boldly in defiance of time. As I walked through the structures while feeling the walls with my fingers and closed eyes, I imagined what it was like 500 years ago—what the lifestyle and culture were, and how did they dress and interact. I was curious: was there hunger, wars, and crime, and was there mass travel as is today? Just by the sheer age of the ground I stood, it hit me quite vividly that history has proven to be a double-edged sword, sharing our successes as well as our failures and all preserved in monuments around us.
As a student from Africa visiting Europe for the first time, it shocked me to see so much of African culture in Belgium. During my second week, I took the train to the Africa Museum, an ethnography and natural history museum located 8.5 miles outside Brussels. The museum focuses on the Congo, a former Belgian colony, and other parts of Africa such as East and West Africa. While en route to the museum, I knew I would be interacting with African culture, however, the magnitude of the traditional artifacts on display was unexpected. I started the tour with much excitement, embracing the African culture and appreciation, but this feeling soon turned into shock and then anger. Why were there so many African traditional artifacts in a museum in Europe?
“Some of these pieces were obtained by violent or unlawful means.”
Because of colonization, the histories of Africa and Europe are forever tied and although more than five decades have since passed, the effects are enormous. From the religions we hold to the naming of our children, our education systems, and the languages we speak, they all have a hint of colonization. There have been negative effects too—economic instabilities, systemic racism, ethnic rivalries, degradation of natural resources, and widespread human rights violations that we see across Africa years after independence. These realities became very real to me with each room I entered and with every item I saw. It is no secret that most of these artifacts—masks worn by elders and warriors, traditional clothing and weapons, and musical instruments—were obtained during the colonial era and not in the most peaceful of means. In an announcement in one of the hallways, the museum acknowledges the questionable nature in which these artifacts were acquired. They confess that “a large part of Africa’s material heritage is housed in Western Museums or with private collectors” adding that “some of these pieces were obtained by violent or unlawful means.”
This encounter raised several pertinent questions in my mind, among them was, should reparations be made to post-colonial states for atrocities made during colonization and if so, what forms should they take?
There have been numerous debates in recent years about whether European countries should return these artifacts as part of a reparations process. Countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Benin, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Egypt have, in the past, made appeals to have their artifacts returned. Some European countries have agreed to this but on conditions such as on a loan basis, as was with the case between Nigeria, Benin, and Britain. I must admit that there has been some form of acknowledgment of the need to reinstitute these artifacts, the question though remains—is that enough? It has been shown in research that former colonial masters enriched their countries’ economic and industrial strength through the resources they extracted from their colonies. In addition to natural and human resources, traditional artifacts are just among the many things that were taken.
The Africa Museum noted that it “is currently prioritizing provenance research to ascertain how objects were acquired,” noting that “the museum has an open constructive attitude towards the restitution debate.” Although this shows some willingness to have the debate on reparations, this intent needs to be translated into action.
On this, I say there is a need for both repentance and reparations.
Besides restitution of African artifacts, there has also been a push for reparations that match the level of atrocities committed during colonization. So far, only acknowledgments and very few public apologies have been made. An excellent example was in June 2020 when the Belgian king, Philippe, wrote a letter to the Congolese president acknowledging the “painful episodes” of the colonial era with its “acts of violence and cruelty.” In this statement, Philippe says that he “would like to express my deepest regrets for these injuries of the past, the pain of which is now revived by the discrimination still too present in our societies.” The admission came as a shock as no Belgian monarch has previously made such a statement.
The debate on whether reparations or apologies should be made has been contentious. The main point of debate is the governments and individuals that committed these atrocities are no longer in power and that those who experienced colonialism firsthand are gone. It is from this argument that French President Emmanuel Macron in January 2021 said that there will be “no repentance nor apologies” for its occupation in Algeria but rather they are open to participating in “symbolic acts” that will promote reconciliation. On this, I say there is a need for both repentance and reparations.
But what form should they be in? Well, the first step is education that will allow people, most importantly policymakers, to understand and appreciate the need for it. This would call for an acknowledgment and apology for colonial atrocities. Secondly, reparations do not necessarily need to equate to monetary value (although common) but can also be in the form of radical and justice-driven change, as economist Priya Lukka notes.
There is also a crucial need to make international laws more inclusive through decolonizing principles that obstruct reparations. This would pave way for racial equality and eliminate avenues for discrimination, more so on reparations. It is encouraging to see that there is an ongoing conversation on this topic, which is what is needed if we are ever to ensure justice is achieved for those who were colonized. However, for now, we can start with the return of these African artifacts to their rightful homes.
Top Photo: Statues outside the African Museum in Tervuren, Belgium.
When I first started sharing with my colleagues and community that I would be living in El Salvador working with ex-gang members, their first question was “Will you be safe?” This question was admittedly ironic, since my placement was with Creative Associate International’s Crime and Violence Prevention Project (CVPP). While the question was rooted in concern for my well-being, it reflects the ways in which the discourse around El Salvador is dominated by violence, gangs, and poverty.
At the Keough School of Global Affairs, many of our classes demand interrogation of themes like this. In contexts of violence such as those in El Salvador, there has been a tendency to rely on repressive tactics that risk exacerbating the problem. There are an estimated 60,000-70,000 active gang members in El Salvador. If each of those gang members is part of a family who could be affected by repression, then there is tremendous risk for creating more division in the larger society rather than addressing the original conflict.
The CVPP is one of the first large projects to work on tertiary prevention, which is direct intervention with people looking to leave gangs. Focusing on rehabilitation of people trying to leave the gangs—already very challenging—creates opportunities to lower the number of gang members, decrease violence, and address original factors that lead to people joining gangs. Out of most of the ex-gang members I have spoken with, many reference wanting to feel like their identity is respected and that their well-being sustained. Due to contexts of unresolved conflict, scarce resources, classism and other issues that maintain violence, people who join the gangs seek alternative groups that respect their human dignity.
For example, there are two dominant gangs in El Salvador, both of which originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 90s. During these years, a surge of Central American immigrants fleeing civil war and conflict landed in LA seeking refuge. LA did not have the infrastructure to support the sudden influx of people, which resulted in high unemployment and dense urban living situations. Existing gang violence and insufficient municipal infrastructure created an impossible reality, which led to the creation of new gangs for safety and community reasons. With high homicide rates and violence in LA, the US responded with heavy-handed incarceration and deportation policies. This response sent young men back to their birth countries, though many did not even speak Spanish. The policy implementation could not have foreseen the violence that the US would export back to Central America, which in 20 years would create a new iteration of the immigration crisis.
For the last 10 years or so, the popular rhetoric assigned to gangs and gang members in Central America has been one based on violence and fear. The violence perpetuated by gangs is harsh and inexcusable, leaving several communities in El Salvador struggling. Through extortion and other forms of violence, the gangs in El Salvador pose threats to the Salvadoran social fabric that increase instability, migration, and lower chances of success. With every new iteration of repressive mano dura, or Iron Fist policy, gangs adopt a more formal infrastructure and presence.
Gang members may commit violent acts, but the questions need to be asked in order to think about gangs origin and historical trajectory. Why did they end up in a gang in the first place? How did the public institutions, international policies, and social fabric fail people enough that they would join a gang? How do gangs provide a sense of safety or security to involved people that they may not feel otherwise? Applying an anthropological lens reveals more answers that may not excuse behavior, but offer hints for disrupting and transforming violence.
As a peacebuilder from the USA, I come home every day with new questions, information and experiences to think about. My country not only deported the original gangsters, but also policies that provide quick answers without addressing root causes. Scholar-activist John Paul Lederach’s reflections resound daily: “To speak well and listen carefully is no easy task at times of high emotions and deep conflict. People’s very identity is under threat.” The starting question may still be, “Will you be safe?” But as practitioners, we must reframe the question to “How is this person not safe due to underlying structural and historical causes that threaten the dignity of the person in front of me?” If practitioners do not, we risk replicating historical patterns of violence towards current and future generations, compounding the root causes and contributing to future insecurity.
To what extent should outside peacebuilders (or newcomers) display optimism for positive social change despite the presence of protracted conflicts in an environment? This is a question that I struggle to answer as I engage my Master of Global Affairs field experience in Myanmar.
Based on my interactions so far, it is clear that as long as local populations, who are the most affected by the conflict, demonstrate optimism, then outside interveners should keep the faith and continue to show solidarity with them. This attitude, I would argue, should be part of the professional ethics and individual responsibility of [outside] peacebuilders, and shape how we engage with conflict-affected populations. The strength that communities need to transform conflict relationships, achieve long-term social change, and thrive is often embedded in their collective display of resilience, positive attitudes, and belief that violent conflicts will de-escalate or disappear.
Myanmar is a beautiful country with a rich culture, substantial mineral deposits, and a friendly people. Despite these endowments, different complex issues continue to drive conflict escalation and frequent clashes between the country’s military, called Tatmadaw, and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in different parts of the country. Continued conflicts in Shan and Rakhine states are just one of the major conflicts that occur around the country. The continuation of fighting in locations like Rakhine State reveals the complexity of contextual issues and how the outcomes of the conflicts shape relationships among citizens. Ethnonationalism, ethnocentrism, demand for political autonomy and resource control, and the weaponization of religion to incite hate are some of the factors that sustain the conflicts. A continuous polarization of identity and broader national security by different armed actors, including the government, threatens social cohesion and the possibilities of achieving integral human development, a core principle and goal of the Keough School.
Achieving sustainable peace and human flourishing in environments affected by high-intensity conflict is difficult. As I engage in deep reflections about opportunities that exist amid the complexity in Myanmar, interactions with youth help me realize that outside peacebuilders’ emphasis should be on integral human development and integral peace. Pursuing both goals emphasizes the importance of “carrying everyone along.”
However, the optimism of many groups who are working beyond narratives of hate and stereotypes demonstrates significant hope for peace and conflict transformation in the country. This optimism is further amplified by the existence of civil society organizations, like RAFT, whose organizational make-up reflects a dynamic mix of technical capacity, contextual awareness and sensitivity, firm resolve and commitment to collaborative peacebuilding actions, and a desire to build peace across various identities. My immersion in Myanmar, through the guidance of RAFT, enables me to more deeply understand the ethics associated with engaging local contexts, being sensitive to different dynamics that exist, carefully triangulating information, and maintaining the best attitude and poise that is required to manage conflicts.
It is evident that because the sources of conflicts often emerge from local populations, they are better placed to develop locally-owned and locally-driven solutions for transforming their problems. Therefore, as a peacebuilder and participant-observer, it is my responsibility to interact cautiously within this space. Because we do not wish to do harm, peacebuilders should recognize that we are not “saviors,” but “facilitators” of positive social change. We may be experts with technical capacity, but may never be experts of local solutions. Therefore, supporting local populations to identify and leverage available resources and utilize their agency to build peace is one of the greatest gifts that outside peacebuilders or interveners can give in any context.
The growing level of hope for a peaceful Myanmar among young people stirs their resolve to display group solidarity regardless of their ethnic or religious inclinations. I remember Min Nyan Shwe, a young colleague at RAFT, telling me one time that “even though there is fighting everywhere, we know things will change one day.” This hope expands the space for mobilizing collective action towards reducing discrimination, strengthening the agency of youth to pressure conflict actors to end violence, promoting social cohesion, and transforming narratives that have divided citizens for decades.
My interactions with many young people have also opened my eyes to the paradox of a peacebuilder’s position. Although the positionality of peacebuilders provides power, legitimacy, and increases access to resources, our work will be more effective when we channel our resources toward sustaining the optimism growing among local actors, regardless of the difficulties that they face. It is not “what” peacebuilders offer to transform conflicts that often matters; it is “how” these resources are transmitted that sustains peacebuilding.
As peacebuilders enter new environments, we automatically become a part of the context and its issues. Our vocation is one that requires us to identify and create solutions constantly. Solutions are easily recognized through genuine and deep reflection, respect for context, awareness of sensitivities, developing and maintaining the right relationships, and a display of humility to learn through the processes that shape us.
Peacebuilding is a conscious journey toward identifying opportunities for inclusive and sustainable solutions, despite the existence of structural and institutional complexities. Solutions are not always created. Sometimes, they are already available at our fingertips. We only need to reflect, visualize them, and overcome the fears and constraints that the environment may create towards implementing them.
Upon my arrival to DC, I started working to lay the groundwork for the Afghanistan Peace Campaign (APC). This campaign is not officially launched yet, so I have been doing in-depth research and news analysis on the peace efforts to end violence in Afghanistan, known as Kabul Process. Because I wanted to experience organizational fieldwork as well and I found many interesting opportunities, I ended up taking on two organizational field placements. So, with the APC I can now say that I am completing three internships!
The first organization I work with is the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) which is focusing on women, peace and security, and the second is Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), where I can put my focus on anti-corruption compliance.
For this blog, I wanted to focus on my personal experience with ICAN. ICAN is a small organization, but a very professional one. When seeing their office, one cannot believe that so many creative and professional programs and projects are improvised, planned, and implemented in two small rooms. Their office is situated in the Brookings Institution’s building, so it is a small two–room organization at the heart of one of the biggest think tanks in Washington, DC: what a contrast!
ICAN has an established relationship with small women-led peacebuilding organizations in many countries affected by conflict. Their relationship is not like a donor-and-receiver one, but like two collaborating entities with the same mission: successful peace and sustainability.
As part of my internship with ICAN, I am supposed to contact the Afghan partners and facilitate work and collaboration. I have been going through proposals and working on their monitoring and evaluation.
I started corresponding with the founder of one of the Afghanistan NGOs to inquire about her activities. While speaking with her a few times, and as it is the case with nearly all Afghans, we were trying to find a mutual relation or friend. Again, as it is the case with all these attempts, we were successful! Her son-in-law who is living a few minutes from us is a mutual friend of my husband. The NGO holder was coming to the U.S. for a visit. I decided to visit and welcome her in a friendly manner, another Afghan tradition. And to my surprise, I found her to be a humble woman working for the improvement of Afghan women. Nearly unaware of all those theories of peacebuilding, deradicalization, integration, preventing and countering violent extremism, bottom-up approach and above all ‘Do No Harm,’ she is implementing and practicing these ideas impactfully and in highly committed ways.
Since meeting this woman, my mind has been preoccupied with her and with wondering what all other activists are doing in such societies. I have learned more from her than from any event, seminar or symposium I have attended in DC and those theories and books I have read. She spoke with me about her experience very briefly, but each of those experiences was very informative and educational for me.
My new friend told me how she could mobilize 11 groups of Taliban. While the majority of INGOs and NGOs are working in the urban areas of Afghanistan and do not dare to go and work in the rural and remote areas, she is among the few who dared to go to those areas where mostly the Taliban and other insurgent groups reside. She believes these areas need the deradicalization and educational programs more than any other place. Her NGO provides training and workshops for the people in those areas without differentiating between Talib or not-Talib families. This made her very popular, especially in the remote areas. She said she has a picture of a Taliban Commander who is distributing hygienic kits among women.
This woman uses different tactics, from approaching the wives of members of the Taliban to be intermediaries and speak with their husbands, to providing them with short-term funds to launch entrepreneurship activities. She is very strategic and is able to identify and use these points of entry with the conservative people in remote areas in order to deradicalize them.
Her activities remind me of mediation theories and the importance of using local potential to solve problems. She provided a sewing machine for a Talib wife with funds out of her own pocket so that the wife could sew as a bread-and-butter job. She tried to provide the sewing machine before the recent Afghanistan parliamentary election. When she was asked why she was in a rush to buy the machine and could not wait for funds, she answered that she was going to provide it before the election in the hope that it might aid in deradicalization. For instance, if the woman’s husband possibly was going to jeopardize the election, he might decide not to when he sees that there are people who care about their family and try to help them. It reminds me of the importance of identifying potential dangers and root causes and trying to tackle them before they become chronic and out of control.
This woman told me about a Talib who came to her and asked for help to start a small shop for selling dung (which people still use as fuel in rural areas). The Talib promised her that if he could have a small source of income, he would never continue fighting.
She also spoke of many challenges as well. She said that after conducting workshops and entrepreneurship training for many women in the rural areas, the Taliban wives came to her and asked for the same programs for themselves. She tried to persuade other international NGOs to conduct such programs for them, but they refused for fear that if something threatening happened, they would be blamed for letting the wives of the Taliban in amongst other people.
While reading some of the proposed projects at ICAN, I was surprised to see that nearly all the proposals are written very eloquently, professionally, and effectively. NGOs have successfully implemented programs from making documentaries about women to holding focus group discussions, capacity building training, doing research, and promoting national dialogues.
As I think about the principle of the local turn, I now am able to see that truly the people on the ground can identify the root causes of conflicts, know how to address them, and improvise very professional solutions to tackle them far better than any professional outside intervener. At first it seemed to me that someone with a very extensive background on peace and conflict might have written the proposals: someone who either has studied this field for many years or worked in the highest position within this discipline so he or she could address these issues so elaborately. But as I get to know the NGOs and their workers more, I understand that this level of proficiency and expertise has been gained by being in the field, working on the ground, and collaborating with locals and taking them into account.
One of these activist women with whom I spoke once told me that people are tired of hearing the rhetoric of “political peace” and that they want “people peace.” It was so interesting to me that these activists, many of them nearly unaware of all peace studies theories, can still identify the exact problems facing their communities. And above all, that they take the initiative to tackle the problem themselves. I wish that they could have more support in order to start a durable and inclusive peace from the bottom up.
Photo at top of story: Advancing the Women, Peace and Security Agenda: Understanding Masculinities at USIP with ICAN and its partners, from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka.
In Malian French, we have an expression: “Le cordonnier est le plus mal chaussé,” or “the shoemaker wears the worst shoes.” The English equivalent might be: “The plumber fixes his own pipes last.”
I got to thinking about these aphorisms during my daily commute on foot from my apartment in Baltimore’s upscale Mt. Vernon neighborhood to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) headquarters near the seedy Lexington Market. As I approach, beggars ask for spare change, the homeless huddle in doorways, alcoholics congregate around a liquor store, and drug-addicts wander aimlessly or are occasionally sprawled on the sidewalk. This despondency is the face of America’s violence.
My six-month internship with CRS, part of my Master of Global Affairs program at the University of Notre Dame, has afforded me an extraordinary opportunity to learn about peacebuilding. For the past six years I’ve lived in the U.S., but I was born and raised in Africa. My wife is Malian, like me, and we have a lovely baby girl.
I like my hometown of 20,000 people in rural southwestern Mali. From a distance it looks like a large village at peace with itself on the rolling savanna. Up close, however, it’s violent. Girls do not graduate, we don’t trust each other, we suffer chronic food shortages, malaria kills our young and old, youth no longer respect elders, and religious leaders fail to inspire. Corrupt, despotic government is normal. When I left Mali, I didn’t understand the inherent violence in these realities. I knew nothing about modern peacebuilding, but I knew some traditional peacebuilding strategies.
I count myself fortunate to have landed on CRS’ Equity, Inclusion and Peacebuilding (EQUIP) team. EQUIP consists of a handful of staff dedicated to improving life conditions for overseas youth, women and girls, and anyone who is marginalized and oppressed. EQUIP members are experts in governance, protection, gender, and peacebuilding. Within EQUIP, I was assigned to the Africa Justice and Peacebuilding Working Group (AJPWG), which focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa. Its five members–three of whom are based on the Continent–provide technical assistance to CRS’ field offices, to the Catholic Church and its networks, and to local partners in Africa. They develop tools and methodologies based on lessons and best practices. I find this work interesting and stimulating.
When I arrived at CRS, I had many of the traditional worries of an intern: How could someone like me do anything useful? Would CRS benefit from my internship? But I soon had little time for such preoccupations.
I began drafting an annotated bibliography for case studies involving CRS’ youth, elections, and peacebuilding projects in Ghana and Liberia. I conducted research on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) in Mali. I developed an outline for my capstone project on youth and religious leaders in Mali. I became so busy that when it happened, it took me by surprise. I was poised to experience an epiphany.
Soon after my arrival, my CRS mentor invited me to attend the AJPWG’s annual Institute for Peacebuilding in Africa (IPA). The IPA was a week-long workshop that covered the basics of peacebuilding—Peacebuilding 101—all the things you would want to know if you were thrown out in a conflict zone and asked to design a project. Nearly 500 people have taken the workshop since 2009. This year it was going to be held in La Somone on Senegal’s Petite Cote, about 600 miles from my hometown. Twenty-three development professionals representing a dozen countries in Francophone Africa came, and I would be able to visit my family after the workshop.
My group was the first to use the Peacebuilding Fundamentals Participant’s Manual, a document comprising the basic IPA curriculum. It was full of helpful tools and exercises. That was the good news. The bad news was that I had to stand up before my peers and lead sessions. Among other things, my job was to explain the John Paul Lederach triangle! Despite my fears, I discovered that teaching is the best way to learn and practice new skills. Fire hardens steel as they say. It prepared me for what was to happen in the coming days.
As I travelled across the Sahel, I reflected on “learning by doing.” I had survived the scrutiny of my peers. It felt exhilarating. In Baltimore I had already begun to reflect on conflict in Ouelessebougou, Mali—my community. How could I get involved? What tactics and tools would be appropriate? How would I use them? At the beginning of my internship, I never imagined what occurred to me now. I had the tools I needed in my backpack: the Peacebuilding Fundamentals Manual. I could get started.
I needed to act quickly. I only had one week. Representatives of 10 youth associations and the largest women’s associations in Ouelessebougou gathered at the Youth House. Using the “Conflict Tree,” the participants identified two major issues and mapped their root causes and consequences. The participants linked the mismanagement of schools and a dysfunctional school system to extreme youth poverty. We found that a lack of education was causing high youth unemployment which self-serving politicians were manipulating to create insecurity in our community. Young people no longer trusted each other. Relationships were broken. Parents were apathetic about their children’s education.
Emboldened by their progress, the women and youth suggested follow-on activities. How about a connector project? What about a youth entrepreneur program to create jobs and discourage political opportunism? Could I return to conduct three trainings or workshops per year? Why not use the Conflict Tree to analyze problems in the household? The region? At the national level? Participants later approached me and thanked me profusely. It was the first time that women and youth had come together to discuss common issues and solutions.
The following day, Ciwara, our community radio station, featured me as a guest. How could young people be inspired to pursue higher education and change their lives in positive ways? How could parents be encouraged to care about their children’s education? Many young people quit school to make quick money panning for precious metals and stones. Few got rich and some returned with disease, pregnancies, and divorces. Awareness-raising and education were needed. Like a tree, education would offer a long-term investment bearing fruit and nuts over time. I gave examples of people who had struggled, who made such investments, and how education had changed their lives. They had been children of farmers, blacksmiths, and well diggers. A child born in lowly circumstances could become an ambassador or a minister.
After the broadcast, several people greeted me at my family’s home. Some parents told me that my radio talk had opened their minds. They were persuaded that they needed to care far more about educating their children. Some people were so taken by the discussion that they called the Station Director to request weekly programs on this topic. I reflected that the IPA had motivated me to take action and enabled me to make a real difference in my home community.
I returned to CRS in October and resumed my daily routine. I saw the police handcuff someone on the streets. I saw the drug addicts, and I read about mass killings. I asked myself: Why are Americans unable to solve gun crimes and drug problems in their own country? Why do they spend so much money to solve violent conflict overseas? Could the federal government and the City of Baltimore work together to resolve violence? How is it that a power like the United States, able to help other countries reduce violent conflict, cannot stop police brutality, drug abuse, and mass incarcerations on its own shores?
I have no answers, but I wonder how long it will take for public places to become safe and peaceful in the U.S. Could the same social cohesion and conflict analysis tools I used in Ouelessebougou help identify the root causes of gun crimes and mass shootings in Baltimore? Malians and Americans share the same sense of urgency regarding social problems, and maybe the tools and solutions are not that different.
Working in Nairobi, Kenya, has been a unique experience with challenges I had not initially anticipated, but it has exposed me to various nuances which will be helpful in the future. This experience enabled me to travel to Kenya for the first time and to work in a country other than my own. It has also provided the opportunity to learn and witness firsthand the implementation of the peacebuilding concepts and tools I have been learning in class. Since I am a foreigner with limited familiarity with Kenya, its culture, and the local language, Kiswahili, I have been observing this implementation process from an outsider perspective.
A bottom-up approach
Being in Nairobi, Kenya, for five months has enabled me to witness and learn about the importance of having long-term engagement. My perspectives about how to engage Kenyans in peacebuilding work have shifted over time, with greater exposure and interaction with locals. Working with a local partner has provided space for interrogation and inquiry about the dimensions and nuances that influence peacebuilding work. It has made me realize the importance of engaging in peacebuilding work with the aid of locals who are more familiar with cultural and social practices that are important to analyze. The significance of the local turn in peacebuilding is being put into practical perspective during this field experience, at least at the individual level where, as a foreigner, I am working and being guided by a local partner with vast local knowledge and experience in the peacebuilding field. A bottom-up approach is an essential skill in the field, because at one point or another you will find yourself in a foreign land or space where you will have to learn from others. In such situations, one has to learn to support and trust in the capability and knowledge of persons from that particular context, and abandon initial assumptions one might hold.
I believe this process of trusting and supporting existing local structures and persons is what is meant by accompaniment and a bottom-up approach, concepts that I am currently learning firsthand in Kenya.
The immersion process into Kenya, its culture, and the peacebuilding interventions implemented by our partner organization has also provided space to practice accompaniment by learning from others through observation and providing assistance with projects. This has exposed me to strategies for effectively engaging in foreign spaces and working with persons from varying identity groups to enhance adaptability, social bridging skills, and cultivate an acceptance of differences. These traits are vital for relationship building and working in foreign environments, particularly since soft forms of power such as relationship building (social harmony) are utilized in making societies more peaceful and just.
Although immersion has been challenging for various reasons including language barriers, I have acquired valuable skills and have come to understand the practical importance of a local dimension in implemented interventions. Additionally, I am realizing the importance of working in foreign environments where one has limited familiarity and discovering the strategies for navigating these spaces. I now understand what Susan St. Ville, the Director of the International Peace Studies Concentration, meant in her advice to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” in the field: the lessons learned in the field make the awkwardness of initial engagement all worth it.
Students in the International Peace Studies Concentration of the Keough School Master of Global Affairs program will soon embark on the extended field internship experience that is an integral part of their peace studies training.Students will spend six months on the ground working with a peace-related organization and conducting independent field research that will form the basis of their MA Capstone project.This year members of the peace studies cohort will be located in Nairobi, Bogota, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Seattle, and South Bend.They will join a range of organizations including the World Bank, Catholic Relief Services, Voice of America, the Life and Peace Institute, and Act, Change, Transform (ACT!).
The Kroc Institute established its first field internships in 2004.Six months is a long time to be away from campus and the extended internship experience is unique among master’s level peace studies programs.We are encouraged that alumni of the master’s program and employers alike consistently report that the extended time spent in the field is essential to building the professional identity and self-understanding that is the hallmark of peacebuilders trained at the Kroc Institute over the last 32 years.
In the high stakes and unpredictable world of conflict and peace work, acting professionally requires much more than simply applying skills learned in the classroom to vexing problems in the real world.
As part of the Keough School Master of Global Affairs, the peace studies concentration draws deeply on the pragmatic insights of reflective practice: the understanding that the most effective knowledge in any situation comes through practice.Put simply, we learn best by doing.
Reflective practice requires that we shift the center of gravity on the theory-practice continuum. In his classic book, Experience and Education, John Dewey asserts that learning rooted in experience is key for intellectual and personal growth,helping students to “improve their power of judgment and capacity to act intelligently in new situations.” The peace studies students in the field learn above all to listen to the nuances of the local context and to act in a manner fitting to the particular situation.To be sure, students draw on the theories and skills that they have learned during the first year of coursework.But they understand the importance of holding these theories gently and being ready to adapt, rework or even reject them as the situation demands.
Peace Studies students often remark that the field experience helps them to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”Indeed, the experience is intentionally designed to unsettle students.Students are generally placed in a culture that is unfamiliar to them: this year our interns in Nairobi, for example,will hail from the Philippines, China, South Africa and Zimbabwe.Interns become full members of the organizations where they are placed, learning how to navigate an institutional setting very different from the university community that has been their home for the past year.
Students spend the majority of their time (four days per week) working with their organization, leaving one day each week for their own academic research.In these practical ways, the Peace Studies field experience seeks to embody the key principles of solidarity and subsidiarity that are central to the understanding of integral human development that undergirds the Keough School Master of Global Affairs. Asking students to step outside of their comfort zone and follow the lead of the local partners for six months is difficult, but through this process students learn in very practical ways how to genuinely support their partners and nurture local initiatives that support the common good.
Over the course of six months, students will write monthly journal entries and longer papers that recount the challenges they face in these unfamiliar settings, but also the creative ways they have found to meet these challenges.Later entries from Peace Studies students on this blog will give readers a glimpse of these journeys.Like past interns, this year’s Peace Studies students will produce important products for their organizations, including conflict assessments; policy analyses and recommendations; workshop designs; and program evaluations. But more importantly, they will develop personal qualities that will allow them to succeed as professional peacebuilders, no matter the context in which they find themselves.
Education theorist Randall Bass writes that the most valuable and transformational educational experiences are those that improve students’ ability to “make discerning judgments based on practical reasoning, acting reflectively, taking risks, engaging in civil, if difficult, discourse, and proceeding with confidence in the face of uncertainty.”Over the extended six-month period, Peace Studies students grow in all of these areas, learning to think outside the box and to act confidently (with both generosity and humility).
If the stories and career trajectories of past master’s students are any indication, we know that the field experience will be radically transformative for our students. We are excited for our Peace Studies students to undertake this formation process and even more excited to see who they become over the next six months.