From Ouelessebougou to Baltimore

by: Djiba Soumaoro

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.

CRS Headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, USA
CRS Headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

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.

Peacebuilding conflict tree
The conflict tree we created at Youth House in Ouelessebougou.

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.

Radia Ciwara Mali
Me at Radio Ciwara in Ouelessebougou, Mali.

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.

Kenya: An Opportunity to Learn Adaptability and Effective Engagement in Foreign Spaces

by: Loyce Mrewa

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.

My trip to the coast of Mombasa, 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.

Me, admiring the beauty of Naivasha.

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.

 

Becoming Uncomfortable: Peace Studies in the Field

by: Susan St. Ville

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!).

Peace studies in actionThe 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.

 

Peace studies in action

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.

Susan St. Ville

Director, International Peace Studies Concentration