Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A War and Peace Report from Africa

[This is a reflection on my experience in Africa that I will give at Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace on June 6. Your feedback would be much appreciated.]

When we think of Africa, we are apt to think of war and violence, and for good reason: during the past twenty or so years, the death toll on the African continent has been horrendous. Around 5 million people were killed in the Congo during its various civil wars since 1990. Two million were slaughtered in Sudan’s civil wars. Over 200,000 were killed in Liberia and another 200,000 in Sierra Leone. Over a million people have perished through genocide in Darfu, Rwanda, Burundi and elsewhere. Most of those murdered have been women and children, and countless women have been raped and worse, infected with HIV. Hundreds of thousands more have been tortured and mutilated. Countlesss millions have lost their homes, their spouses, and their children and are deeply traumatized. Because of war and violence, millions of Africans have become displaced persons, living in refugee camps. War is one of the major causes of homelessness and poverty in Africa, just as it is in the United States.

In addition to wars, thousands have been killed in mob violence or “lynchings.” This violence is the legacy of a colonial period in which millions of Africans were murdered, exploited, and enslaved by European powers. Africa is a deeply wounded continent in need of healing.1

What is not widely known about Africa are the inspiring stories of its peacemakers. Nine Africans have received the Nobel Peace Prize since 1960. The first was Albert Luthuli who was elected president of the African National Congress (ANC), which at the time was an umbrella organization that led opposition to the white minority government in South Africa. Luthuli was awarded the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize his role in the nonviolent struggle against aparteid. He was not only the first African, he was also the first person from outside Europe and the Americas to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Kofi Anan, UN General Secretary; Nelson Mandela and Frederick de Kerk of South Africa (1993); Anwar Sadat (1993); Desmond Tutu (1984); Mohammed El Baradei (2005), the UN weapons inspector; and Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan founder of the Green Belt movement, and a fearless advocate for democracy and women’s rights. In 2011 the Nobel Prize Committee decided that the Nobel Peace Prize should be divided in three equal parts between three African women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karmanfor their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” The Committee noted: “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”

Today I want to lift up those brave women and men in Africa who are working for peace and justice, many of whom are unsung heroes.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the women of Liberia. I had never even heard their story until I saw the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” This powerful film, which was produced by Walt Disney’s grand daughter, dramatically depicts the amazing work that the women of Liberia did to overcome the brutal dictator Charles Taylor and the equally vicious warlords who opposed him. Using the power of prayer and nonviolence in creative ways, Christian and Muslim women united and not only helped oust these war-crazed men, they also helped reintegrate into society the young boys who had become child soldiers and committed atrocities at their behest. Liberia can now boast that its leader, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, is the first democratically elected woman president of an African country. And what a remarkable woman! Johnson is not only a Harvard-educated economist, she is also a United Methodist!

You've probably heard that the infamous Charles Taylor, the brutal dictator they ousted, was recently given a 50 year sentence by the International Court of Justice for his involvement in the Sierra Leone's blood diamond war. It's good news that the rule of law is prevailing over the rule of so-called Big Men.

When I went to Kenya for the World Conference of Friends last month, I had the opportunity to connect with heroes of peacemaking who have not received the acknowledgement they deserve. I should add that Kenya has the largest concentration of Quakers of any country in the world. There are over 140,000 Quakers in Kenya, far more than in all of North and South America combined!

When I was driven through Nairobi, I was shown some trees planted by Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Prize for her work as founder of the “Green Belt” movement. Although I didn’t meet her personally—she died of cancer a year ago —I felt her presence among the strong women leaders I met in Kenya, and in the beautiful trees I saw in Nairobi and elsewhere that testify to her work. I also read her memoir, aptly title “Unbowed,” and was deeply impressed by her keen intelligence and the courage she showed in the face of unbelievable odds. I'm sure she'd be pleased to learn that the new constitution of Kenya grants women more rights than ever before, including one third of the seats in the Parliament. This is cause for rejoicing! (See

I'd like to conclude this reflection by sharing briefly about what Quakers are doing in Kenya to promote peace. Prior to the World Conference of Friends I took part in a Quaker peace tour in Turbo, a city in western Kenya where a lot of violence took place after the election in 2007. There Kenyan Quakers have trained over 10,000 people in a program called “Alternatives to Violence.” This program teaches conflict resolution skills and has proven very effective when used in high schools and prisons here in the US. Kenyan Quakers are also teaching community organizing, transformative mediation, and trauma healing. Other Quakers are training to be observers during the upcoming election. During the previous election, Quakers were deeply involved in helping to calm things down after violence erupted. This time the Quakers are being proactive and hope to prevent violence before it gets out of hand. Let's pray these efforts are successful. (See

I met two Kenyan religious leaders, Pastor Wilson and Imam Issa, who are models of interfaith peacemaking. They live in Turbo, a city of 200,000 inhabitants, where there are only 400 Muslims. When the post-election violence broke out five years ago, Muslim homes and stores were burned, and the Muslim community had to take refuge in the local mosque and police station. Wilson, the pastor of the local Quaker church, reached out to Imam Issa and invited Muslims to take part in an Interfaith Peace Task Force. “The Quakers were the only Christians who welcomed us,” explained Imam Issa. He was so grateful he took nonviolence training and is now teaching it to his people. He hopes to reach out to Muslim youth are most prone to violence.

These are baby steps towards peace, but they can make a big difference over time. As Fatma Reda once observed, “Peace is achieved one person at a time, through a series of friendship.”

The work that is going on in Kenya and other parts of Africa to end the cycles of violence could have far-reaching consequences. My hope is that just as India became a model of nonviolent resistance in the 1930s and 1940s, Africa could become a model for nonviolent social change in the 21st century. The women of Libera and the Quakers of Kenya have shown us the way. Let's pray that the African peace movement grows, and let's do what we can to support it.

1 1983-2002: Sudanese civil war (2 million)
1988-2004: Somalia's civil war (550,000)
1989-: Liberian civil war (220,000)
1989-: Uganda vs Lord's Resistance Army (30,000)
1991-97: Congo's civil war (800,000)
1991-2000: Sierra Leone's civil war (200,000)
1993-97: Congo Brazzaville's civil war (100,000)
1993-2005: Burundi's civil war (200,000)
1994: Rwanda's civil war (900,000)
1998-: Congo/Zaire's war - Rwanda and Uganda vs Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia (3.8 million)
1998-2000: Ethiopia-Eritrea war (75,000)
2002-: Cote d'Ivoire's civil war (1,000)
2003-09: Sudan vs JEM/Darfur (300,000)
2004-: Sudan vs SPLM & Eritrea (?)
2004-: Yemen vs Shiite Muslims (?)

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