‘The basket will be better than before, but first it must be something like the same”

I watched The Six Habits of Empathy, an RSA video from 2012 featuring social historian Roman Krznaric, this week, and it struck me that many of the habits he talks about are also key to sustainable peacebuilding. In fact, several of the examples he gives are actually peacebuilding strategies.

He tells a story I had not heard before, although there was a 2019 documentary called The Best of Enemies. This is the story of C.P. Ellis, who went from Ku Klux Klan leader to civil rights activist after he was paired up with activist Ann Atwater to co-chair a committee on school desegregation in Durham, Northern Carolina in 1971.

By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia – Weaving Injera Basket, Tigray, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29766122

As Krznaric tells it, their work was difficult. Their communities disapproved – of Ellis for working with a black activist, and Atwater for working with a white klansman. That started to bring them together, and then they discovered that their life experiences had been quite similar. But most importantly, they discovered they had a common interest.

“Ann and I got deeply involved in that school program,” Ellis said in the documentary, “simply because the young people were involved and they were hungry, and they were dissatisfied and they didn’t like what was goin’ on. Ann wanted to make some changes and I did too, but I think our purpose was different. Our thoughts and what we wanted to accomplish [at first] was different.”

And then they heard from the children.

“It wasn’t until way down in the meeting, about the last week of it, is when the children talked to us and got us together sayin’ that they wanted to go to school with each other,” said Atwater, “and then we looked at each other like fools. We’d been arguing about the wrong thing and hadn’t been doing anything to make the school system be better. That’s when me and him started gettin’ together. … He decided that I wasn’t as bad. He said, ‘You ain’t as bad as I thought you was,’ and he started talkin’ to me, and we started talkin’ back [and forth]. We went in the office and cried because we [had been] doing things the wrong way just because one was black and one was white.” And, moving forward, they put the emphasis on the schools instead of each other.

It was this story that struck me, because in both of the examples of peacebuilding after conflict that I have studied in depth, this is a key strategy. (And it also is a great example of what happens when people move from what Amanda Ripley calls ‘high conflict’, which is more tribal, and ‘good conflict’, when people become curious about each other.)

In Somaliland, there were divisions between clans that the Somali dictator Siad-Barre had done his best to exacerbate. But after the Somali forces were driven out in the early 1990s and people began to rebuild, they also began to meet in small groups and clear their differences with each other. These meetings grew into larger groups, and eventually into a territory-wide meeting to develop a new system of governance, but it started with these small individual discussions.

And when it came time to choose leaders, they deliberately chose leaders from two different clans. Perhaps this was an echo of the strategy used by different clans when they lived in the desert, and would encourage marriages between different clans, so that they would always have the traditional Somali hospitable welcome when they travelled in the desert and encountered other clans.

In northern Bosnia, in a community bitterly divided between three ethnic groups, the wise international supervisor kept an eye out for moderates. And then he invited them to come together in a safe place to discuss rebuilding. These conversations must have been difficult, given the bitterness and ugliness of the war, but these people worked to listen to each other. And as they learned to work together on small things, they developed the capacity to work on larger issues.

It is something I have seen in other places. In Zimbabwe, women in Harare who wanted to deal with water issues first began to learn how their city water system worked. They learned, with the help of the NGO they were working with, that one of the problems was garbage that blocked water systems. And so they decided to organize a cleanup. They found the people; the NGO provided them with gloves and bags; and the city arranged to pick up the collected garbage. As they learned how to do this small-scale work, they were learning the skills of working together, and they were able to work on bigger issues related to water.

In Sudan, this was how wise people in small villages began to build peace – by mending relationships between people, and then between groups, and then among the whole village. And as they built peace, they were able to return to working their fields outside the village. So their food security improved, and then they began to think about how they might rebuild regional trading relationships.

Meas Nee, who worked in Cambodia for years, describes the process of rebuilding this way:

“The village is like a basket that has been broken and the pieces scattered.  The pieces are still there but not everyone can see them.  What has been broken can be rewoven slowly and gradually, but only by those who will take the time to stay close to the village people and build trust with them.  I know for certain that this can be achieved, even though it must be done slowly and carefully.  Eventually the village people are the weavers themselves and they carry the task forward further, further.  The basket will be better than before, but first it must be something like the same.”

And the way to do that is by sitting with people, listening to them, and finding ways to support them as they identify things they wish to do.

“It is possible to sit with a poor person and listen to her and strengthen her dignity.  Sometimes you may think that she has made some mistakes but blaming does not help.  She is surviving.  She is still here.  Say to her,  “You are managing to eat.  You are surviving in spite of all the troubles.  What are the things you are doing to survive?”  To help her to live better, find one of those things and enable her to do that thing better.  Let her understand that you respect her remarkable strength.  This way her dignity grows.

The same way with the village.  In the beginning simply try to make the people feel at home with you.  Join in with them.  Don’t be stressed with  projects.  Slowly.  Sit under the shadow of the trees with the families and listen to them.  Sit in the cool of the night.  Don’t feel ashamed that you waste time.  You are gradually learning to understand people’s strengths, people’s problems, people’s feelings.  Spend time to talk with them.  It is a matter of rebuilding spirit, life and relationships.

War makes people hopeless.  Minds are paralysed and it is difficult to think of the future.  It seems impossible to initiate new ideas.  We need to know this and know that people will eventually pass beyond that stage.  But in the time that they feel abandoned just be together with them with happy talk and even teasing.  Where community development has worked well the thing  that has happened is not the projects.  It is the people of the community moving together to support each other.”

This is a process that requires patience – it cannot be hurried.

I like to let things arise in the community as the community dreams them up.  I like to join in with what they are beginning to do and especially what they are beginning to think.  The process is that people begin to talk casually together, to believe, to hope, to trust.  They are together easily and casually because they begin to like each other.  They come together to meet one another, not to have a meeting.  The important thing is the relationships, not the agenda. I like to keep the conversations going when people meet.  I like to bring the village together by bringing one small group together with another small group together.

Eventually they will call me to a meeting, I will not call them to a meeting.  Participation means that we participate with the village people, not that they participate with us.

It seems to me that things begin to happen when the community worker begins to feel like family there, in the village.  Then you are not the one who makes decisions, you are the one who enjoys being where the people are.  It is possible to treat people with dignity even when they are in conflict with one another.  There are angers and jealousies fears which divide people, but it is possible to bring them together.”

One of the stories Krznaric tells in the video is that of the Israeli Palestinian “Hello Peace” project, designed to encourage conversations between Israelis and Palestinians. It was a project (it no longer exists) of The Parents Circle-Families Forum, which was created in 1995 and has been hosting meetings between bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families since 1998.

“Through its years of operation, the PCFF has extended its activities in creative ways, to spread its message, expose the pain of bereavement, and the heavy toll of the conflict, and reach out for reconciliation and peace among the two people.” Through dialogue meetings, “Israeli and Palestinian PCFF members meet with youth and adults and share their personal stories and explain their decision to work through dialogue rather than revenge.” In recent years, it has hosted a joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day in collaboration with the Combatants for Peace movement.