Voices of the Peacebuilders, Part 1: Women as Peacebuilders

This is the first of a two-part series called the Voices of the Peacebuilders, on the importance of magnifying the voices of individuals and organizations working at the grassroots, within communities. Very often these voices are overlooked or excluded from high-level policy tables when it comes to resolving conflict and building peace around the world.

In October, I was in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick where I gave two public lectures at the University of New Brunswick. This two-part series will outline points from each lecture and provide a video link. The first, held on October 16 and hosted by the Faculty of Education, was entitled: “From the Grassroots to the Negotiating Tables: The Case for Women as Peacebuilders.”

Women are so often excluded from the high-level peace negotiating tables and their efforts for peace are largely ignored in the mainstream news, despite making up half of the population, and often bearing the brunt of conflict. Yet this has not stopped women from being innovators and champions for peace within their communities, including within MCC’s partners.

We must bring these voices to the table and make the case for women as innovators and leaders, working for peace, from the grassroots to the negotiating table.

Join me on a brief world tour to see snapshots of some of this work, and let me introduce you to some of these women peacebuilders, from Colombia to Nigeria and from South Sudan to Palestine and Israel.

Mampujan Colombia: Weaving history and speaking peace

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A quilt depicting the forced displacement of 2000. MCC Colombia’s office in Bogota.

On Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, meet the Women Weavers of Dreams and Flavors, a group of women from the small Afro-Colombian community of Mampujan. In 2000 this entire community was forcibly displaced, as part of Colombia’s 50+ years armed conflict, leaving the community traumatized.  In response, MCC’s partner, Sembrandopaz, together with the community, developed a healing project in which women, working together, sewed quilts, depicting the story of their displacement. As the women stitched, they shared their hurts, and, in doing so, they not only found healing, but a passion to work for justice.

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Women Weavers of Dreams and Flavours of Peace of Mampuján win a national peace prize in Colombia, 2015. Photo, Anna Vogt, thellamadiaries.com

The women then decided to create a series of quilts, depicting the entire history of their community, including ancestors arriving on slave ships, independence, forced displacement, and dreams for the future. They have shared these quilts with other Colombian communities who have also undergone trauma in the armed conflict, and the women of Mampujan have received national and international recognition for these efforts. Much work remains, but the women of Mampujan have led the way in a movement for healing, peace and justice. Read more about Mampujan’s story here.

Jos, Nigeria: Inter-faith bridgebuilding for a common goal of peace

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Amina Ahmed (second from the right) with MCC staff (left to right) Charles Kwuelum (MCC Washington, D.C.), Kati Garrison (MCC UN) and Bekah Sears (MCC Ottawa) on a 2016 visit to Jos, Nigeria. Photo, Ben Weisbrod.

In Jos, Nigeria we meet Amina Ahmed, a local leader in interfaith peacebuilding, and an avid supporter of MCC partner Emergency Preparedness Response Team (EPRT), a joint Christian and Muslim organization responding to crises by addressing conflict at its roots. Because Jos is on the dividing line, of sorts, between the Christian South and Muslim North in Nigeria, it has often been at the epicenter of multiple acute outbursts of violence between Christians and Muslims, creating deep animosity. Yet Amina, along with others, are seeking to change these dynamics and bring people together in peace.

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Amina Ahmed, director of a women’s peace organization, leads a nonviolence training supported by MCC in Jos, Nigeria, 2015. MCC photo, Dave Klassen.

But Amina was not always a leader in these efforts. As a Muslim, Amina was traumatized by violence carried out by Christians against Muslims, including her brother’s murder in 2001. For months she felt deep rage and fear, wanting revenge, seeking out groups planning violent attacks against Christians. But, at her father’s urging, Amina attended an interfaith peace workshop. Seeing both Muslims and Christians working together for peace, Amina’s heart was transformed. Since then she has become a champion for peace across religious or ethnic divides in Nigeria. Read more about Amina’s story here.

Rumbek, South Sudan: “The weak become strong”

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Loreto Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution, Rumbek, South Sudan, 2017. Photo, Candacia Greeman.

On to Rumbek, South Sudan, where leadership in peacebuilding comes from a group perceived as the “weakest” in society, i.e. girls and young women. South Sudan has been engulfed in civil war since 2013, displacing millions and civilians are often the deliberate targets of violence. But there are also deep cycles of violence and oppression within communities, particularly targeting girls. This includes early forced marriage, deeply tied to the importance of cattle ownership. Male relatives force girls into marriage to reclaim the cattle debt the girls’ fathers would have accumulated for their own marriage dowries.

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Loreto Peace Club members, Rumbek, South Sudan, 2017. Photo, Candacia Greeman

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School in Rumbek, MCC supports peace clubs aimed at fostering inter-personal conflict resolution skills, in the recognition that lasting peace begins at the community level. Peace club members then initiated community-based trauma healing and reconciliation groups, within the wider community called Listening Circles: safe spaces to share trauma and grievances, while fostering reconciliation. An MCC worker describes these young women as “a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.” Read more about Loreto peace clubs here.

Nazareth, Palestine and Israel: Stitching reconciliation and standing up for human rights

The final stop takes us to a church basement in Nazareth with Violette Khoury, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the director of MCC partner Sabeel’s Nazareth office. Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 21% of the population of the country. Although Palestinians are citizens, Violette describes state laws which discriminate against them with respect to land and housing rights, education rights, cultural and language rights and more. But most of all, Violette laments both deteriorating relations in between Christian and Muslim Palestinians in Nazareth, as well as a dominant narrative that denies the history and roots of the Palestinian people in the region.

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Violette Khoury shows traditional Palestinian embroidery to MCC visitors from Canada. Khoury is the director of Sabeel Nazareth, the Nazareth office of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, an MCC partner that provides a theological and spiritual resource for the Palestinian church. Violette leads a program that brings together local people, particularly women, of different faith traditions, to share and preserve their common Palestinian heritage with activities like embroidery. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler)

In response, Violette started a project for local women, both Christians and Muslims and even Jewish Israelis, to learn ancient stitching techniques that were once commonplace in Nazareth. In this project Violette hopes to bring unity and reconciliation, all while reclaiming the history of the Palestinian people in the region. She says, “There is denial of us being a people and having a heritage. But we do exist; we have roots; we are here!” In addition, by inviting Jewish Israelis she hopes to extend reconciliation efforts and cross barriers that seem insurmountable. Read more of the context in which Violette works here.

Conclusion: Will we follow their lead?

On November 1, 2017, after many consultations and civil society and parliamentary input, the Canadian government launched its second Canadian National Action Plan (C-NAP) on implementing the UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. This is hopeful news.

The first objective of the CNAP – one which our Ottawa Office staff will be watching closely– calls for the “increase of meaningful participation of women, women’s organizations and networks in conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict state-building.”

In the meantime, in addition to monitoring governmental action on women and peacebuilding, our task is clear. We continue learning, telling the stories, spreading the word, and standing in solidarity with these and other peacebuilders around the world, making the case for women peacebuilders, from the grassroots all the way to the negotiating tables.

Watch the full lecture here 

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Dr. Ottilia Chareka (Photo St FX University) This lecture, the 6th Annual Dr. Ottilia Chareka Memorial Lecture in Education and Social Justice was given in her honour. Tragically, Ottilia was killed in 2011. Ottilia was a long-time friend of mine (Rebekah) and I was both humbled and honoured to help carry on her legacy.

By Rebekah Sears, Policy Analyst for the MCC Ottawa Office

A prayer for peace in August

by Joanna Hiebert Bergen, peacebuilding and advocacy coordinator for MCC Manitoba. This is one of a series of prayer services for peace that she has written for MCC staff and volunteers. 

During the month of August, MCC Manitoba invites you to join us in prayers for peace. The theme comes from 1 Corinthians 13, with its focus on faith, hope and love.

Faith and hope abide alongside love as a triad, those elements of our spiritual journey that allow for perseverance. We acknowledge a God who lived with us in the person of Jesus, exemplifying all three of these elements. God continues to show up in our world in visible and invisible ways, manifest through encounters with the natural world and with one another, pointing us to faith, hope and love.

As we take time to reflect on the work of peace in a broken world, may there be comfort taken from the verses of 1 Corinthians 13. “And now I will show you the most excellent way…”

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Amina Ahmed, a Nigerian peacebuilder 5th from the right, leads a group of MCC staff and partners in prayer, Jos, Nigeria, 2014. MCC photo/Dave Klassen

Gathering Reflection:

In what or whom do we place our faith? What pulls us in, hooks us into believing salvation lies in this or that promise? Political personalities, larger than life, demand our attention with promises of something better, retail markets lead us to believe possessions will foster the good life, and even communities of faith can promise a sense of belonging with programs and activity options. Ultimately, a sense of inner peace and security calls for embracing the mystery of God’s presence, both the visible and invisible.

During this summer, our hearts are breaking for those murdered in Paris, Nice, Orlando, Istanbul, Baghdad, Medina… for those who love them, and for all who are suffering atrocities in Syria, in Palestine and Israel, in Central African Republic, in Nigeria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Myanmar, in inner-city Canada and America, and other places around our nation and world too numerous to name.

In what or in whom do we place our faith?

Reading:

Psalm 116

Context: 

Richard Rohr, Franciscan contemplative, writes the following, Both Jesus’ and Paul’s notion of faith is much better translated as foundational confidence or trust that God cares about what is happening right now.”   The Psalmist trusts that God will deliver him, indeed has delivered him from anguish, distress and sorrow, tears and stumbling–deep-seated emotions that can overwhelm the sense of hope for a more just future. God sees and listens, understands and delivers.

As people of faith, we are called to live into the darkness as people of the light, resting in the goodness of God despite a climate of fear and terror. There are many manifestations of goodness that affirm this faith. Take a few minutes to contemplate where you have experienced God’s caring presence in recent months.

Prayer of the People:

God of surprises,
You call us:
From the narrowness of our own lives to new ways of being with one another,
From the captivities of our culture to creative witness for justice,
From the smallness of our horizons to the bigness of Your vision.

Clear the way in us, your people,
That we might call ourselves and others to freedom and renewed faith.

Jesus, wounded healer,
You call us:
From preoccupation to the daily tasks of peacemaking,
From privilege to pilgrimage,
From insularity to inclusive community.
Help us to overcome our fears of ‘the other’–
To seek understanding and listen with an open heart to stories outside of our own imagining.

Clear the way in us, your people,
That we might call ourselves and others to wholeness and integrity.

Holy, transforming Spirit,
You call us:
From fear to faithfulness,
From clutter to clarity,
From a desire to control to deeper trust.

Clear the way in us, your people,
That we might know the beauty and the power and the danger of the gospel.

 Sending:

Go in faith to be part of
The new creation of human community.
Go in love to take the hand of those who suffer and long for peace.
Go in peace.

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Participants in an MCC-sponsored peace club in Lusaka, Zambia end their meeting with prayer. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Blessed are the peacemakers: celebrating life and light

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9

This scripture verse was constantly on my mind and in my heart during a recent MCC advocacy visit to Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and South Sudan. Despite intense challenges within each country context, our delegation was inspired by the courage and dedication of the many peacemakers we met along the way—people motivated by Christ’s calling for peace, justice and hope and those working to build bridges across religious and ethnic divides.

Canadians are regularly bombarded with images, articles and stories about the violence, despair and hopelessness in parts of Africa.  In many ways, these stories are representative of a harsh and truthful reality, and we should not dismiss the pain of this reality. But they do not convey the complete picture.  It is arguably even more important that we attend to the stories of those working for peace and justice, despite the obstacles and harsh realities.

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A community garden run by people who have been internally displaced (IDPs) and are living with host families in North Kivu province of DRC. The IDP families and host families work in the fields together, despite ethnic differences.  Photo/Bekah Sears

As our small MCC delegation visited partners in Nigeria, DRC and South Sudan, I was reading The Road to Peace by Henri Nouwen. I want to highlight two chapters, “Resisting the Forces of Death” and “Celebrating Life.”

Nouwen opens his chapter on resisting death by recounting some of the great horrors of our recent history: the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War and poverty and injustice in Central America. For Nouwen, these examples of death and violence illustrate the profound necessity for peacemaking. “Peacemaking is not an option any longer. It is a holy obligation for all people whatever their professional or family situation. Peacemaking is a way of living that involves our whole being all the time.”

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MCC partner Project for Peace and Reconciliation in DRC. Photo/Bekah Sears

However, Nouwen says our call to peacemaking does not end there. He warns that a sole focus on the darkness has the danger of making us into hard, bitter people who will eventually lose sight of the peace and justice that inspired us in the first place. In this dark place, Nouwen argues, we risk becoming the very forces that we are fighting against. As someone working in advocacy to government, I personally struggle with feelings of darkness and despair.

Instead, Nouwen claims, “[T]he first and foremost task of the peacemaker is not to fight death but to call forth, affirm and nurture the signs of life wherever they become manifest.”

Nouwen describes a peacemaking founded in humility, in that we are all made in the image of God; therefore, the posture of peacemaking must be compassionate, walking and standing alongside those who are suffering, and must embody as a deep sense of joy only found through the celebration of light.

Our recent partner visits were enriching, challenging and inspiring as they focused on the desperate yet hopeful cry for peace to spread across all areas of conflict, where there is hurt, despair and violence.

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The delegation and MCC Nigeria staff meet with the Plateau Peace Practitioners Network (PPPN) in Jos, Nigeria. This group includes Christians and Muslims working together in peacebuilding in Plateau State.  Photo/Ben Weisbrod

In Jos, a region of Nigeria with a history of significant inter-religious tensions and violence, we saw Christian and Muslim peacemakers and organizations united together to talk about their hopes and dreams for the establishment of the Jos Peace Institute in the coming months. Together they hope this institute will be a light for the people of Jos and the world in the study and promotion of sustainable peace.

We saw light in the compassion of families and communities in the Eastern DRC who were hosting people internally displaced by ongoing conflict in their homes, even those of different ethnicities. We also saw the dedication and courage of organizations to address the root causes of conflict, leading them to teach the principles of peacemaking even to the various armed groups in the area.

Finally, in South Sudan, we were moved by the staff and volunteers of the Organization for Non Violence and Development (ONAD) and their commitment to carve out alternatives to violence and to always seek peace. ONAD was formed by the desire to go against the grain of violence; it works with countless organizations and projects to support peace, starting with the government right to the community level.

These are the stories and images that stay with me. Of course the contexts are incredibly hard, and at times the work may feel like a drop in the bucket. But the witness of African peacebuilders serves as an inspiration to our delegation as well as others in the region, offering light and hope  in the persistent pursuit of peace. These  beacons of light, though sometimes small, shine powerfully in the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for the Ottawa Office.

Complexities in Nigeria’s democracy and development

This week’s writer is Cora Siebert, advocacy research intern at the Ottawa Office.

Nigeria’s presidential election in March 2015 was heralded in the media as a monumental turning point in the country’s political history. Local and international media alike deemed the election to be free and fair, resulting in Goodluck Jonathon willingly and peacefully transferring power to a new leader, Muhammadu Buhari. This is in a country with a long history — since independence from Britain in 1960 — of rigged elections and military coups.  It was also one of the first times in contemporary African politics that an incumbent was defeated and peacefully conceded power without any violent uprising or taking the results to court.

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This woman and her son were among many people displaced by violence in northeastern Nigeria in 2014. She makes bowls to sell and earn some income. (MCC photo/Dave Klassen)

An electoral victory and peaceful transfer of power can be used as a simple measurement by the international community to say, look, it’s here, free and fair democracy is working. Yet the appearance of democratic institutions can be seriously undermined when an underlying factor such as corruption affects all areas of life, disempowering citizens. Corruption in Nigeria occurs usually through bribes or government funds being pocketed by officials. Transparency International ranked Nigeria 136th out of 173 nations in terms of corruption in 2014.  When surveyed, Nigerian citizens indicated they perceived all institutions from political parties, to police to the media to be corrupt.

Buhari came into his presidential role with a campaign to end the corruption.  So far he has made significant changes to national security in replacing military chiefs accused of misusing government funds. Despite his positive intentions, it is difficult to separate corruption from politics when corruption has plagued the political system for so long. Even the head of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency was recently fired after denying that $5 billion had gone missing from the agency.

Being able to cast a vote for a President does not speak very loudly when individuals are disempowered and marginalized on a daily basis due to systematic corruption. For example, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), has been accused of ignoring government subsidies for household necessities like kerosene, which is commonly used for cooking. The NNPC charged consumers 98 cents a litre for kerosene, when the price was actually supposed to be 26 cents a litre because of a government subsidy. This extra charge was pocketed by the NNPC. Yet many people who use kerosene to cook for their families were completely unaware there was a government subsidy. This shows how corruption can work not only to deny those in poverty access to financial benefits, but also to deny them the knowledge and power to improve their living situation.

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MCC supports the development of peace clubs in schools, such as this one in Plateau State. (MCC photo/Dave Klassen)

Despite Nigeria’s economic growth, poverty is also on the increase. Nigeria’s GDP was 568.51 USD in 2013, the highest of all African countries, yet over 60% of Nigerians live on less than $1.25 a day. Lack of transparency for government funding means significant lost money earmarked for educational and healthcare facilities. Economic growth in Nigeria is not usually distributed equally throughout society due to these structures, and those in poverty have little power to improve their situation.

So where does Canada fit in with this?

Canada operates in the Nigerian context through trade deals and development projects. The oil and gas industry has long been a priority for Canada in Nigeria. In 2012 Nigeria was number 7 in Canada’s worldwide oil and gas trade, with almost $2 billion in trade. Any Canadian efforts to stimulate economic growth or development happen within a structure where transactions involve bribes to those with power, and government money often goes missing – to those responsible for distributing it.

The Canadian government has paid little attention to bridging the inequalities within Nigeria that have been exacerbated through corruption on every level of governance and industry. Instead of recognizing the underlying problem of corruption, Canada focuses on increasing overall wealth within Nigeria through trade and building industry.

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Margaret Ahmed, director of Homemakers Income Generation for Women, speaks to a group about its work at grassroots empowerment. (MCC photo/Dave Klassen)

While Buhari is working to tackle corruption from within government structure, another approach is to empower individuals at a grassroots level. MCC works with partners in Nigeria on projects that help to do this, including the Homemakers Income Generation for Women. This project provides women with microloans and offers them training in money management, techniques for developing marketable products, training in conflict mitigation and advice in small scale agriculture. Women participate in cooperative groups and meet on a regular basis. All of these things help to build the capacity and confidence of women, making them more economically empowered and less susceptible to the corruption which they normally encounter when making a living and buying goods on a daily basis.

The Canadian government has, since 2010, shown some support for empowering individuals in the democratic process through providing technical assistance to Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission. The Commission has been a positive force in supervising democratic processes and extending voter and civic education to Nigerians.

But Canada needs to do more, especially if, under the new Liberal government, it continues to invest in trade and industry as it has in he past.  Trade levels should be matched with grassroots efforts to empower Nigerian citizens personally and economically so that they are eventually able to stand up to systematic corruption.

The type of corruption that is seen in Nigeria will not be quickly or easily eliminated. However all international actors operating in the country — including Canada — must recognize corruption as a major problem and act in ways that can help diminish it from a grassroots level.

Speech. Voice. Words.

This week’s guest writer is Mary Lou Klassen of Kitchener, Ontario who is currently serving as a peace lecturer with MCC in Jos, Nigeria.  Her poem is based on the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary for the Second Sunday of Epiphany: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Then God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl.
A voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

The father of one of 200 plus school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants from the community of Chibok, Nigeria, in April 2014.  MCC photo by Dave Klassen

The father of one of 200 plus school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants from the community of Chibok, Nigeria, in April 2014. MCC photo by Dave Klassen

Creative words.
Destructive words.
Loving words.
Words in many languages.
Sacred texts. Christian liturgy.
And millions march in Paris
for Free Speech. Je suis….

Elle n’est plus … She is no longer….
She was just a little girl, maybe 10 years-old
She exploded and she
and twenty others cannot be heard again.
In Monday Market in Maiduguri in Nigeria.

For whom did she speak? What do the Boko Haram want to say?
All we hear are angry shouts and anguished screams…

How do we pray for you, Nigeria? How do we support believers?
– Christians who feel persecuted. Churches burnt, pastors hunted and killed, businesses and houses lost, people scattered, betrayed by neighbours…
– Muslims who feel marginalized. Mosques destroyed. Imams murdered for moderation. Women, children, old people and new converts slaughtered. Politics are western, even if the law is sharia. The world mocks their prophet.

1.5 million people displaced. (What stories suppressed in their souls, unspoken?)

Uttering “Christian” or saying “Muslim” is political. It explains Who I Am.
Belief is not personal faith
It is how I will mark my ballot
for the President of Nigeria
on February 14.
AKA the Day of the Rapture – the End of the World —
For one will WIN and one will LOSE.

And yet …
As in the time of Elijah
A still, small VOICE
Reminds us that there are hundreds, nay thousands, millions
Who have not bowed the knee
To selfishness and fear.
Who refuse to be labelled, and to label themselves.
They seek the peace of the city they now inhabit, even if it is far away from home.

How do we pray for you, Nigeria? How do we support God’s people?

A Christian leader says he has learned to request:
Not that this cup will pass
–Though of course it is wished —
Rather that there will be strength to endure the struggle
To speak the truth to authority
and comfort the distraught.
To surrender to God’s will
and to wait …
for the Day of the Lord.

The following links, while not endorsed by MCC, provide information and analysis of recent events in northeastern Nigeria.
The Atlantic.http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/01/boko-harams-quiet-destruction-of-northeast-nigeria/384416/
BBC. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-30794829?ocid=socialflow_facebook
The Star. http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/01/12/doubts_cast_on_death_toll_in_nigerian_massacre.html
Truthdig. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/a_message_from_the_dispossessed_20150111

Putting the spotlight on peace

Nigeria has been in the spotlight recently, in case you hadn’t noticed.

From Boko Haram’s abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls from Chibok (the majority of whom are from the Church of the Brethren denomination), to bombings in cities such as Kano, Abuja, and Jos, Nigeria has dominated news headlines and even spawned a twitter campaign. For the moment, the world is transfixed.

Though the media frenzy is new, the issues confronting the country certainly aren’t. Atrocities committed by the shadowy extremist group, outbreaks of ethno-religious violence, crumbling infrastructure, political corruption, high unemployment rates, and so on, have been ongoing sources of insecurity for Nigeria’s people.

Given the recent escalation of violence, it makes sense for the world to sit up, take notice, and be concerned. Yet just beyond the glare of the media spotlight, Nigerians are working hard to mitigate the violence and bring sustainable peace to their communities in innovative ways, every day.

Why aren’t these stories newsworthy?

Although recently Jos has been the site of two horrific bombings, it is also the place where pioneering peacebuilding efforts are bearing fruit. Having traveled there with a group of colleagues four weeks ago to learn more about the violence prevention work MCC supports, I got to see this first-hand.

Long considered the melting pot of Nigeria’s many ethnic groups, Jos—the capital of Plateau State and location of MCC’s office—has been prone to deadly religious and ethnic conflicts (in 2001, 2004, 2008, and 2010). Rooted in complex tensions around access to economic resources and political power, these crises have polarized Jos in a multiplicity of ways, affecting where people live (often now in strictly Muslim or strictly Christian areas) and what prejudices take root.

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Boniface Anthony (EPRT Coordinator) speaks to members in Barkin Ladi LGA. Photo courtesy of MCC Global Family.

Enter the Emergency Preparedness and Response Team (EPRT), one of MCC’s largest partners. Birthed in 2005, EPRT is an inter-faith, grassroots network engaged in emergency response and peacebuilding across the state. No small task! Guided by advisory and management committees, EPRT’s work is carried out by 15-member volunteer teams—each consisting of Muslims and Christians, women and men—that are set up in all 17 Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Plateau State.

Thanks to EPRT, there is a spiderweb of 270 skilled peacebuilders—often visible by their bright blue shirts and red hats!—stretched across the entire Plateau. Trained in emergency response, conflict prevention, mediation, and civic education, these volunteers proactively detect and diffuse early warning signs of tension, violence, or natural disaster.

When troubles are brewing, local networks kick into high gear as members communicate with one another to uncover the reality of a given situation (sometimes buried beneath layers of rumour and hearsay). Members continually send “intel” up to the central EPRT Coordinator (the tireless Boniface Anthony!), who gathers information via texts or phone calls (literally at all times of day and night) to help build a picture of the conflict situation and help assess potential responses. In this work, EPRT collaborates with traditional and religious leaders, youth networks, local government authorities, police, and the military.

Often EPRT members themselves are best positioned to intervene, jumping into highly-charged situations to help mediate conflicts between neighbours, dispel rumours (which can spread like wildfire!), and pour water on potential flames.

Our team was lucky enough to meet many local EPRT volunteers in places like Riyom and Barkin Ladi. Their stories gave us a glimpse into the realities of their work.

L to R: Hauwa Yusuf,  Sixtus Chong, and Lydia Rex, EPRT members in Riyom.

L to R: Hauwa Yusuf, Sixtus Chong, and Lydia Rex, EPRT members in Riyom.

As people like Hauwa Yusuf and Sixtus Chong told us, when they see a decrease in people going to the central market, or an increase in the number of groups huddling together on street corners, they know conflict might be afoot. But it can be difficult to monitor situations and respond to these warning signals, as sometimes the “simple” act of getting around is, well, not so simple, due to security challenges.

Their stories reminded us that the work of early warning is tough slugging. As many EPRT members lamented, “you can’t have early warning without early response.” Local team members have to do a lot of ongoing advocacy work (i.e. relationship-building!) in order to rally the right first-responders in any given crisis.

To describe EPRT as a fascinating violence-prevention system—based on sophisticated information gathering, data analysis, skills training, policies, and procedures—is true. And yet it doesn’t do justice to the work. This complex “system” is, at its core, an interfaith network of people like Hauwa and Sixtus who are committed to fostering peace. This work requires not only technical training, but personal wisdom, solid judgment, and the ability to build relationships of trust in environments where trust is fragile at best.

Over the years, EPRT members have become vital actors for preventing crises and contributing to a culture of peace.

When elections in 2011 were widely anticipated to spiral into violence, EPRT members monitored polling stations across the state, successfully encouraging people to vote with confidence. When the bombs went off last week in Jos, EPRT members were there, responding to the emergency and closely monitoring potential signs of retaliatory violence.

Stories underscoring Nigeria’s struggles are important. But so are the stories of peace. Perhaps we should all challenge our media to put the spotlight on peace.

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Senior Policy Analyst

 

Daring to dream of an AIDS-free world

December 1 is World AIDS Day.  This week’s guest blog is written by Beth Good, Health Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee.

Shared Responsibility: Strengthening Results for an AIDS-Free Generation

This is the theme for World AIDS Day put out by UNAIDS — but what does that really mean?  “Shared responsibility” sounds great!  My understanding of this phrase means we are all sharing the load, so that no one has to carry the responsibility alone.  Yet, when we look at the statistics, the burden of HIV & AIDS continues to be borne within communities that are already carrying the burden of poverty as well.  While those of us from wealthier countries may be growing weary of hearing about the AIDS pandemic, over 35 million people are growing weary of living with the disease.

World AIDS Day logoThe good news is that there is a 33 percent decrease of new infections since 2001.  More good news is that access to antiretroviral therapy (a drug regime that reduces symptoms and rates of infection) has increased dramatically.  On a more sobering note, globally,  less than half of those needing treatment are able to access this therapy.  Moreover, the one in three women who experience intimate partner violence are 50 percent more likely to acquire HIV.

As I reflect on where we are globally in addressing HIV & AIDS, I relate it to the position of a person who has been able to swim nearly half the distance of a large lake (or more like an ocean in this case). This individual is so very tired and there is still such a great distance to travel…should she turn around and head back?  Most of us would say that it would be crazy to return once you have come so far!  There has been a 52 percent drop in new infections in children, a 40 percent increase in the number of people accessing antiretroviral therapy, a 29 percent decrease in AIDS related deaths of adults and children.

Dinah John and Angel Mathew (left to right) are part of an intergenerational team of women learning and sharing information about HIV and AIDS in Arusha, Tanzania. MCC photo by Nina Linton

Dinah John and Angel Mathew (left to right) are part of an intergenerational team of women learning and sharing information about HIV and AIDS in Arusha, Tanzania. MCC photo by Nina Linton

MCC partners with organizations in 27 countries who are continuing to share the responsibility of ending HIV & AIDS. They work in areas of prevention of new infections, treatment for those living with HIV, and supporting orphaned and vulnerable children.  On a recent trip to Nigeria, I was able to meet an amazing young woman who was assisted through our partner Faith Alive Clinic, in the city of Jos. Beatrice Odekhia attended a sewing course at Faith Alive to assist with the family’s income. Despite the lack of encouragement from her friends and family, she successfully completed the training and I met her at her shop where she sews custom-made clothing.  Beatrice now has a successful business and is teaching others to sew and manage a tailoring business as a way to express her gratitude to God.

So, let’s do this!  It is still difficult and we are weary — especially those who are living with HIV. But, like Beatrice, we need to continue to press on. This can be the legacy of this generation: that we were able to see the end of a disease that has ravaged millions around the world.