Women attending SPI help heal their communities in Africa

Hunger. Child soldiers. Orphaned children raising siblings. Such tragedies might readily connote despair – but not to three African women who studied this year at EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

SPI students from Africa on campus at EMU between peacebuilding classes
L. to r.: Jacinta Makokha, Kenya; Alice Warigia Hinga, Kenya; and Belinda Gumbo, Zimbabwe, enjoy a free moment between SPI classes. Photo by Jim Bishop

When these women, attending their first SPI session, speak of the staggering tasks they and their colleagues have undertaken to heal lives and communities, they convey unflagging hope.

In Zimbabwe, administrator and trainer Belinda Gumbo works with the Habakkuk Trust’s Local Level Capacity Building Program, training communities in participatory citizenship. Funded by agencies including the Mennonite Central Committee, the program has helped communities in Gumbo’s area form 16 advocacy teams.

These teams work toward agreements with service providers and local governments. For example, officials might agree to collect refuse regularly, while residents agree not to litter.

Although this process is structurally modern, accompanied by position papers, it aims at restoring the strengths traditional African communities had before colonialism.

Restoring communities hard work

Conditions entail tough compromises. In regions hardest-hit by AIDS, with many households headed by children, Gumbo’s agency is working with Zimbabwe’s Minister of Social Welfare for compromises on child labor: “We try to find that balance of what is work and what is abuse.” They want to eliminate the practice of children selling cigarettes late into the night, while desiring that child-farmworkers have time for school and play.

In the wake of Zimbabwe’s disputed 2008 election, Gumbo says, “We feel powerless.” Yet she notes a small community such as hers, working for clean water in a dry area, may find its struggles not unique, and join with nearby villages to get a pipeline built. Such grass-roots empowerment may plant seeds for better governance.

At SPI, Gumbo studied with fellow-peacebuilders from around the world in the courses “Conflict Sensitive Development,” “Restorative Justice” and “STAR: Breaking Cycles of Violence, Building Healthy Communities.”

“For me it’s exciting because of the transitions we are in,” she says.

Peacebuilding in Africa’s Great Lakes region

Jacinta Makokha works for the Nairobi-based Change Agents for Peace International. CAPI works with churches to transform conflict in the Africa’s Great Lakes region (including Congo, Rwanda and Burundi); with a women’s organization in Southern Sudan; and with the Hope for Kenya Forum.

Here is how Makokha (also an administrator and trainer) explains the underlying approach: “I talk to Belinda. We talk to Alice. Then we all go together and talk to you.” Eventually, all may find “We no longer need revenge.”

In Rwanda, women widowed by the 1994 genocide dialogue with others whose husbands are serving prison time for the killings – sharing “common widowhood issues,” Makokha points out.

The Quaker-based Ministry for Peace and Reconciliation serves Great Lakes communities and neighbors arriving home after war, mediating such crises as a husband bringing home a new wife or a family returning to find strangers occupying its home.

Discussion and creativity important tools

Makokha tells of a women’s group comprising participants from different tribes. They work half a day in a cooperative tailoring business and spend the other half discussing peacebuilding. She cites an organization that has created jobs for more than 200 former child soldiers, while encouraging them to exchange weapons for bicycles. Another, the American Jewish World Service, supports Congolese war survivors in creative expressions such as theater.

SPI’s 2009 session had many Kenyan guests. Makokha – whose high-school classmates included President Obama’s Kenyan half-sister, Auma – observed that among her countrymen, “People had lost trust in democracy.” Following America’s historic election, she began hearing Kenyans say, “See? Democracy can work.”

Alice Warigia Hinga, also from Kenya, hopes to return for future SPI sessions and earn a master’s from EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

In 1999, when she and her husband, a Pentecostal pastor, were starting a church for coffee-plantation workers in the Kiambu District, they discovered the workers’ children lacked educational opportunities, often worked, and sometimes went hungry. They opened a church “comprised of the children” – a school.

“We had 60 children within three months,” Warigia recalls. The school serves meals, and has added a grade each year. The first children are now starting high school.

The school has supplied food to families willing to take in orphaned children, and started a day-care unit. Babies had been dying because mothers had to carry them to the coffee fields where they inhaled pesticides, or leave them home with siblings.

Warigia has helped bring the school’s mothers together. These women – often single teenagers – meet to learn about family planning and HIV and receive testing and counseling.

Warigia, who also works as program officer for the UK Department for International Development, finds inspiration for children’s education in Luke 2:52: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”

Chris Edwards is a freelance writer living in Harrisonburg.