Interview with Rutendo Urenje, Managing Editor, African Peace Journal
Arundel Girls’ School in Harare, Zimbabwe where Rutendo attended high school
Foreword by Rutendo Urenje, Managing Editor
It was break time at Arundel Girls’ School, my old high school in Harare, Zimbabwe.
The weather was just perfect, my friends and I were sitting outside the art building stuffing our faces when suddenly a horde of 16 year old girls from my class swarmed around us like bees, furious and cursing!
We had waited for this moment, we had known it was coming. That morning my friends and I had stolen a love letter from Shingi (now a friend), had photocopied it and distributed it all around the school. We knew we were creating real war.
Have you ever seen girls fight when boys are not around? It’s not charming and this is what girls’ schools are made for! Unfortunately for our opponents, we had decided that since we were fewer than they, we would sit quietly, eat our lunch and pretend they didn’t exist, and so we did – well everyone else did, except me! In mockery I stood up and stuck out my tongue like a brat and like lightening a hand swept through my face. I cannot remember who slapped me, I blacked out for a while.
Annoyed with me, my friends took me away from the conflict and scolded me.
It is a great honor for me to participate in this tenth interview of the previous nine pioneering interviews of courageous women.
The three question interviews are different perspectives of an ideal we are trying to nurture and foster as the African Peace Journal.
The admirable and pioneering women who have contributed here have all given an account of their experience in Africa and their multilateral efforts in peace-building. A thread that runs through all the interviews is the unequivocal desire and belief that peace is achievable in Africa.
Zainab Salbi in her inaugural interview, furthers the fact that peace is multifaceted and requires vigilant effort.
Purity speaks of education as a vehicle for peace-building which requires self-motivation and initiatives by young African women.
Wanjiru alludes to the normalcy of conflict, while realistically recognizing that the African conflict is based upon resource scarcity and food insecurity. Christine Lanunga, emphatically states that Africans are their own best solution! Meantime, Libby Hoffman is of the view that peace-building is one of discovery and unfoldment because peace is being practiced in Africa. For Colleen, peace is an outcome, one that starts at the grassroots level. Molly Burke describes how rural mobility and the ability to trade goods and services brings a peace that is economically sustainable. Dr. Noerine Kaleeba then comes full circle emphatically stating that peace is not only the foundation of social and economic development but a pillar whose process requires education, particularly the education of women; for:
“If you educate a woman, you educate a family and a nation”.
The interviews here are much like an account of what happened on the playfield.
Each giving an account of their experience of the common place conflict and putting forth methods of achieving a peaceful resolution to the story of Africa. Although far from being a school playfield, nor a teenage catfight. I never did apologize to Shingi for that insensitive, cheeky behavior. Perhaps peace and reconciliation begins with me today.
Interview with Rutendo Urenje
Is it possible to encourage peace in Africa?
If peace is the absence of conflict then I am afraid my answer is no, yet if peace is the absence of violence then my answer is affirmative. Contrary to popular belief, Africa does not have a different form of norms, or vices, or realities, from other continents but these are only experienced differently. The context allows for a different experiential process. I say different, and not wrong.
I may perhaps be biased as an African myself but to my defence I have lived in the centre of two contexts: I grew up in a middleclass African family in Zimbabwe and now live in Scandinavia, more or less still enjoying bourgeoisie benefits, one could say.
So Africa is not so far removed from other continents in our world in that if other parts of the world can enjoy peace, so can Africa.
The process may not be similar but it is definitely possible.
The more important question is ‘how’? How can we achieve peace in Africa?
The only way to get the right answer to the ‘how’ question is to initiate dialogue, or create a space and a culture where people can discuss questions of peace. In such a context peace is easier to conceive, as people dialogue with words rather than weapons.
This is nonetheless a hard question to answer because although much of what plagues the human family is common and not phenomenal, our experiences are vastly unique and complex. There is a tendency for one to think they have the answer, the solution, the best way of dealing with a common occurrence, for many reasons, and perhaps because it has worked in one part of the world, thus it must work everywhere, because all of us are human after all? However, the human race is so beautifully diverse; culture, context and environmental factors shape experience, making every common occurrence different, in terms of content. This is crucial to realize!
While I was in Juba, South Sudan, I realised that the word ‘peace’ has become like the word ‘love’: over-used and almost devoid of meaning. The way people talk about the way they love ice-cream and their children, is the same way people talk about peace.
In the end, I started asking people the question, “What does peace mean to you?”.
Peace’s greatest medium is education.
Not just any kind of education, but education that is life changing and useful, and helps people to think and become autonomous and free.
Each person had their own meaning but to some the end of armed conflict was not a core requisite to achieving peace. South Sudan does not have a vastly different history, the conflict there is much like many wars that have been fought before and some that are being waged now.
According to the National Bureau of Statistic of South Sudan, the country’s population comprises of 51% youth, that is people under the age of 18; moreover, 72% under the age of 30.
According to the National Bureau of Statistic of South Sudan, the country’s population comprises of 51% youth – people under age of 18; moreover, 72% are under age 30
Taking into account that South Sudan has been in conflict since 1955, this means that most of the population has never experienced a life outside armed conflict. Although the nature of the conflict has transmuted over the years, one cannot help but note that there has always been a multifaceted conflict and at the moment there is a parallel conflict raging.
Embedded within the conflict is the issue of tribalism; there are 78 tribes in the country. Therefore the context and culture renders the conflict itself unique. Thus, the achievement of peace should be custom-made!
Peace is learnt, mostly through experience. I know peace because I’ve experienced it.
Like many things in life, peace is learnt, mostly through experience. I know peace because I have experienced it.
Thus, I believe peace’s greatest medium is education. Not just any kind of education however, education that is life changing, that is useful, that helps people to think, to be autonomous and free.
This is the connotation that peace vibrates within, the longing of every living being’s beating heart.
What are you doing to encourage peace in Africa?
I grew up in the spirit of Ubuntu.
In the Zimbabwean language of Shona, ‘ubuntu’ is known as ‘hunhu’.
My mother imprinted in my life that I had to grow up as a woman of virtue, and in my language virtue translates to ‘hunhu’.
I grew up in the African spirit of Ubuntu. In Shona, ‘ubuntu’ is known as ‘hunhu’.
She would often say, “usaite semunhu asina hunhu”, which means, do not be virtueless, in that she meant, do not live only for yourself, live knowing that you live in community with others. You are because we are! That was very much tattooed into my conscious mind, and although my character gets in the way of this great principle, I have tried my best to live a life of virtue.
I like to think of myself as mission-driven and a visionary, in two senses, firstly because I am always on a mission that I may succor my fellow human beings, and secondly because I am always coming up with things to do with and for others and thus always having a vision to go on a mission of sorts.
In 2006, I was 17 going on 18, young, impulsive and eager. I joined a youth organization in South Africa; we toured the country, reaching out in old age homes, hospitals, schools and orphanages. It was the best year I ever spent; it was a phenomenal experience of peace-building in a complex society still trying to scrape out of an apartheid mentality.
There, I learnt that peace is first a personal experience. When one knows peace and one is at peace one can become a peacemaker.
That year’s experience allowed me to be one of the founders of a student organization devoted to community service.
The main purpose of the organisation was to serve the impoverished community around the university.
Peace building became heart work for me.
I realized, if I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives then I had to spend time, know their need and serve them.
We had a community based soup kitchen, a school bread delivery program and a story reading and telling program at two community orphanages.
In South Sudan I listened to stories of women who suffered violence, young men with animosity against other tribes, and children who grew up in a culture of violence.
Here, I learnt that when people’s needs are met, violence ceases to be a viable option to acquire what one lacks.
I saw street children who were deemed to be violent learn virtues from stories, I saw community members rise up to speak against violence during at the soup kitchen and I met a community mother who opened her home to unwanted children in the community.
I recently had the privilege of visiting South Sudan. During my visit I mingled with people, volunteered in the community and listened.
I realised that much peace building is birthed through dialogue, yet not so much in talking but very much so in listening.
A thread that ran through all the stories that I listened to in South Sudan, was the absence of dialogue, an absence of understanding, and an absence of time to listen.
When one sits and listens and empathizes with another’s story, a bond is inevitably formed, a friendship forged and although disputes may occur, violence will not be the first recourse to solving disputes. I listened to stories of women who suffered violence at the hands of their husbands, children who grew up in the culture of violence and young men who believed they could not help another’s animal because the animal belonged to a person from a tribe they disliked.
A thread that ran through all these stories was the absence of dialogue, an absence of understanding and an absence of time to listen.
At the same time I was encouraged to see that there were revolutionaries for peace within the community.
I remember attending a ‘stop violence against woman and children’ campaign. The speaker, in describing a conflict that had taken place in a nearby village, spoke of forgiveness, of understanding. She said, “What if we loved our enemies anyway, what if we forgave, what if we went the extra mile, without the aspiration of reciprocity?”.
These words excited me so much I could feel adrenalin rushing through my sensory system had the heat not created a watery mass in my chair I may have jumped up and high fived her, but I sat and smiled, wide and longingly and thought:
“Yes, yes peace is possible here, because people like her live!”.
By the time I left South Sudan, we had a community organisation in Mundri East, using food production to serve community, and meet educational needs of community.
There are many stories of hope in South Sudan, there are people with big hearts and big hopes.
By the time I left South Sudan, we had a community organisation in Mundri East, which uses food production as a tool to serve the community, meet the needs of the people and educate the community.
The vision is to begin a centre of influence, where South Sudanese people will be trained to serve their own community through agriculture, education, health and conflict resolution stratagems. When you have met a community’s needs then you can bid the community follow this example and build upon this initial model.
Thus, the model for peace is articulated by example, demonstrated by practice and expanded in scale.
The vision is to begin a centre of influence so South Sudanese are trained to serve community through agriculture, education, health and conflict resolution stratagems.
When others see peace pervading our whole existence, they long for the same atmosphere and they will learn by our example.
The way we speak to the least, the way we resolve problems, the way we react in hard situations, goes further than cheap talk.
That is peace as sustainability, peace as a lasting solution to the problem of violence.
What can others do to encourage peace in Africa?
Africa needs more models of Ubuntu. Africa needs more people who are willing to model a life of peace.
It is however, impossible to achieve a virtue in another, that one does not possess. One ought to have peace in their life, or the way of peace, and then work to help others to experience that.
I have seen teaching conflict resolution through drama and music flourish in Africa.
We are not all given equal amounts of wealth, some have more volunteer time than wealth to offer, and others have talents, and still others have practical ideas and solutions. There is a place for each one of us in the peace building process, for us to model and to encourage.
I have seen organisations that teach conflict resolution through drama and music flourishing in their work in Africa.
Perhaps one lacks time, but has means to provide for another who lacks resources. Perhaps one is a chef – nutrition programs can become a vehicle to sustainable peace, when food security is achieved.
Perhaps one is a teacher, or a driver, or a carpenter, or a graphic designer.
Whatever expertise one has there is a place to use skills to peace-build in Africa.
Whatever expertise one has, there is a place to use these skills within the peace building process of Africa.
Africa is diversely beautiful; each one can find their own place to serve. The time to begin serving others is always now, because tomorrow may never come. There is a great work to be done, yet few are willing due to fear.
There is nothing to fear when one is dedicated to a worthy endeavor and task, such as building peace in Africa.