Volume 18 Number 4
Standing up for Peace in a Clean Africa
01 August 2005
Jean Brown meets the women who are standing up for peace in a clean Africa.
The alarm clocks of Africa call up the dawn. Across the continent the English translation of the most commonly used morning greeting, in a variety of languages, is ‘Have you woken up?’
Two hundred impressively awake women from 26 countries encountered each other in a unique way in Uganda recently.
We were participating in a gathering with the theme, ‘Standing up and speaking out for peace in a clean Africa. Women accountable for the future—now’. These women (and some men)—teachers, politicians, farmers, businesswomen, social activists and carers of all sorts—carry past and present as well as the future on their hearts and minds and often, literally, on their backs.
Those from South Africa encountered hopes for the new peace accord in those from the Sudan. Nigerian shared experiences with Zimbabwean, Cameroonian with Tanzanian, Francophone with Anglophone. Those of us from outside Africa were privileged, enriched and challenged by living into realities not our own.
Two programmes of Initiatives of Change co-hosted the gathering. Creators of Peace is a women’s initiative to encourage and affirm women in their peace-creating potential, while the Clean Africa Campaign has been involved with Clean Election campaigns and offers training in ethical leadership.
This was no theory-fest, but the sharing of hard-learned experience—from the realities of power and public life, through poverty and HIV/AIDS, to the reconstruction of Rwanda. Ten years on from the genocide and yet, says Odette, whose father died in prison five years ago, ‘We all carry so much baggage that Rwandans tend to relate superficially at home. But at this gathering we have been able to share with an unusual depth and honesty.’ Encounters between Congolese and Rwandans, which often end in acrimony in other fora, led here to a sharing of trust and understanding.
‘I came here as a politician,’ said Marie Madeleine Mwika, a Deputy in the Parliament of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a former Mayor and the founder and president of a national NGO which looks after orphans from ethnic conflicts. ‘I had ideas I wanted heard here. When I arrived I demanded to see my ambassador, but my first contact with Initiatives of Change has completely changed me. I am transformed and feel liberated. I have discovered a deep peace and feel so grateful for the precious contacts I have made here. I want to engage in the issues of peace and integrity within myself to transform my country.’
So what was it in the atmosphere that carried such a transformative potential? Certainly the setting helped; the venue, a scattering of traditional looking huts with conical straw roofs, overlooking Lake Victoria. The clouds of friendly evening insects, breathed in by the unsuspecting, helped to keep the mosquitoes away and the remarkable bird life contributed sound-bites as well as flashes of colour.
The opportunity to meet across national borders was also significant. For the wife of the Emir of Kano, the traditional Muslim ruler of 12 million northern Nigerians, this was her first visit to another African country.
But what had the biggest effect were the women who made themselves vulnerable in their sharing because they were determined to experience a new way of being accountable for the future.
A tall, striking Nigerian woman suddenly released a torrent of embittered personal history at a meal table. Earlier generations of her family had been taken as slaves to the West Indies. Her parents had emigrated to the UK and she had been educated there. The longing to discover her roots had taken her on a life-long journey of discovery and considerable pain to reach ‘home’—the place from where her ancestors had been taken and where her religion and culture could finally be recognized and embraced. She was carefully listened to without interruption or defensiveness. ‘Those 20 minutes of angry outpouring healed 60 years of pain and bitterness,’ she said later.
A white Australian, Trish McDonald-Harrison, spoke alongside an Aboriginal Australian. She admitted to her new awareness of the deep injustices perpetrated by her ancestors on the original Australians but also on the people of Africa through the history of colonization. Her apology came through tears and was received with cries of ‘You are forgiven’ and ‘You are free’ from the audience, before she was lost in the embrace of a dozen eager arms.
The Aboriginal leader, Jackie Huggins, said in response, ‘I still carry a lot of grief about what happened to my people, but I am free now from hate and anger. May we prove to be honourable ancestors as we walk the road together.’
‘Too many African women have accepted a second-class citizenship,’ commented Cecilia Otoo from Ghana, a retired manager, trade unionist, nurse and currently a broadcaster with the Ghana Broadcasting Association. She described publicly challenging a doctor turned politician on the contamination of public water supplies through uncollected refuse. ‘You are killing us slowly,’ she had told him.
From the DRC, where it possibly takes even more courage to stand up for one’s rights, Lucienne Munono described a confrontation between her small car and a military jeep in the streets of Kinshasa. Because she had not seen the soldiers approaching from behind, she had not moved out of the way, as civilians are supposed to, and was bumped to the side of the road, with the soldiers shouting insults as they drove past. She followed their vehicle back to barracks. At the gate she told the sentry on duty that she wanted to confront them. ‘You mean you want to talk to them?’ he asked aghast.
He let her in and she drove to where the soldiers were clustered. ‘I just wanted to tell you that you were extremely rude and the way you behaved was wrong,’ she said. She then drove away leaving them stunned.
Irene Namwano stunned her bosses at a bank in Uganda, when she told them about the money she had embezzled and her subsequent attempts to smuggle it back. Some time earlier, after a miraculous healing of a physical ailment, she had felt the need to clarify her relationship with God and return the money she had stolen. She doctored the books and over time returned it to the bank in such a way that the auditors were completely unaware. But peace of heart eluded her and she knew that she had to come clean.
As there were no discrepancies in the books she had to insist at every step that she had been in the wrong. She finally faced charges and was sentenced to three years in jail. Her experience of the horrors of prison opened up a new lifework for her, caring for prisoners and their abandoned children.
‘Speaking out for peace’ implies at the same time ‘speaking out for truth’. This is life or death in the HIV/AIDS battlefield, which stretches through towns and villages, hearts and homes across Africa. Here the great enemy is silence, the hush of hidden shame, of voiceless victims. And here Uganda is breaking through the continental shutdown by bringing the subject out of the closets where it has festered and addressing it through a multi-sector approach.
Central government, traditional healers, religious institutions, the media and the private sector all work to disseminate information, enable access to drugs, encourage widespread bloodtesting and mobilize community volunteers to monitor patients in their homes. Tuberculosis, which is the greatest opportunistic infection where AIDS is concerned, is now tested for at the same time, saving time and resources and leading to quicker intervention.
Uganda has been a pioneer of home-based care, understanding that alongside appropriate medication, general health management and adequate diet are also vital in combating the disease. Leadership has been taken by President Museveni and even more by his wife, Janet Museveni, who has launched ‘First Ladies against AIDS’. But programmes are still initiated mainly by government and other organizations. A people’s movement to address misconceptions about the disease, especially in rural areas, is urgently needed.
Women gathered around HIV/AIDS workers at the conference to look more deeply into the subject of prevention and intervention in areas of conflict. This was especially pertinent for those from the DRC where war makes the messages of abstinence, faithfulness and condoms practically irrelevant. Here HIV is used as a weapon of war: women are raped in order to infect them.
After the conference, a few participants were invited to visit Rwanda. They met with a group of 300 senior women, all HIV-positive as a result of rape during the genocide. HIV/AIDS activist and counsellor Neichu Angami from Nagaland in India spoke of her conviction that HIV is a human rights issue. ‘My work at home in Nagaland is mainly focused on the fight against stigma, isolation and denial. We cannot address HIV and issues associated with it without the active participation and involvement of those who are affected by it.
‘Fighting stigma must begin with oneself, fighting the thoughts and attitudes that destroy your immune system—“poor me”, “I have an incurable disease”, “people will reject me”, “I am cursed”. These attitudes are causing many people in the world to suffer unnecessarily and die in shame and fear. AIDS is not curable but it is definitely treatable. Live a positive life and nurture your immune system and find those services that are there to help you.’
Ultimately for peace to prevail, for justice to flourish, for corruption to cease, individuals have to be proactive in taking personal responsibility. ‘We have to be very careful not to sow the seeds of revenge in our children,’ said one South Sudanese. This issue of not passing on hates and hurts through the generations was seen as a primary responsibility of women, so often left as the sole nurturers of children and grandchildren—others’ as well as their own. Almost every African family looks after orphaned or impoverished members of their extended families.
Our unresolved grievances are the weapons of mass destruction that lurk under the surface of every community on earth. Answers come in many shapes and forms, but the most powerful lies in forgiveness—not the fraudulent misunderstanding of the word that condones what is wrong, but the liberation of victim and perpetrator to address the injustice and find healing and reconstruction.
In the gacaca, traditional courts of Rwanda, victims and perpetrators are brought together to express their grief and repentance. ‘Every woman was a victim of the genocide in Rwanda,’ said Jacqueline Rusilibya, President of Twese Hamwe/Pro-Femmes, the national umbrella organization for women’s associations. She described peace efforts to bring women from all sides to work together. Forty-eight per cent of all parliamentary seats in Rwanda are now held by women.
The search to understand forgiveness took Mariam Mukanda from DRC five years. ‘Forgiveness is dynamic,’ she says. ‘This is so important. It is dynamic and you have to switch it on.’ She gave up her career as a diplomat and all the material security that went with it in order to serve ‘the ordinary people of my country’. Now working in aid distribution, she is aware of the temptation to help herself to what she needs. One day, when short of food at home, she told her mother that she felt like taking some of the aid. ‘God has provided that for them,’ her mother replied, ‘God will provide for us.’ Sure enough, when Mariam returned home that night, her brother had unexpectedly visited with a gift of food.
Nadine Nzomukunda is head of protocol in the Ministry of State for Good Governance in Burundi. She has experienced ten years of exile, a period in a refugee camp, two years of fighting with the rebels and finally a part in the peace negotiations. ‘Reconciliation is a complex process,’ she says. ‘Forgiveness is the key to everything. I have forgiven those who hurt me and I want to share that with others.’ She, and others at this gathering, modelled a unique quality of leadership, of integrity and of compassion that can restore dignity and hope to Africa and challenge the cynicism of the world.
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