In a loosely associated reference to the book 3 Cups of Tea book by Gregg Mortenson, chronicling the importance of relationship in building in Pakistan, I have been drinking lots of water with religious leaders in Laos. At each meeting a 350ml bottle of Tigerhead water, bottled by Lao Brewing Company, is placed before us in an act of hospitality. Sipping the water is not a bad idea in this hot tropical climate. It keeps one hydrated.
Three cups of tea or bottles of water is a metaphor for the time it takes to form trusting, durable relationships. With the first bottle, one demonstrates a presence…just being there. With the second bottle, one has the entree to engage in small talk which deepens the relationship. The third bottle gives license to broach topics in conversation more sensitive in nature. It is not the actual number of bottles or cups but the symbolic drinking together in solidarity.
Conflict… the kind I am interested in…is about the quality and strains of relationship. It stands to reason, then, that investment of time in relationship is the basis for transforming conflict.
“Even the name of the group reflects a cultural relevance, deeply resonant with the surrounding Buddhist culture” commented Steve, the architect of the project I am working on in Laos. Mittapab, meaning friendship in Lao language, is a group of youth who train school students in communications techniques, dealing with diversity and respect…among other topics that work at conflict transformation.
Mittapab is building the kinds of capacity in the next generation of leaders in a country where indirectness and respect of traditions are important virtues. With the speed of change happening in here, youth are being torn between traditional ways and the trappings of materialism. Confidence and self esteem are named as the chief benefits to those who have experienced the Mittapab training. This confidence helps them better navigate a balance between the impatient energies of youth and the staid wisdom of the elders.
I am challenged here in Laos. The models and frameworks I use in North America all have a problem oriented starting point. While in Laos, “everyone knows there are problems but an appreciative approach is much more useful in promoting change” Steve added. Mittapab is quietly adding positive energies of personal transformation not agitating the resistance of the negative.
How does one introduce a country of 6.5 million people, made up of 49 different ethnic groups, located in South East Asia? With a reputation of being most heavily bombed place on earth from the Vietnam/American war, this beautiful country has a challenge facing many places I have worked in the past 20 years.
Bordering Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, and China the official name is Laos People’s Democratic Republic. This former French Colony achieved independence in 1953 and very quickly got embroiled in the cold war polarity of the times.
A threatened alignment with the North Vietnamese ensured that the Americans, operating out of air bases in Thailand, put Lao revolutionaries in their cross hairs during bombing runs into Vietnam either as primary targets or secondary if the prime targets in Vietnam were clouded over. This secret bombing campaign conducted from 1964 through 1973 by the United States, flew more than half a million sorties over Laos — one every 9 minutes for 10 years. More than 2 million tons of ordnance was unloaded on the countryside, double the amount dropped on Nazi Germany in World War II.
Unexploded ordinances (UXO) in the form of large bombs and small anti-personnel cluster munitions are still killing civilians due to the dud rate of nearly 30%. While UXO continue to complicate rural development 40-50 years later, there are new challenges beyond that national trauma Laos has endured.
That challenge is transforming a mostly rural, traditional cultural based identity into a cohesive cosmopolitan state that has capacity to absorb the winds (typhoons!) of change brought about by a globalized world. It is that context that I will be focused on in a series of four visits in 2014.
Greetings from Lao PDR. I am making a quick trip here at the invitation of the Mennonite Central Committee to do an assessment of an emerging project that has elements of religious diversity, training youth in communications skills and respect as well as curriculum writing. This is the first trip of four that is planned for the coming year.
Dodging a snowstorm by a few hours, I landed 36 hours later in a place I had not been to since 2006. The changes in Vientiane are dramatic with building happening everywhere, infrastructure enhancements and tourists thick on the street.
I hit the ground running the day of my arrival in Laos by meeting with Buddhist and Muslim leaders who are interested in the effort to enhance interreligious understanding. This is going to be a fascinating project that has great potential to contribute positively to a country that has overcome many challenges in the past 50 years. More on that in the next post.
In an attempt to contextualize some of the conflict analysis models I re-imagined the tree of conflict to fit Somaliland better. Gone is the deciduous tree with apples hanging on it. An acacia tree with its roots, soil, trunk and foliage made a well received framework to understand the visible and invisible of conflict.
When the tree is healthy then it provides shade, fruits, soil stability and other benefits. When it is diseased by toxic attitudes or violent behaviors, then it dies and provides kindling for a fire. One spark from an incident will ignite an inferno.
As I look out over this strange and wonderful land, I am humbled. How can I have anything to say in this place being such an outsider? How can I facilitate any learning here? As I mature as an international facilitator I am moving much more toward learning processes rather than content. In this context I think it is only from a starting point of one that elicits a common and contextual definition of conflict.
Today I asked the class to think back to their childhood and a dispute they had with a friend, sibling or parent. From there I asked them to share their stories in a group and derive a definition of conflict that ‘worked’ for all the stories told.
The group developed this definition of conflict:
- Involves people (person, groups, organizations, clans, nations)
- Involves some action (disagreement, domination, competition, aggression, argument)
- Is over something (resources, issues, interests, power)
- Has some impact (good or bad for parties involved)
- Is dynamic
This definition, having many of the common elements of other places I have asked this question, nevertheless gives me an insight into the particulars of conflict here in Somaliland.
The short course on Conflict Analysis and Transformation I came to facilitate has begun with about 20 persons. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds from students to the Chief of Staff for the Somaliland President.
We started with a hearty round of in-depth introductions. I am a firm believer that our classroom time is to be a learning community. This is especially necessary when working in areas of the world where community has been shattered by violence. So modeling the steps to rebuilding community is a necessity when conducting a course on conflict.
Our next exercise was circles of identity. Exploring all the little parts of our identity will help to us to see our part in any conflict. Is there a small circle of my identity that is distorted? Is there something of my identity that is bigger than ‘me’ and demands that which countermands my value set? For myself there are often tensions between parts of my identity. For example, the US citizen part of my identity can sometimes be in conflict with Mennonite part of my identity.
Our next exercise is developing a contextualized definition of conflict. Stay tuned…
8 Dec 2013 – Hargeisa I went to the House of Guurti to pay a visit to Abdulihi Ibrahim Habane the Secretary General of this body, analogous to the Senate in the US. Analogous is a bit of a misnomer because this body, also known as the Upper House in Somalilands parliamentary system, is the traditional body created when Somaliland declared its sovereignty back in the early 1990s. These elders are supporting the government by ensuring that new things adopted are culturally sensitive and able to support the peace that Somaliland has achieved.
Somalilanders are proud of this working hybrid system that blends modern and traditional into a political system that is based on an intact cultural system. This is the basis for the peace and stability in the north which is absent in the south.
(Written somewhere over Turkey on flight from FRA to DXB)
What is this penchant for violence? My air travel choices of entertainment are dominated by ones that have shoot outs, car chases and exploding helicopters. Even the family oriented Disney movies are steeped in redemptive violence soaked in the mimetic theory. Why am I so drawn to watching this violence? Even when I don’t choose it, my eyes wander toward the neighbors seat screen flashing scenes of shooting, killing and gratuitous violence. The story lines seem compelling and it adds the texture of adrenaline to the mundane sardine squeeze of air travel in economy class.
I have committed my life’s work to supporting the building of cultures of peace that have no use for the gratuitous violence that pervades the screen. Why am I so taken by these story lines that have violence as their operative narrative? Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that I am as acculturated (addicted) to the narrative of redemptive violence as is the prevailing American culture.
In my ideal future…where I am out of a job as a peacebuilder, conflict is still the genesis of change but gone is the interest in violence as the final catalyst and arbiter of transformation. Conflict, minus violence, is welcomed as a friend who offers opportunity for metamorphosis into the connected and whole human community. As community, then, we would operate out of gratitude, not triumph.
After what seems like a long travel hiatus, since early June, I am once again sitting in a departure lounge waiting for a trans-oceanic flight. This time it is to Somaliland once again. If you missed my March blogging from Somaliland you can visit them by clicking HERE.
As I travel back to Somaliland, I am full of gratitude to be doing exactly what I am doing now. This gratitude comes with a happy reminder to be careful what you ask for…you may get it. Let me explain.
When I was hired at Etown College, in July 2012, I came on at 50% time (for the 9 month school year). I recently applied for and received a grant that would fund 40% more of my time at Elizabethtown College. Now I have salary and travel money that allows me to bring the connections between those African and Asian people and organizations I had while consulting into the Etown College sphere in order to engage students in the areas of the world where I am familiar.