African Traditions Can Help Build Peace
The Gospel extends a peace greeting to all men of good will. FR PETER CHIMOMBE argues that traditional African methods of resolving conflict can serve as models for making peace.
Every Christmas we are reminded of the angels’ song, “Gloria in excelsis deo” (Glory to God in the highest and peace to all men of good will (Lk 2:14). From this song emerged the title of Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth).
Pope John’s main concern was for nuclear non-proliferation at the height of the Cold War between the then Soviet Union and the West.
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
The encyclical lays bare the Church’s role as an advocate of peace throughout the world as Christ himself teaches in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons [and daughters] of God” (Mt 5:9).
Since antiquity, the search for peace has been of paramount importance. This is true in our age, for governments, the United Nations, non-governmental organisations, civic groups and individuals like Nobel Peace prize recipients (including St Teresa of Kolkata).
The image of an Aleppo boy being rescued from the rubble after an aerial bombardment challenges our conscience to work for peace everyday — also here, on our African continent.
It can be argued that African people in general value peace, harmony, justice, family wellbeing and life itself which they consider sacred. However, conflict is an undesirable reality in communities due to persistent droughts, poverty and hunger, as well as religio-cultural, socio-economic and socio-political differences, among other factors.
Traditional conflict resolution strategies like village courts and inter-marriages between people from rival clans usually result in peace.
There is consensus of opinion that justice is a precondition for peace. In my research I found it interesting to note that there has to be restitution before peace can be achieved.
For example, in the event that a person offends their mother, it was a traditional Shona practice that the offender makes restitution and shows remorse by engaging in the kutanda botso ritual. This involved begging for food and wearing torn clothes while publicly confessing the offence, even at the cost of public ridicule and laughter.
In sub-Saharan Africa, a person who offends a fellow human being is summoned before a traditional leader’s court and is made to pay back for the wrong done. The payment is usually in the form of goats or livestock, depending on the gravity of the offence.
However, in Zimbabwe and doubtless elsewhere, some headmen now prefer monetary payments, and there are extreme cases where restitution is done in form of a virgin girl who is given to the family of a murdered victim in order to avoid an avenging spirit (ngozi).
Look to the elders
Peace is also achieved through the mediation of elders who command respect from both conflicting parties.
There is a popular adage among the Karanga people that “you can climb a hill by going in circles” (“kukwira gomo hupoterera”). Thus mediation and conciliation are critical in an endeavour to achieve peace.
But, interestingly, African justice is selective.
While Africans are very hospitable to strangers, these strangers are usually asked to go out when family or community issues are being discussed. Those who seem to go off-topic are assisted out of the traditional court proceedings and are required to kill and skin a goat. Their absence ensures peaceful resolution of the matter.
In extreme cases, the offenders would be manhandled and even beaten.
Also, when a matter has been settled and restitution has been made, the people cement their peaceful conflict-resolution through gathering and eating food together, drinking beer, exchanging tobacco snuff and cigarettes as well as shaking hands.
These are only external signs of peace and harmony among former conflicting parties, but they are not a guarantee of internal peace as a grievance can be generational and is passed on to grandchildren, even while it may appear there is peace from the outside.
Conflicts are a result of many differences in perspectives, perceptions, political ideologies, religious beliefs, ethnicity, norms and values. Conflict-resolution processes are against the total elimination of conflicts in human existence.
However, conflict -management (which is a progression of conflict -resolution) advocates controlling conflict, considering its unavoidability as well as its negative and positive impacts. The nature and extent of the conflict determines whether the conflict can be resolved, managed or transformed.
The forms of conflicts range from physical, economic, political, psychological, ecological and spiritual to cultural. Under these aspects come many types of conflict such as domestic violence, sexual violence, emotional violence, gender-based violence, politically motivated violence, crime-based violence and violence against minors.
Negative vs positive peace
Albert Einstein said that peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice, law and order.
The Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, who is regarded as the principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies, points out that there is a difference between negative peace and positive peace.
Negative peace refers to the absence of violence, for example during a ceasefire. Conflict which is not desirable is stopped.
In positive peace there is the restoration of relationships, the creation of positive social systems that serve the needs of the population, and there is constructive resolution of conflict.
It is in this context that peace is understood as the absence of violence in all its forms and management of conflict is done in a constructive way.
When we as Africans, for example, are interacting non-violently, when restorative justice is exercised through traditional courts and perpetrators are given the chance to reform and reintegrate back into society, then positive peace takes root in society.
Hence peace education by the Zimbabwean Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace focuses on managing conflict positively with respectful attention to the legitimate needs of both the victims and perpetrators.
Reconciliation becomes necessary when negative or dysfunctional conflict has occurred and relationships have been damaged. It involves restoration of relationships to a level where cooperation and trust become possible once again.
John Paul Lederach, professor of international peacebuilding at the American Catholic University of Notre Dame, raises three paradoxes:
- Reconciliation promotes an encounter between the open expression of the painful past and the search for the articulation of a long-term interdependent future,
- Reconciliation provides a place for truth and mercy to meet; where concern for exposing what happened and letting go in favour of a renewed relationship are validated and embraced; and
- Reconciliation recognises the need to give time and place to justice and peace, where redressing the wrong is held together with the vision of a common connected future.
The is a need for contemporary peace-education strategies to complement traditional peace-making strategies. African traditional strategies have been proven to be very effective in many countries, such as the Gacaca in Rwanda, Bashingantahe in Burundi and Magamba in Mozambique.
Merry Christmas to all readers and best wishes for a peaceful new year! Let there be rain and an overflow of peace in our communities.
Fr Peter Chimombe serves in Masvingo diocese, Zimbabwe.