Postcard from Uganda #3: Silly Games?

Dec 9, 2015

Then the Big Wind Blows for those who have ever participated in a demonstration.  Those who have ever been arrested.  For those who have ever pointed a gun to kill.  No one gets up.

A child soldier

Somehow it’s the Human Knot, a few days later – another apparently silly game meant to get at problem-solving, collaboration, communication, leadership, perseverance, perspective – that triggers NKR.  As we unpack the learnings of the exercise, he suddenly jumps up and starts to pace, agitated, back and forth within the circle.  Up until now he has been quiet; now he erupts, emotional dams bursting their confines within.

He was forcibly recruited by the SPLA as a young boy.  ‘They rounded up a group of us and marched us to a house where we were locked in along with sheep and goats and chickens.  One of the boys found some gasoline and threw a match into it.  It was terrible, the screaming terrible – but we all got out.  So we ran as hard as we could.’  His chest heaves as he continues to move, dodging and weaving as if pursued.

‘We ran through the bush just as a helicopter gunship approached, firing down at us.  But we kept on running.  One of the shells hit my friend, taking his head off.’ And to the boys’ horror, the headless body of their friend continued to run.  N turned to the boy on his other side, screaming, ‘Is my head still on?’  After several steps the headless body fell to the ground.

Eventually, they were all captured.  Little boys, children, innocents.  For years, they killed, looted and maimed for the SPLA.  The room has fallen silent.  Then someone sobs.  I am immobilised, images of my 12 year-old grandson merging with those of N and how many more in this room?  Why?  Why?  Why?  What has happened to the soul of a country that has so violated its primordial mandate to care for its children?

Young man sits in a chair during on of the exercises
Chairs of Power

Identity and gender are key areas of focus for the training.  In these trainings, there is nothing that is not up for interrogation – civics, culture, economics, gender, religion, tribe – and done so through the dual lenses of – What drives violence? – what of our mythmaking, what we tell ourselves about ourselves and about the other? – and What makes for peace?

People come together across what seem hopelessly insuperable barriers of race, language, creed and clan as well as story:  stories of violence and vengeance, theft, oppression and atrocity. Often, participants will begin by huddling with their own, some of those stories too recent, ongoing, not forgot.  Whether we are doing economic literacy – getting at the economic roots of violence, gender, identity, rank and privilege, or training in the skills of situational analysis, third-party non-violent intervention or direct action, we play:

Extended simulation, role play, street theatre, lots of movement, exercises that elicit more from participants than they imagined possible:  strength, vulnerability, self-awareness, other-awareness, profound questioning of social, cultural, political norms, as well as position and interests, feelings and needs.  And they emerge from a week or a month, trained as trainers – and transformed. They will go on to train thousands more.

Participants show off a drawing of a village
The Village Game: Economic Literacy

Participants are led through experiences – often laughter-inducing, sometimes trauma-triggering, often discomfitting – and then invited to unpack the learnings from the experience.  We ask three questions:

1. What happened? what did you do?  What did you observe?  How did you feel?
2.  Of what does this experience remind you?  what out there in real life is coming to mind?
3.  How can we apply these learnings to new situations and experiences?

We probe issues of identity with exercises and games and questions such as these:  How do I acknowledge the other’s identity without loss to my own?  How do I forget? How can I possibly forgive?  What if we were to see all of our tribal and linguistic identities as a tapestry of rich and diverse threads, rather than rivals, taught from birth to hate, dehumanise, torture and kill?  What would South Sudan look like if we were to work together to transform the negative energies of our internecine conflict into the positive energy of resistance to and noncoöperation with the model of atrocity and communalism modelled by the now-failed government?

Typically, one of the ways by which we raise issues of gender is a ‘fishbowl’ – two concentric circles of chairs with women in conversation in the middle and men on the outside listening.  We’d ask two questions, the first one:  ‘What is the ideal woman in your culture?’  A sigh moves across the tight knees-to-knees circle.  The men lean in.  It doesn’t matter whether the question is being posed in Toronto or Timbuktu, San Francisco or Santo Domingo, Manhattan or Manila, women say some variation of the same thing.  The rule of men is the common narrative with local distinctives.

Woman and children gathering water from well

‘Girls are not for educating: what for?’ they would say if we were in South Sudan. ‘Our role is to bring cows into the marriage, to have babies, to fetch water, grind millet, tend the live-stock, till the gardens. You don’t need an education for that!  We are to stay home, keep quiet. Men beat us and we’re supposed to be grateful; when the next wife arrives, we are polite.

‘Our work begins even before we are big enough to tie our baby brother or sister on our backs – and carry water on our heads and hoe the sorghum. ’ Bought and sold for cows, lots of cows, into polygamous arrangements, their genitals mutilated before puberty, to ‘keep them from wandering’, women are little more than slaves.  The illiteracy rate of women is second only to Afghanistan.

The second question is this:  ‘Is this OK with you?’  This time the sigh is more like a groan.  The men are getting restless; they’re not sure what to do with what they are hearing.  They’re figuring out that they are eaves-dropping on a conversation that would otherwise not be held within their hearing.

Laundry hangs on a line and clothes wait to be washed

‘We have no say.  Decisions about our village, about our lives, are made without us having anything to say.  My work never ends. He is in the village common drinking tea, talking.  The boys are playing football amongst the eucalyptus trees; the girls are washing clothes, stoking fires, stirring pots.  By the end of a training like this, through their conversations with one another, both men and women understand this fact:  Any society that marginalises half its population sentences itself to permanent underdevelopment and a permanent warrior culture. 

Later we get up to form a spectrum – placing ourselves in order according to age, figuring out that we have to talk to one another to get it right.  Then another on Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni – who famously said two decades ago that ‘the problem with Africa is that leaders stay around too long’:  who is most likely to win the upcoming elections?   They place themselves along the spectrum of opinion, clumping into two bunches at either end with three in the middle.  The polarities and the mid-point are invited to press their respective positions.  The voices clamour for ascendancy.  A third spectrum is about South Sudan, echoing Isaac’s earlier assertion that ‘South Sudan will have peace within the year.’  The spectrum once more forms into two lumps with a few in the middle; sceptics far outnumber the supporters, with a few in the middle.  The energy is electric, the determination to make their dreams of peace come true – while choosing different political pathways to do so – the word that emerges most strongly when it’s all over and done.

Yes, with the sound turned off, it might look like silly games. But what it turns out to be is the heart-and-soul rending and mending in the service of peace.  Aren’t we all tired of war, they want to know? Can we trust peace negotiation processes that are played out against all-male displays of militarised prowess?  Where are the points of intervention in the cycle of violence?  But also:  what can be modelled in a place of exile, right here and now – in new ways of being with one another, in peace commissions and other processes  meant to intervene in conflict before it turns into violence – right here in Uganda?

The joy, the jumping, laughing joy, Nuer, Dinka, as well as those Sudanese also in exile from their homes in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile state, celebrating alongside their Ugandan hosts and now friends – is startling in its exuberance.  Certificates that they will hang on their walls of their modest shelter will remind them of their commitment to peace; will invite them to tell visitors what they learned and how they are putting it into practice.  And then the graduation photo, the end of the beginning.


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San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Sudan third party non-violence intervention