Postcard from Kenya #2: Tribal Divides and Post-election Violence

On our way through a town whose name I forget, a line of fancy cars approaches us on the right (British roadway-style here) with lights flashing and horns honking.  The lead car was military or security of some sort and all of the male occupants were uniformed.  The man sitting in the passenger seat had the window rolled down, shouting loudly and flailing at anyone who dared to come near with a kind of truncheon-whip combination, at times flagellating the vehicle as if it were an intransigent elephant in need of encouragement.  Pedestrians and animals scattered accordingly.  Sporting Ugandan licence plates, the occupants of the fourth car of five was likely President Museveni, one of our Kenyan colleagues opined, returning from the inauguration ceremonies the day before in Nairobi.

Eight heads of state had attended – hardly a resounding affirmation from the international community following not one but two iffy elections.  While the inauguration happened at Kasarani stadium with the media focussing on the swearing in by the same be-wigged judge who declared the first election in August invalid presiding – the cameras stayed off the tear-gas thrown to keep some people out of Kasarini. 

Across town, at the Jacaranda Grounds, not far from where I write, police used truncheons, tear gas and bullets to keep opposition supporters of NASA leader, Raila Odinga, out of the Grounds. As one respected social media outlet put it, ‘Startling images of towers of black smoke rising over the city's largest working-class neighbourhood, while white plumes of tear gas scattered civilians hoping to attend the prayer rallies, circulated on these [social media] platforms, even while the mainstream media focused on the more inane details of the swearing-in ceremony. This dichotomy is symbolic of the deep damage – political, economic and social – that the 2017 general election has done to Kenya, leaving the country more divided today than it has been, perhaps, since the 1969 Kisumu massacre.

One part of the country celebrates what it sees as a political triumph; another part is reeling from a keen sense of disenfranchisement. And a third – the silent majority that doesn't benefit directly from dominant ethno-nationalisms - witnesses both with palpable concern.’   Some say two were killed, including a seven year-old boy; other sources say there were eight people killed.  More punitive killings in NASA neighbourhoods continued both in Nairobi and in the largely Luo Western Rift Valley.

I have had the privilege of working with people from a large variety of tribal and language groups in places like Mindanao and North East India and the Sudans, and was interested in the Kenyan distinctives. Today, a participant in a training says,  ‘Kenyan politics is not tribal.’   Bernard tells a different story this evening.  Urged for years to run for election, he decided to do so – and on the only shoestring available to him.  Choosing the party he saw as most progressive – not the one for which his Luhya tribe perennially voted en bloc, he launched his campaign in June, just two months short of the national elections date, holding five community gatherings and attracting large crowds curious about a never-before-imagined election platform of justice and peace. 

Invariably, after each gathering, people wanted their ‘tea’ – a payment from the aspirant, as they call them here.  Bernard wanted to opt out but found it impossible to do so, offering 50 shillings (about 60 cents) per person.  His competitor and member of his own tribe, however, handed out thousand-shilling notes to each person attending.  When it came to election day, his competitor paid a squad of goons (his word) to harass Bernard’s supporters and bar them from casting their ballots. Police and electoral commission agents stood by and watched.  Neither of the elections, I am told repeatedly here, was anything resembling free and fair. In the second kick at the can the end of October, 62% of the population boycotted the process. 

The road to the Catholic guest house where I am staying takes me through the Embassy and High Commission district.  Gated communities, arrogant in their opulence, speak to the untapped and undistributed wealth of this country.  A highlight of the red-carpet celebrations of inauguration day was the lunch for 5,000 hosted by the President-again, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the ‘father of the nation’, Jomo Kenyatta.  Standing out amidst the African strong men/heads-of-state guests – that as of this week will not include Robert Mugabe – is Benjamin Netanyahu.  He has his eye on collaboration around agriculture.  The Chinese, who are key amongst Africa’s neo-colonials, did not show.

The person given the responsibility to meet and greet the heads of state was Senator Gideon Moi, ‘rising star’ son of Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya from 1978 to 2002.  Moi was a fiercely anti-communist ally of the west, a regional bulwark against the socialist inclinations of Tanzania and Ethiopia.  With the end of the Cold War, his former allies began to see the light, altering their presentation of him as now corrupt, selling off his country’s resources, a despot and a dictator, a violator of human rights.  He cannily complied with the West’s demands for a multi-party system and managed to win elections in 1992 and 1997, expertly manipulating inter-tribal tensions and loyalties, winning with 30% or less of the vote against a divided opposition.  (Wait!  that sounds like Canada!) To see the new President paying a visit to and bowing to shake the hand of the elderly and ailing Moi on the front page of the Nation was troubling to many.  


Colour-coded: Decolonising Hearts, Minds & Spirits

It was another one of those silly games, those apparently pointless games that lie at the heart of conflict transformation and experiential learning.  ‘Lifeboats’ is primarily designed to harvest information from the participants in ways that are fun, kinaesthetic and, often, sneaky.  In this case, why don’t we set up an exercise that is deliberately provocative, deliberately oriented towards a dominant white culture narrative and experience?  

In ‘Lifeboats’, the story is that we are all in a ship – maybe on the Mediterranean or the Nile, the Brahmaputra or the Boac; in this case, the St Lawrence – and it’s going down.  The ‘passengers’ are assured that we are well equipped with lifeboats, no lives will be lost – but that we like to be organised about who gets into which lifeboat.  So, all those wearing blue today will get into this lifeboat over here.  All those who are pastors will come over here to get into this lifeboat – which may include those wearing blue now required to switch lifeboats.  A boat is reserved for those who access new media, whether online, print or broadcast every day, another for those who play a musical instrument.  The latter are asked to tell us which instruments they each play, and would they please play us a tune.  The pianos start playing, the djembes are tapped on knees, fingers fly off air guitars and the flute adds its dulcet tones – to laughter.  There are other lifeboats for those born outside the country, for those who have been taught to fear the police. 

Then there is one for those born in the decade in which Little Boy and Fat Boy were dropped (Hiroshima and Nagasaki; 1940s), the decade of the ‘Bennett Buggies’ (1930s), of the ‘Day the Music Died’ (1950s), the fall of the Berlin wall (1980s), that Martin Luther King was assassinated (1960s), that saw Nelson Mandela elected into South Africa’s highest office (1990s), the decade in which Wilbur Howard served as the first Black Moderator of the United Church of Canada (1970s), in which ‘Indian Residential Schools’, first opened in 1848, finally closed (1990s).  It requires talking with your neighbours:  what in the world are the ‘Bennet Buggies’?  who are Fat Boy and Little Boy? who is Wilbur Howard? 

Eventually, the lifeboats are filled, distributed between the 1940s through to the 1990s.  Once there, each group is asked to sing a song from the decade in which they were born.  We’ll eavesdrop on my group, that of the 1950s and the ‘day the music died’.  We are one francophone Haitian woman, a Taiwanese migrant who served as a Member of Parliament for a nearby riding [district], a Jamaican African-descendent church executive, as well as three white, dominant culture people.  We can’t seem to reach a decision.  Only half of us were even here in the 1950s and the pleas of the native-born for Elvis or Sinatra or Jerry Lee or Bill Haley or Chuck Berry or Patti Page or the Everly Brothers or Fats Domino are declined.  We weren’t here, the other three say.  Oh yeah, right.  The Taiwanese man suggests, interestingly enough, ‘Que será, será… the future’s not ours to see…’  Doris Day.  And so we sang.  Badly.  

The 1960s sing ‘Yesterday’ a Beatles classic.  Over protests that they were infants in the decade in which they were born, the 1980s sing the theme song from Sesame Street.  Over in the 1940s, they sing ‘I'm looking over a Four-leaf Clover'.  It’s the largest group and in the middle of the group, one woman is crying into the arms of another.  She is MJ, of Korean origins.  To her, our song, 'Que será, será' sounds like something else; not Spanish but a Japanese song she learned as a child.  She is in distress; her group is caring for her.  Almost thirty-five years into the Japanese occupation, she was born, given a Japanese name, learned Japanese songs.  Her younger sisters, born post-occupation, were given Korean names; she kept her occupier name, a reminder of the pain of occupation, of grief and loss and dislocation, so present. 

Back to the 1950s.  ‘So you did that intentionally, right?’ Michael asks.  What?  That we ask questions skewed towards the dominant culture with expectations that you’ve been here long enough to ‘get with the programme, assimilate?’  Perhaps, yes.  Sidelined again.  

In a workshop provocatively entitled ‘Colour-coded:  Decolonising Hearts, Minds and Spirits’, 29 participants spent an April Friday evening and all day Saturday exploring issues of race and racism. Here in this country, we have seen branch plants of Black Lives Matter, rising up in distinctively Canadian forms.  We have lived through, observed, the submission to Parliament of the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), its 4,000 pages and 440 recommendations going mostly nowhere and then the seven years of Truth-and-Reconciliation storytelling, gut-wrenching testimonies of 150 years of European settlers attempting to ‘kill the Indian in the child’.  We began on a sunny but crisp Friday afternoon, forming a circle in the still dormant gardens of a Toronto area United Church.  Six Nations of the Grand River Territory Elder, Renée Hill-Thomas, gathered the men, keepers of the fire, to light the four sacred grasses, huddling against a stiff breeze, smudging our circle in a ceremony of grief-cleansing.  Grief-cleansing.  Women, keepers of the water, passed a cup of water, allowing some of it to pass through our chilled fingers, purging pain.

Once back inside, we set up sacred space and gathered together our intentions, settling into discomfort as a place of learning:  to understand colonisation and decolonisation within the gob-smackingly arrogant concept of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ (flag piercing the skin of our land, they say, now ours), to get at what we bring and what we seek, doing the personal as a gateway into the systemic, grasping the necessity to not run away from difficult conversations. 

In the hours that followed, we examined issues of identity, what shapes us, conditions us; how we learn to ‘other’ the other, how we arbitrarily exclude and include, how to identify, interrupt and disrupt unconscious bias, the unmerited privilege dominant cultures harvest without thinking, the systemic reach of personal prejudice.  

Using a tool called ‘Creating a Violent Society’, we examined in small groups the intersectionality and common roots of all oppressions, laughing hysterically at times as we traversed this dangerous territory; through story-telling by Michael Blair and Renée Hill-Thomas as well as Reginald Crenshaw, African-American, Anglican and a monk, presenting race as both social construct and social contract. It is not DNA that puts some people at one end of a continuum racialised to privilege and, at the other end, to not-privilege; it is socially constructed, agreed-upon, often supported by the latter through unconscious or conscious internalisation of endless messaging about who’s who and who’s not. Perhaps most profoundly, we talked about de-colonisation as a joint task of colonised and coloniser:  we all have unlearning to do, as oppressed peoples confront their capitulation and oppressors their cluelessness.  

We recognised the tendency of the dominant culture, upon hearing stories too hard to hear, retreating into self-flagellating guilt, a place centred on the suffering of the self rather than on the task of moving beyond guilt and into action and allyship:  who grants it? what does the dominant culture need to do or learn in order to earn it?  what is the grace and forgiveness available when we allow ourselves to accept our conditioning and begin the work of consciousness?  

Towards the end of the training, we heard a story offered by LeDayne McLeese Polaski, Executive Director of the BPFNA, a painful story of the challenges of entering into difficult conversations, to which the participants responded with advice from their own experiences. How do we take risky steps into conversations we’d rather avoid, conversations that seem to hold the prospect of a price too high?  Go along to get along?  Or find the words, take the risk, reframing the issues through understanding and un-learning. 

In a closing circle, led by Renée, we ritualised our learnings, our hopes, our commitments to ourselves and to one another, to a world looking for love. 


Love & Fear, Grief & Grace

Of all the coverage post-Charlottesville, one CBC radio interview stays with me in particular.  Megan Williams of The Current interviewed a former member of the Canadian White Nationalist group known as Aryan Nation, Tony McAleer. 

The host mentioned a photo, now seen around the world, of a young, white man who was part of the white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past weekend, and played an audio clip of an interview with Peter Cvjetanovic.  She asked:  ‘What do you hear in his words? 

Tony McAleer replied:  ‘Fear. As human beings, we operate from one of two places. We operate from love or we operate from fear.

'When the U.S. census came out in 2000 showing a demographic shift, predicting a white minority within 40-50 years, there was a spike in membership in and support for white supremacist groups, based on the narrative that white genocide is impending, and their ability to control their own destiny is disappearing—and it's simply not true.  They carry this irrational fear about. I know from having dissected my own personal history.

'Deep down inside these are fearful people and they're driven to these groups by a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, and coming from a place where they don't have that within themselves. The fuel driving it all is toxic shame. It's really less about the ideology of why people join these groups than it is about anger - for reasons unrelated to ideology. But the ideology gives them a framework within which that they can try and make sense of it and blame others. But it's a very false narrative.’

The interviewer asked for clarification about ‘toxic shame’.  Tony referred to a University of Maryland study that showed that ‘the number one correlated factor in the history of somebody joining a violent extremist group is childhood trauma.’  Trauma creates ‘an unhealthy sense of self at a much deeper level – a toxic shame.’  ISIS recruits, he continued are not scholars of the Qur’an but troubled youth, looking for meaning, belonging, purpose.  Tony describes his own childhood trauma in a well-to-do home; ‘I went out into the world emotionally hungry and I made very poor choices.  Ideology was not the cause but it ‘gave me permission to act out the violence and anger that was deep inside of me.’  He cautions, however, that childhood trauma is a key factor but not a predictor. 

‘Ideology and identity become intertwined,’ he said.  And, referring to his work with an organisation called Life After Hate that assists people leave white supremacist groups, ‘if you attack the ideology, you also attack the identity, defences go up and they shut down.’ The task, he said, is to reconnect them to their humanity.  ‘I believe that the level to which we are willing to dehumanise another human being, for any reason, is a reflection of how disconnected from our own humanity that we are.’  

In our work with Partera, we understand that the same fuel that drives a white supremacist ignites social and political violence of all sorts – and the task remains the same:  how do we reconnect people with their humanity – and with the humanity of the other over what may seem like insuperable barriers?  Is it possible to value the identity of the other without feeling threatened, that to do so somehow erodes my own?  Whether it’s Naga, Rengma, Bodo, Kharbi or Garo in North East India – where more than 600,000 people have been killed in violence that pits Christian tribes against Christian tribes, indigenous against the Muslim migrant – or in Mindanao where Moros, Lumads (indigenous) and Christian settlers struggle for land, resources and autonomy – or Nuer and Dinka in South Sudan, Kurds and Turks – mantles of religion or tribe are drawn over essentially economic conflicts, staking out meta-meaning, deepening fears and raising recruitment potential.  And here in my own country, the echoes of the uncovering happening to the south of us are clear.  

I recall an encounter with a paramilitary soldier on the banks of the River Opón in Colombia in the early 1990s. I was there with Christian Peacemaker Teams, accompanying villagers in the rebuilding of their communities newly-reclaimed from the ELN.  As his heavily-armed compañeros scrambled up the banks of the river, making themselves at home in front of the terrified villagers, some of us engaged the apparent leader in conversation.  After a polite request that they move on, I asked him if he had children.  I pulled out photos of my own children and closed enough of the space between us to show him Emily and Gillian.  He replied, ‘Yes.’  ‘Boys, girls?’ I asked.  I still remember: ‘Three boys and a girl.’  ‘They must miss you.  Do you get home often?’  He looked down at the red soil at his feet and mine.  ‘Do you know what you want?’ I asked. To my surprise, he raised his head and said, ‘Peace.’  ‘Then we have something in common. That’s why we’re here, as well.’  In no way deluded as to the capacity for atrocity of this group, stories of the week before sharp in my mind, I asked, ‘But I don’t understand your methods, how you get to peace with guns.  Wouldn’t it be great if they could all be tossed into the Opón.’

Why not love?  Why does hate seem easier, more energising for some?  Tony McAleer concluded the interview with Martin Luther King: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Fear mars us, mars me, emerging in disguise as anger, hatred and violence against others.  Love makes the impossible possible.  Grief was my response to Charlottesville, a ripping, tearing grief.  I give the last word to African-American poet, Adrienne Maree Brown, who invites, in response to the UNCOVERING, both grief (and outrage...) and grace-filled collaboration.  With thanks for drawing my attention to this piece of his artwork, see friend and colleague, Ken Sehested's, Prayer & Politiks.


The Butterfly Project

North East India has been disrupted by civil war for decades; more than 600,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.  The Washington Post named it one of the six most under-reported zones of conflict in 2014.  The seven states of the tiny northeast region are, unusual for India, mostly Christian and tribals.  They consider themselves ‘Mongolian’ and racially distinct from the largely Caucasian Indian mainland. 

The decades of violence in the North East was preceded by and, in some ways, rooted in the Partition of 1947-48, which exploded into a ‘mutual genocide’ amongst Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. The carnage was intense, characterised by massacres, arson, kidnappings and ‘savage sexual violence’[i] with 15 million uprooted and between one and two million killed.  Having re-categorised Indians over their 300-year occupation into boxes that broke down centuries of shared traditions and co-existence across religions,[ii]  the British Raj was succeeded by a newly independent government too pre-occupied to fulfill earlier promises of autonomy in the North East. To years of agitation, the government responded by sending in heavily-armed troops.  Insurgency movements formed and then, so often the story, they fragmented into factions, turning their weapons on one another, distracting them from the real cause of their suffering:  Delhi’s policies of nepotism, neglect and militarisation of the region.   

So how is it that the most Christian part of India is also the most violent?  For some, the answer to that question is all too obvious in a world in which many see religion as the root cause of all evils.  As Christians, to what extent does that identity inform the others – as mother, teacher, partner...?  Or do our ‘tribal’ identities hold sway, our Christian identity brushed off for holy occasions only, a ‘Jesus veneer on what we were going to do anyways’? To what extent do we take seriously that saying that is arguably the most important and unusual thing that Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies.’  Do we allow those words to hang as interpretive plumbline for every other phrase, story, exhortation, rule or rhyme the Bible contains?

Turning the Bible into a tool in our peacemaking toolbox is not easy; some say, not worth the trouble.  The Hebrew Testament, in particular, depicts many stories of inter-tribal one-upmanship that seem right at home in North East India:  My god is better than your god; my tribe better than your tribe, my clan, my story better than your story; my rights trump your rights.  The result of the use of scripture as a recruitment tool for violence, invasion, mass atrocities, apartheid or civil war is underdevelopment, destruction, refugee flows, deaths in the hundreds of thousands or more.  It matters.

Miriam comes from a small village outside of Dimapur in Nagaland.  She is here as part of a group of 107 women who are gathering in Guwahati from all over the North East.  They are women’s department employees from each of the seven conventions and 100 local Associations.   They’ve come for training in three things:  women’s human rights, conflict transformation and biblical peacemaking; all to be accomplished in three days – an impossible task.

Miriam’s was an arranged marriage; ‘not a love marriage,’ she told me when we met at the compound canteen the day before the training was to begin.  ‘It still isn’t.’  She has two children and lives with her father-in-law. She has the typical Asiatic epicanthic fold of the eyes, testimony to ancient migrations from the east and north; her skin is pale, her hair tinged with something ruddy, added or natural, I’m not sure.  Her husband works in Arunachal Pradesh, helping to build a dam.  She doesn’t see him much which is OK with her; he’s better off there than in his village. 

We are interrupted by the entrance of a young teenager whom Esther introduces as her nephew, Kesonyu; in his arms is ten month-old Zelian.  She accepts the baby into her arms and smoothly manoeuvres him onto her breast.  Kesonyu dashes out, grateful for the reprieve.  ‘Because of him,’ she says, I can be here.  ‘My sister’s son.’  She smiles.

‘I love my work with the Association.  I wasn’t paid last year; not yet this year.  But that’s OK. We do what women are supposed to do, support one another, prepare programmes that bring women together so that we can talk and share our needs and then we figure out how to meet those needs.  Sometimes the most important thing we do it talk!’  She laughs, sweet memories flashing across her face.

She becomes thoughtful, lowering her voice.  ‘We’re tired,’ she says. ‘We’re so tired; tired of war, of all the violence and death. It makes no sense.’  She turns to face me.  ‘Men make war, we clean up the mess.’ 

 ‘We have no say at panchayat (village council),’ she says.  Unless we are summoned – usually for punishment – we don’t count. And the church is no different.’  She turns away and says into the distance as little Zelian begins to gurgle with satisfaction, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to learn here.  But we want to show them that we are ready, trained! to bring peace.

Over the next three days, we sing and talk and tell stories and pray.  We probe the Bible for things we didn’t even know were there. We lay the groundwork for skills in conflict transformation. We talk about how religious and cultural rights do not take priority over a woman’s rights to the integrity of her person, to freedom of movement, to marry freely, to inherit and own property, to the integrity of her person. We talk about Reservation 33%, a federal ruling mandating local governments to set aside 1/3 of the seats for women and, in Nagaland, in particular, the bloody protests by men who fear its implications for cultural practices protected in their autonomy agreement with Delhi.  ‘In India,’ declared one interviewee in the Nagaland Morung Express News, ‘men are considered superior to women and that has to be taken very seriously.’ 

On the last day, we are doing two things.  We spend the day doing ‘biblical peacemaking’ in which we poke into some of the strangest and darkest corners of our scriptures:  the rapes of Tamar and of Dinah, the slaughter of the Amalekites, the rules of holy way and booty, the Levite’s concubine and Jephthah’s daughter.  We also revisit familiar passages such as ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘go the extra mile’ and the Good Samaritan – plumbing them for new meaning. 

In small groups, they read the text, cast and script the drama and then play it out for everyone.  We ask questions like, Why did the Levite and the priest cross by on the other side?  Wouldn’t just walking by be equally effective; why make such a point about it?  There’s an answer to that question that lies in a theme that pervades the Bible, that of purity or holiness codes.  The Hebrew people believed themselves to be different and separate, the one and only people of God with a lifelong mandate to act out their exceptionalism. Long lists of rules about behaviour and sacrifice and cultural norms, a total orientation of life, social, cultural, political and religious reminded them of their separateness. Purity codes were violated if their priests allowed even so much as their shadow to pass over a dead body.  The clerics of this familiar story are demonstrating exactly the kind of rules that Jesus criticised and routinely broke:  their compliance with purity regulations was more important than the life of the man left to die on the side of the road to Jericho. 

There’s another part of the story, as well, that we talk about, that is easy to miss.  One sector of the human population for whom the Hebrew people reserved a particular hatred and, therefore, separateness, was the Samaritan.  The Samaritans, in a time of place-based religion, decided at some point that God did not reside on Mount Zion in Jerusalem but on Mount Gerizim in Samaria.  They packed up and left, traitors to the one true religion, the worst. 

I don’t know how the man left to die could tell that the man who lifted his head to give him water, bathed his wounds with oil – was a Samaritan – no more than I know how someone in North East India can tell a Garo from a Karbi, a Rengma from a Kuki.  But I imagine that he did.  That he opened his eyes and, with a sharp intake of his breath, realised that he was being cared for by a Samaritan.  The very last person in front of whom he would wish to be vulnerable or in need of care was giving him drink, treating his wounds and lifting him ever so gently onto his donkey.  ‘Go and do likewise,’ Jesus tells the utterly horrified lawyer.  Jesus is saying, as he so often does, that no one, no one at all is to be ‘othered’, fenced off as worthless, somehow less, someone we can insult, ignore, neglect, torture or kill.  No one.

In my culture, I tell them, a ‘Good Samaritan’ is someone who stops to help me with my flat tire.  To Jesus’ first century, Palestinian hearers, those words formed a provocative oxymoron, an outrage:  there was no such thing as a GOOD Samaritan. We domesticate our scriptures to make them palatable, lowering the bar to behaviours we can manage or, as one writer put it, ‘putting a Jesus veneer on what we were going to do anyways’. We need to hear these passages with the ears of the original hearers, recapture the outrage.

The second thing we do on the last day of the training turns the room into a rambunctious, playful space.  We’ve been spending each day thinking of ourselves as butterflies, day one, still cocooning, gestating who we are going to be.  On the second day, the soft pupa is now cracking and drying, our wet wings unfolding through the cracks.  On Day Three, the graduation ceremony is brilliant with butterflies they’ve created with coloured paper, symbolic of these Women Rising.   They will take them home frame them and hang them on living room walls as a reminder to both themselves and all visitors:  This Woman is an Agent of Peace!

[i] William Dalrymple, ‘The Great Divide’, 29 June 2015, The New Yorker; writing on Nisid Hajari’s book, Midnight’s Furies (New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

[ii] Alex Van Tunzelman, Indian Summer:  The Secret History of The End of an Empire (Toronto:  Pocket Books, 2007), p. 396.


The 104: Women Rising!

Imagine this.  Decades of death, hundreds of thousands killed.  Men raiding, burning, killing, committing mind-numbing atrocities against their neighbours, retaliation following upon retaliation.  A collage of images of women and children; their villages and homes still smouldering in the background, gathering the children, rescuing the pots and pans, stoking fires, warming dahl. 

And then imagine those women leaving their pots for awhile, 104 of them, rolling up their sleeves, hiking up their kurti, elbows out, taking all manner of transport from Nagaland and Meghalaya and Manipur to Guwahati in the state of Assam to get themselves trained, equipped to step out of their place, to take their place.   

Please donate to make this happen!

War is a rather gendered thing

The Washington Post has named the North East of India as one of the six most under-reported war zones in the world.  Six hundred thousand people have died.  Male combatants make war and male combatants are given priority at tables of peace negotiations.  Women are expected to accept ‘top-down solutions imposed on them’ in the course of discussions to which they have not been invited.  As if ‘you need a gun to get to the table’. 

A recent op-ed in the Toronto Star posed the question:  ‘Why are women not included in peacebuilding efforts?’  Exactly our question.  Because we know it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing.  The International Peace Institute analysed 156 peace agreements and found that, when women are included, there was a 35% increase in the chances of accords lasting more than 15 years.  We know that ‘equality between the sexes is directly linked to peaceful societies; better security for women means that countries are more security and experience lower levels of conflict and war.’  As one of my posters says, ‘When any society marginalises 50% of its population, it condemns itself to a permanent warrior culture and permanent underdevelopment.’  Then why the ongoing exclusion? 

Women who have had the opportunity to challenge social norms that limit their participation at tables of all sorts – from the kitchen table to tables of economic, social and political decision-making -- are like butterflies emerging from their pupa.  Enter these 104 women, sleeves rolled up, leaving the kitchen to the family to sort out, ready to transform themselves into agents of change, agents of peace.  They’ve had enough.  They’ve had enough of the domestic violence within that escalates in tandem with identity-fuelled violence without.  Weary of losing their mother’s grip on sons training for war.  Weary of starting over again.

I’m thinking, women bring a different perspective, more aware of the economic, social, cultural and political rules that get in the way of their agency – and in the way of peace; perhaps less attached to the history and the boxes that divide tribe from tribe.  And so that’s where we’ll begin.  I am imagining that very large circle of 104 women and finding out what they believe they bring that’s different; what’s missing and why they are confident they can fill the gap.  And what do we need to do in order to make that happen.  STAY TUNED! and DONATE!