Interview with Libby Hoffman
Is it possible to encourage peace in Africa?
Yes, of course!
Although I’m not sure I would phrase it just that way – ‘encouraging peace in Africa.’ Rather, I think of the opportunity more as discovering the peace that is already there.
As an ‘outsider’ who works as a peacebuilder in places other than where I live, I don’t see my work as bringing something in from the outside (like expertise, answers, or even peace), but rather looking for and helping to magnify the answers that are already there in the places we work – the pre-existing goodness – so that it can grow and others can see and participate in it as well.
I think of ordinary people as the great untapped resource in peacebuilding in general, and in Africa this is especially true.
Even in the midst of the most brutal circumstances, we repeatedly find powerful and persistent acts of goodness. Sometimes people act with the conscious intention of trying to transform something bad into something good. Sometimes they act from the simple impulse to care, to do for another what you would want done for yourself.
It’s easy to miss these stories. Blinded by the idea that what’s ‘important’ is something bigger or more flashy, more sophisticated or more forceful — we miss the pulse of the genuine as it courses courageously on. The extraordinary is often situated in what is most ordinary. So at Catalyst for Peace, we are always actively looking for these stories, and asking:
- How can we see these stories more clearly?
- How can we learn from them more fully?
- How can we build on them, support and be supported by the good that exists, and make room for its hidden potential to grow and flourish?
Individually, this is very much an inner journey for me as well as an outer journey.
My primary commitment is always to my own growth and learning first, and to the degree I do that – to the degree I ‘encourage peace in myself’ – I find I can bring much more to encouraging peace elsewhere.
Nigerian author Ben Okri has a quote that has resonated with me ever since I first read it. He writes:
We have to re-discover Africa. The first discovery of Africa by Europe was the wrong one. It was not a discovery. It was an act of misperception. They saw, and bequeathed to future ages, an Africa based on what they thought of as important. They did not see Africa. And this wrong seeing of Africa is part of the problems of today. Africa was seen from a point of view of greed, of what could be got from it. And what you see is what you make. What you see in a people is what you eventually create in them. It is now time for a new seeing. It is now time to clear the darkness from the eyes of the Western world. The world should now begin to see the light in Africa, to see its sunlight, to see its brightness, its brilliance, its beauty. If we see it, it will be revealed. We only see what we see. Only what we see, what we see anew, is revealed to us. Africa has been waiting, for centuries, to be discovered with eyes of love, the eyes of a lover. There is no true seeing without love.
— Ben Okri
I think Africa has much to teach the world.
When we approach it as learners (as opposed to trying to ‘save’ it), we open the way for that teaching to happen.
What are you doing to encourage peace in Africa?
As a private foundation, Catalyst for Peace works to identify, support, and share the stories of locally owned and led peacebuilding and reconciliation. Our flagship work is Fambul Tok (Family Talk) in Sierra Leone.
Fambul Tok is a nation-wide program of community owned and led reconciliation in Sierra Leone. Rooted in the understanding the answers are there – that communities and cultures have within them the answers to their own problems, the program creates a space for communities to come together and heal after their 11 year civil war through tradition-based ceremonies of truth-telling, apology and forgiveness.
And this process is fully owned and led by the communities themselves, and the ordinary people who live there. Fambul Tok as an organization works to facilitate the process, but does not step in to run it directly. The forgiveness ceremonies represent the beginning of a much longer-term process of rebuilding the networks of community to sustain and cement the reconciliation process that’s just begun.
Although Sierra Leone had a Special Court to prosecute the people deemed most responsible for the brutal acts of the war, as well as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the vast majority of people most impacted by the war had no access to a justice process or a way to reconcile. Living next door to people who may have killed or maimed family members, destroyed their property, or hurt them, they couldn’t move on individually or collectively from the devastations of the war.
Fambul Tok was created to step into that gap.
Asking people if they wanted to reconcile, and if so, how they wanted to do that, created a space for Sierra Leoneans to define justice differently than the way the international community was defining it.
Instead of punishment and separation of perpetrators, communities wanted to bring about justice by making their communities whole again – and that meant including both victims and perpetrators.
It meant drawing on their traditions of ‘fambul tok,’ of coming together to solve problems through honest dialogue.
The stories of forgiveness and reconciliation have been nothing short of awe-inspiring, and show what communities and individuals are capable of, given a space of invitation and safety, and a strong community of support.
Once they have gone through a reconciliation ceremony, communities are embracing economic and social development opportunities together with astonishing speed and strength, establishing community farms as well as micro-enterprise and market initiatives.
Of special note, women are forming “Peace Mothers” groups to address the unique way they suffered in the war, and unleashing incredible channels for women to lead in their communities’ development. Fambul Tok School Clubs have become powerful avenues for youth to learn about the history of the war and to learn about and practice the skills of peace themselves.
Knowing how much the stories of this work would have the potential to inspire others, especially in the West, it was critically important to us to make Fambul Tok (the film), and all of the related materials – especially the companion book, also called Fambul Tok; the curriculum and Educational Guide to support integration into classroom and real life learning; the Wan Fambul Student Clubs program, to support channels for students around the world engaging with the ideas of Fambul Tok. In addition, we have continued to produce short films illuminating the rippling circles of impact as the Fambul Tok story is lived into in new ways throughout Sierra Leone and elsewhere.
What can others do to encourage peace in Africa?
I think one of the most important roles for outsiders in encouraging peace in Africa is to be willing to learn from the stories of peace that are emerging in Africa, and to let the ideas they illuminate take root in our own lives.
An understanding of the power of community – what healthy and whole communities are capable of, and what it takes to help cultivate community wholeness – is sorely needed in the world. For those of us from more individualistic cultures, this means cultivating an openness to the new, and a willingness to embrace our own in-process-ness along this path. And to do this with other people!
And we need to let go of our own need to be a savior.
The need to ‘save’ perpetuates not only a deficit-based view of the people we think we need to save, but a missed opportunity to discover the riches of what another culture has to teach us.
True giving requires long term, sustained engagement, and a willingness to walk side-by-side others as they live into their own answers, and a willingness to learn as we go. And there’s nothing more rewarding than that!
All photo images in this article are courtesy of the Catalyst for Peace and Fambul Tok websites.
To visit the Catalyst for Peace website click here.