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Your location>Home>Publications>PeaceWays>Spring 2008

   
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Empowering Youth to Find Alternatives to Violence
By Julia O’Connor

From April 3rd to 5th, 2008, Julia O’Conner participated in an AVP workshop at the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camp at the Turbo police station in the Lugari District of western Kenya. Most of the participants were Kikuyu who had been displaced by the violence in January and February, although five of the participants were from the National Youth Service camp which is next to the IDP camp.

Julia is from Britain and works in a Swiss youth hostel. She was visiting Kenya between skiing and summer season. Each year she goes to those parts of the world where there is major conflict--like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and the West Bank--as a peace emissary.

Introduction
Since many latent conflicts in Kenya became manifest in direct physical violence following the corrupt December 2007 elections, the call for Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops has been increased far beyond the previous level. The day before the workshop began I accompanied the four facilitators to the IDP site where they made arrangements.

Facilitator Peter explained to one of our hosts that our reason for reaching out to the youth -- in this and many other current workshops -- is because it is the youth that are most “vulnerable.” This statement seemed to surprise the host who perhaps like many Kenyans tends to think more readily of the youth as the cause of trouble rather than the victim of it. What Peter and the other facilitators Margaret, Caleb and Beverly believe is that it is the youth who need to hear about non-violence because it is the youth who are in danger of “succumbing to violence.”

During the workshop I gained a greater understanding of this idea; the youth of Kenya suffer the violence of disempowerment and this creates the potential for further violence. I will relate my understanding of how the AVP workshop I attended facilitated a transformation in participants from (relative) disempowerment/violence to empowerment/non-violence. I will follow the utilitarian structure of the workshop itself, raising consciousness and moving incrementally from passive negative elements to positive active elements.

Disempowerment in Context
As a traditional society, Kenya values family, tribe and the authority of elders. Youth are not valued for their voices and throughout Kenya the young do not assert their needs and indeed are not encouraged to do so. Through the media and international links, today’s youth are exposed to the riches they do not possess. This increases dissatisfaction and awareness of injustice when they cannot even afford quality food, housing and secondary education; all problems expressed by the group. They are told Kenya is a free society of opportunity and social mobility but suffer shame as they fail to get job after job, another problem consistently expressed. Denied education and jobs, the youth may then be considered idle and further disdained and humiliated.

While the pain of poverty is felt by all, in Kenya’s gendered society disempowerment tends to be felt in different ways by males and females. For males, the failure to meet the expectation put upon them to earn, provide, be productive, and effective is felt keenly. During an exercise in which participants shared their happiest memory, one young man told of the first time his parents went away and told him to keep house. He spoke of his pride at bearing this responsibility saying, “I know that in the future I can be head of the house. I can keep land and keep family.” Youth may be looked down upon for appearing to shirk responsibilities which they in fact long for but simply have no means of acquiring. The expectation of females is lower and, though they tend to avoid the worst of the feelings of failure in this area, they often bear the brunt of the man”s sense of emasculation and frustration. The post-election violence and subsequent displacement has further disendowed people and exacerbated the problems.

The AVP workshop began with the sharing of personal testimonies which laid a foundation for understanding the context of the issues to be addressed. One young female participant told of how she was forced to leave her home for an IDP camp when the violence started, and she unhappily added that the first IDP she reached was simply a field with no blankets and no facilities. The day before, this young woman had been employed in a salon. The unmistakeable sense of humiliation she felt as she told her story was shared by many. She had been materially disendowed through looting, disempowered through her inability to respond to her circumstances and felt a loss of freedom to do even simple things, such as choose which foods she would eat. While they told their stories, few participants had stories containing positive personal elements, almost all presenting themselves as objects in their own life stories.

Understanding how Disempowerment Leads to Further Violence
The AVP workshop featured a “Roots and Fruits of a Tree” exercise wherein participants volunteered what they thought to be the causes and consequences of both violence and non-violence. Many of the things discussed (poverty, powerlessness, lack of freedom) were identified by participants as being violent, harmful, and contrary to full human realisation. Participants also recognised the fact that many things, such as mistrust and tribalism, could be seen simultaneously as a cause and a consequence. The violence tree presented a perverse and violently dehumanising world. Idleness, injustice, corruption and incitement were all identified by the group as causes of violence.

Through experiential learning tasks, participants identified specific ways in which violence may arise. The “Chinese whispers” exercise exemplified the corruption of information and the folly of dependence on hearsay. In another listening exercise participants reported that they felt they got better information when they listened without getting “chipping in” from the listener. Failure to listen was appreciated not only as a source of misunderstanding but also as being limiting and frustrating for the speaker; all of which add to violence.

For the first two days of the workshop I observed that participants spoke in an increasingly sophisticated way about the nature of violence and how it arises, but were much less forthcoming when called upon to contribute ideas for non-violent activity. Thinking of a single instance when “I solved a conflict non-violently” was a struggle for many. An empathy exercise which required people to volunteer potential non-violent responses to specific anonymous personal problems was particularly difficult. Participants were effectively unaware of their capacity to choose non-violence and struggled to come up with ideas.

Knowing how to be empowered, active and non-violent.
As participants came to a deeper understanding of the wide context of violence and more consciously aware of the ways in which it can become manifest, they progressively came to know about the more positive side of the AVP workshop; becoming empowered, choosing non-violence and being and acting non-violently. As it is termed in the AVP workshop, participants learned to use their Transforming Power for peace.

Self Respect: The importance of self respect had been encountered on the first day as participants spoke about something they liked about themselves. They were assured that they were not being boastful, but rather addressing the goodness within them. Participants witnessed somebody else relating a positive account of themselves to another person and experiencing a good feeling at hearing themselves being spoken about in positive terms.

Participants learned that this self belief was fundamental to their own Transforming Power. Self belief and respect, as well as being good and positively peaceful in themselves, were acknowledged as a foundation for further peace. Belief in ones own goodness and worth, in the ability to choose, and to act enabled an increased willingness to risk looking for non-violent solutions and to base ones position on the truth.

Care for Others: Participants discussed the fact that there is good in all people and recognized that they can care for all people in some way. One participant succinctly summarised “it is what he did that is bad, not him.” Participants were quick to recognize their own worth and the worth of others or, as one facilitator put it, to believe that they are not “just there.” Everyone seemed encouraged and upbeat on these points, aware of their own and others failings but also their ultimate goodness and power to choose. I felt that participants initially struggled to see how this could be applied. There seemed to be recognition of the power but little idea of what one could actually do and little expectation that non-violent solutions could work.

Look for Non-Violent Solutions: At this stage participants were given practical suggestions of how to look for non-violent solutions. For example, to listen so as to understand the conflict properly and to be willing to change ones own position, to use humor and surprise, and be creative about solutions. Participants asked for further help with the humor, surprise and creative elements. For example, on the problem of being unable to afford education, participants were unable to make suggestions until facilitators gave specific ideas such as church-fundraising events, attending a cheaper school or “prayer and patience” as a positive empowered choice.

Participants were introduced to a range of idealised problem solving tools. The Broken Squares exercise taught that cooperation and give and take were often necessary. “I messages” were practised; participants were shown how to convey negative personal feelings without accusation and to relate what feels wrong and what would make it better without antagonizing the other party. This exercise was successful as participants formulated “I messages” well. Subsequent discussion saw the ideas internalized and some participants seemed confident not only in using “I messages” explicitly but also in co-opting the ideas into their wider approach to conflict.

Think Before Reacting: Following the “I messages” exercise one participant asked how he would use an I-message in a particular situation, such as a money problem - he needs to pay for something and he doesn’t have the money. Facilitators used this to explain the reflexive and intuitive aspects of Transforming Power, showing that different situations call for different and modified solutions.

Expect the best: Finally, hope was emphasised as we will be more open and trustful and goal oriented if we expect the best.

Practicing Non-Violence
On the afternoon of the final day, participants got into groups to prepare and then present a short role-play. Each role-play consisted of a conflict and a non-violent solution to that conflict. Participants utilized what they had learned and consolidated the knowledge acquired. All of the groups were effective in identifying a violent context, such as jealousy/infidelity, in which direct conflict may arise which had not previously been looked at in great detail. All of the groups showed a good understanding of causes and sustainers of conflict, including things such as violent gestures.

Groups also showed a good grasp of finding non-violent solutions. I believe that some of the reservations and difficulties that participants initially had with the idea of choosing and applying solutions were alleviated by the preparation of this role-play. In practice, participants found that with the foundations of self respect and recognition of the value of others they were able to intuitively use their own knowledge and resources. This involved simple appropriate things- eye contact, lowered voices, recognition of the shared desire to be together, use of an impartial mediator accepted by both parties.

Following each role-play participants observing the presenting group were asked if the conflict had been successfully solved non-violently. In one instance, doubts were expressed. In the play in question there was a consensus that the final hand-shake had been half hearted and that the underlying problem had not been resolved. The detection of this struck me as a sign of great awareness of the need for positive peace and also as a signifier of deep understanding and high level of sensory acuity on the part of participants.

Summary and Unanswered Questions
I believe that the three day basic level AVP workshop was a success with participants moving from being disempowered to being empowered to act non-violently. This was initially done rather passively through recognition of the context of violence and then more engagingly through internalization. Through enabling Transforming Power the positive ability to be and act non-violently came to fruition.

Participants grew in confidence, understanding and capacity at each level. As well as having a progressive structure, the workshop also facilitated deep learning processes through the range and order of methods used. Transforming Power was first introduced didactically, then discussed with learning aids, and then put into practice reaching practical fulfilment in the role-play. The success of these methods is evident in the observable increase in participants understanding. Participants moved from seeing themselves as passive, to asking how they were in a position to act, to asking specifically and animatedly which actions they could usefully employ.

On the final day we addressed unanswered questions. By this stage a few members of the group were quite adept in the language of non-violence and were formulating difficult and far reaching questions (“Do you think Kibaki would have done anything if people hadn’t fought?” “How can we change elite corruption non-violently?”). Facilitators confirmed these as difficult questions and spoke of the importance of starting with ourselves, our families, friends etc.

The greatest evidence of the success of the workshop to transform participants could be seen in the role-play. Groups came up with contexts, situational violence and non-violent responses which had not been explicitly discussed before thus demonstrating that they had internalized the ideas and gained sufficient understanding to be able to apply the ideas to situations encountered outside the workshop and in their lives.

One participant, Elijah, shared that two days after the workshop he had found his father and brother quarrelling over the food share they had received from the Red Cross. He told me proudly, “I used my Transforming Power to unite them.” He did this intuitively through calm talk. It is a great success that Elijah now feels empowered to speak and act, strengthening his self respect and belief even as he helps those around him solve conflicts without violence.