Western Friend logo

Reconciliation in Eastern Africa

David Zarembka
On Countries (January 2016)
Healing the World

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?

– Mathew 5:43-47

Since 1998, I have been Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative (AGLI) of Friends Peace Teams, which has been involved extensively with trauma healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and rebuilding communities destroyed by deadly violence. This experience includes the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, the twelve-year civil war in Burundi, the on-going fighting since 1996 in North and South Kivu (Congo), the attacks by the Lord Resistance Army in Uganda and the Central Africa Republic, the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya, and the Boko Haram conflict in northern Nigeria. I have learned a lot over these eighteen years.

Numerous passages in the Bible – mainly in the New Testament, but even in some parts of the Old Testament – emphasize reconciliation, non-violence, forgiveness, and love of enemies. These are bedrock beliefs of ardent pacifist Christians, but Western culture as a whole gives no more than lip service to them. It considers pacifists to be utopian and unrealistic in this cruel world of evil people and terrorists. Reconciliation is reserved for “saints” and the Amish; it is definitely not considered to be a fundamental part of human nature; instead, revenge is the impulse that is considered normal and innate.

After AGLI workshops, we frequently record the testimonies of some of the participants. One especially striking testimony was shared by a Rwanda genocide survivor. By chance, she had attended a workshop which was also attended by the man she had watched kill her brother and two sisters. She and the man were paired together for an exercise called, “Trust Walk.” You probably played this game when you were a child: one person is blindfolded, and the second one leads the blindfolded player outside and keeps them from running into trees or falling over stones. In her testimony afterwards, the woman reflected, “I was shaking because my partner was a known killer and very strong. I thought he might throw me down, but he also had fear, and he took me gently, kindly. I asked him, ‘Will you lead me in peace?’ After the trust walk with him, I felt it was not good to stay in my grief and had no fear against him.” When I ask Americans to read this testimony during my presentations in the U.S., most of them say that they could never respond as this woman did, and a few don’t even think this is a true story, but that we made it up! Many people are firm believers in revenge.

The American belief in revenge is a cultural construct and not an innate human quality. Admittedly, most people experience thoughts and fantasies of revenge when someone hurts them, but they also have thoughts of forgiveness and reconciliation. This second set of responses is negated and suppressed in Western Culture.

It is easy to empathize with the survivors of deadly violence. It is natural to want to help them recover and heal from their wounds, both physical and mental. However, towards the perpetrators of violence, empathy comes less readily. If they are caught, society’s typical response is to punish and imprison them – with no acknowledgement that they, too, have been traumatized by the acts they have committed.

This impulse towards revenge is wreaking havoc on American society. Revenge is an underlying motive behind the extreme rate of incarceration in the U.S. – the highest in the world at 0.7% of U.S. population in October 2013. Since 1941, the revenge motive has sent approximately 26 million U.S. soldiers off to foreign wars, from which they have returned home (if they returned home) mentally wounded by what they have seen and done while at war. These soldiers’ needs for trauma healing are neglected, and as a result, some of them express their traumas at home by becoming perpetrators of domestic violence, murder, and/or suicide.

The first principle of every HROC workshop is, “There is that of Good in every person.” As a non-religious workshop, we have had to add that extra “o” into the familiar Quaker testimony, “There is that of God in every person.” It is remarkable how effective this principle is. Graduates of our workshops, time and time again, mention how this statement has changed their perspective on their “enemy.” Having achieved that new perspective, it is only another short step to reconciliation and the desire to move forward in peace. When reconciliation and/or forgiveness occur, our participants frequently make statements like, “A burden has been taken off my back;” “Now I am human again;” or “I feel lighter.”

If we think only of revenge and retaliation, then we are mired forever in anger, hostility, and viewing the world as an evil place. When we embrace reconciliation, we move on from the hurts of the past toward a better world, one that offers optimism and healing.  ~~~

David Zarembka has been the coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams since 1998. He is the editor of PeaceWays, which can be found online at: aglifpt.org.

Alternatives to Violence Revenge Genocide Africa peace-making

Return to "On Countries" issue