Alyssa Erickson, AVP fascilitator and human rights worker.
|Throughout the seven countries of this region—Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Tanzania—religious congregations of Quakers, also known as Friends, have thrived since Quaker missionaries arrived around the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1995, one year after the first tragic massacre in Rwanda, Quaker congregations in Uganda began to search for ways to encourage conflict resolution in their society. They invited leaders
(facilitators)of the Alternatives to Violence Project, sponsored in Minnesota by Friends for a Non-Violent World, to conduct AVP workshops. Now, in 2002, Africa’s demand for AVP continues to grow. Well over 100 leaders (facilitators) of AVP have been trained in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda and continue to train others. Their influence is far-reaching. In Uganda there are now people who work as prison guards who have been through the AVP workshops. The African Great Lakes Initiative in Africa and the Friends for a Non-Violent World in Minnesota are working together to bring more AVP workshops to Africa.
Not until five years after the second massacre in Rwanda were the first workshops held in that country. Joann Perry, an AVP facilitator from St. Paul, spent nearly six weeks in Rwanda in 2001, where she helped lead 12 20-hour workshops.
It was exhilarating, she said, because the experiential learning style of AVP is perfect in Africa where people are glad to get away from the typical top-down learning methods used in most schools. The premise of
AVP, that wisdom and knowledge reside in all of us and our job is to discover what we know, is well received. People at the workshops often stayed up half the night discussing exercises that had been introduced.
At the same time, the workshops were draining for Perry because so many of the participants told her their personal horror stories of the Rwanda genocide.
To understand the issues of Rwanda, Perry said, it is helpful to know that Rwanda is a tiny, landlocked country and is the most densely populated in Africa. There are about 330 people per square kilometer. Since everyone farms, land is scarce. Some of the national parks have even been turned into farmland so there is room for everyone.
The two major ethnic groups are the Tutsis and the Hutus. The Tutsis are very tall and thin and typically are cattle farmers. The Hutus are more normal-sized people and typically are crop farmers. Although outnumbered by the Hutus four to one, the Tutsis ruled the country from the 1500s until 1959 when the Hutus revolted and took over the country. Thousands of Tutsis became refugees in neighboring countries. The Hutu government was recognized by the United Nations in 1962. The fight for control of the country eventually led to the slaughter, in 1994 and 1996, of a million people by extremist Hutus who killed both Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Currently there are over 100,000 alleged perpetrators, maybe as many as 160,000, according to Perry, behind bars in Rwanda who have been living in the squalor of overcrowded prisons for eight years. They are scheduled to be released soon and Rwanda has to figure out how justice will take place. This is one of many challenges for the current Tutsi president who was elected in 2000.
Although AVP was developed by Friends (Quakers) together with inmates at a correctional facility in New York, it is brilliantly adaptable to explore nonviolence in many sets of circumstances. In Rwanda there were obvious problems to be investigated. How does it feel to become the oppressor after being oppressed? What about the other way around? How do you build peace after great evil has occurred? And very specifically, how do crop farmers and cattle farmers settle disputes? A general statement from AVP says that the workshops “help individuals explore the spirit of nonviolence and practice conflict resolution skills. The fundamental belief of AVP is that there is a power for peace and good in everyone, and that this power has the ability to transform violence.”
The exceptionally creative thing about an AVP workshop is that a new community is forged during the intense, intimate time that people spend together, laughing, playing, thinking, no matter whether the participant be an old Buddhist farmer, a young Baptist university professor, a middle-aged atheist biker, a pregnant teenager, a tattoo artist or a politically radical ex-felon. Or a Hutu or a Tutsi.
Both Hutus and Tutsis attended the workshops. The major religious group in Rwanda is Catholic, but the workshops were made up largely of non-Catholic Christians (and a few Catholic priests), probably because the project was organized by Quakers. The Catholic priests who did attend were very enthusiastic. In the future an effort will be made to invite the very small Muslim population.
Because AVP has brought so much hope to Africans working for peaceful solutions, Perry is committed to bringing more AVP workshops to the African Great Lakes Region. Her next trip will be to Uganda (as soon as she can raise the money). Her other goal is to find a way to send one AVP facilitator from the United States to form an AVP support team together with two African facilitators who would develop AVP workshops throughout the African Great Lakes Region for at least three years.
In the meantime, Alyssa Erickson, an AVP facilitator and human rights worker who just spent a year of study in Tanzania and graduated with a degree in political science and sociology from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, will go to Tanzania for two months this summer to help develop an AVP program in Tanzania. With a conversational knowledge of Swahili, she has been able to get an inside view of the specific problems there, especially conflicts between political groups and the country’s many religious groups.
A fund-raiser at 7 p.m., Tue., July 9, will be held at Friends for a Non-Violent World, 1050 Selby Ave., St. Paul (south of I-94 and east of Lexington Avenue) to raise the rest of the money needed for her trip. Erickson will present an overview of present day Tanzania, its conflicts, social and human rights issues, and also, an overview of Tanzania as it relates to the African Great Lakes Region.
AVP-World Village is the support and sponsoring organization to bring AVP to Tanzania.
The event will be a chance to connect with others in the Minnesota peacemaker network. Snacks and coffee will be served.Erickson will also speak during a Peace and Social Action Committee event at the Twin City Meetinghouse on Grand Avenue in St. Paul at 9:45 a.m., Sun., July 7. Donations may be sent to
AVP-World Village, 1050 Selby Ave., St. Paul, MN 55104.