Spinning Peace in Africa

Strengthening the Web of Relationships for Peace

The Life of the Project: A trilogy in four parts

Preparing Ourselves for a road less traveled

The Learning Journey started in the City of Gold, Johannesburg (not Eldorado) when a group of Human Rights lawyers and activists from Zimbabwe met with some peacebuilding colleagues from South Africa. After observing the work being done in the field in the townships around Gauteng, and reflecting on their own work, those lawyers recognised the need for “business unusual”, doing what they did in new ways. An exploration into hitherto uncharted territory.

A collaboration between ZLHR and CSVR that had been incubating for nearly 2 years was coaxed into awakening and developing over the following 18 months.

This Way

Seeking to deepen the skills base of its members and partner CSOs, to learn from each other and to build the capacity for self-initiated action and innovation, the learning series would deepen the understanding and skills of facilitation for its member lawyers, key civil society partner and human rights defenders. The learning series would also enable learning, exchange and conversation with practitioners from the conflict transformation field in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Further, it would provide space for a thorough exploration of the nexus between human rights and conflict transformation in Zimbabwe, and offer opportunities for connecting with the local experience and sets of knowledge on both conflict transformation and human rights.

Finally, it would explore how the use of dialogical and conversational approaches, as well as human rights based approaches, can also foster an appreciation for the lenses, methods and approaches of both, the human rights and conflict transformation fields, and make visible how interfacing those strategies might enhance the transformative work of civil society in Zimbabwe.


A worthy journey. What lay ahead? No-one could say.


Module One: Meeting the Fellow Travelers

Spinning the Web - wildlife

The first part of the journey took us to Selous, about 2 hours outside Harare in Central Mashonaland. Here the travellers first met each other – coming from all corners of the country – amid the low rumble of lions, near an elephant named Boxer and a domesticated warthog named, for the duration of our stay, Wally.

The participants were a broad range of actors from Zimbabwean civil society. Many have been working in this realm for quite a while. They conveyed a sense of commitment and caring about communities and their work in general. At the same time sometimes strands of conceptual battles came through. Participants were from the human rights field, a spectrum from classical human rights work like litigation and advocacy via a more human rights based approach work (i.e. advocacy for a trauma programme) all the way to conflict transformation and conflict resolution people. This mix ensured that participants grappled with a range of perspectives, and came to new and often surprising insights about their own work and that of the ‘other’ field.

Rather unusually, the group comprised an equal number of men and women. There were strong men and women’s voices throughout the workshop although some voices did dominate in the plenary discussions more than others. The group also represented a range of cultural and regional perspectives that were invaluable in filling in the textures of Zimbabwean society.

The facilitators took a calculated risk in the first exercise, done even before formal introductions were made, in getting participants to work together in an exercise that involved the protection of something precious (in this case, a raw egg). What emerged was a glimpse of the wisdom inherent in this group – and a preview of the themes we would revisit over the course of the journey:

  • Creativity and collaboration lead to solutions when resources are limited
  • We need to make use of the resourcefulness of ancient wisdom
  • Finding comfort amid danger/a hostile environment enables building something solid
  • There may be a benefit/pay off in leaving things as they are
  • If you celebrate too early, before testing, the situation may blow up in your face
  • With creativity and cooperation you can succeed
  • Make creative use of what you have (to fashion a local solution)
  • How good is the foundation upon which you build?
  • The power lies in the combination- the whole is greater than the sum of its component parts
  • One group was able to move beyond a split, explored separately and then came back together (as equals). In coming together they were then able to harness the creativity of their separate efforts for a stronger joint endeavour. This group also moved the furthest from their original position/location.
  • We foresaw the foundation was not stable and said some prayers
  • Trying the unusual while not knowing how it can work, and it did work – utilise the strength of both
  • One group used straws to reinforce the structure, like concrete pillars. They represent the little, steady contributions that happen almost invisibly and that get little airtime or recognition
  • Give people power to sustain the creation. The foundation more solid/flexible when people in control
  • Go to where the people are. People are a key resource as are the natural environs,
  • Made a bigger basket with same resources
  • One basket was hanging in a perilous location, could not see the rocks under the grass, or in the shadows – dare the unknown
  • In protecting what we deem precious, how much collateral damage do we allow for the good of the collective? [one group had broken the branches of the tree to secure the hanging basket onto the tree]


Nevertheless, when participants shared their personal life stories with each other, it was clear that every one of them had suffered some personal or structural violence; the waves of periodic violence that had beset Zimbabwe since 1980 (and the impact of the violence from before that period) was very present throughout the journey and a learning how to work with that and through it also became a key insight for us.

The sense of community developed by working together and sharing experiences was somewhat rattled when the discussion turned to the lenses and roles and strategies adopted by Human Rights activists and Community Peace-builders respectively. As we explored entry strategies and what comprises human dignity, it became clear that these two disciplines are often most greatly divided over a common goal of achieving sustainable peace. It was also clear that there are many areas of overlap and synergy. When the dust settled though, there was an appreciation for the strengths of each discipline – and a curiosity about what the other might offer to overcome some of the weaknesses.

The crisp first morning had provided the leit motif for the Journey – and its mascot – a dew-bejeweled spider web lying virtually hidden in plain sight. The fine strands of the web had trapped droplets of moisture, shimmering in the morning rays – if you knew where to look.

As we said good-bye to Selous, spiders and their ever-increasingly complex webs would become our guides, and learning about the way spiders work would become more important.

sparkling web-vig

Module Two: Deepening the Connections

2012-10-10 HS20 - Mutare

The next stop on our Journey had us head east to Manicaland and the city of Mutare. October meant that the dry, hot season was in full force. The landscape was baked beige; only hardy plants survived. The discussions we held in the dare, the traditional round meeting place, were accompanied by the high whine and buzz of insects going about their preparations for summer. Some chance encounters with resident scorpions also reminded us to be alert to the surrounding context. Indeed, a strange local newspaper article in the days after the workshop alerted us to the fact that the gathering had caught the attention of the authorities, and that the work we were doing was not entirely understood by them.


In a deceptively simple exercise involving balloons, the creation of family identities and the veiled threat of “a moment of madness”, participants discovered just how quickly ‘good people can do bad things with good intentions’. Within the twinkling of an eye the mood in the exercise had gone from a celebratory one to one where family was pitted against family and easily perpetrated violence on each other. The strength of group identity as well as a state of collective hypersensitivity (or hyper-arousal) meant that even a hint of threat was enough to induce panic or strong reactions.

Nonetheless, it was also clear from the exercise that regardless of the circumstances, one always had a choice. In the exercise, not everyone took part in the violence; similarly in the violent episodes in Zimbabwe’s past, not everyone took part in the violence. Indeed, many individual community leaders risked their own security to stand up against potential perpetrators and forbid violence in their jurisdictions – with the result that no violence took place.  The exercise threw into stark relief just how fundamental “a moment of madness can be” as values and even taboos are set aside and permission is given (often to oneself) to step over normal boundaries.

This brought the participants to what lies at the heart of the transitional justice – and working at the nexus between human rights and conflict transformation: the mercurial interplay between notions of “truth”, “justice”, “peace” and “mercy”.

Kruger SpiderThe JUSTICE proponents argued strongly that all perpetrators should be brought to book for this to serve as lessons since people still had fresh memories of what had happened. However, it was doubtful whether the national court system would be able to handle this responsibility; Zimbabwe might have to look outside (for instance the International Criminal Court) for assistance.

On the other hand, those in support of TRUTH argued that THIS was the starting point. Truth, they argued, enabled the society to identify the perpetrator, the victim, witness and then formulate the crime. They also argued that the whole debate should not always be about the perpetrator-victim. They advocated for public forums that do not necessarily have too many formalities since at times these are intimidating, forcing people to conceal the truth.

Those who advocated for PEACE argued that that there was need for transparency and accountability in order to place peace as a major priority.

Equally, the proponents of MERCY argued that Zimbabwe was a land of migrants starting with the Bantu migration to the Mfecane, to the period of colonisation. They talked about the Chimurenga wars, the Gukurahundi, the 2000 political violence up to the current ones. With so much violence, hurt and suffering  in the history of Zimbabwe, where does one start? They argued that economically, there was need for a paradigm shift. As such, they saw no need for Justice, but rather Mercy.

Of course the JUSTICE proponents argued that precisely because there was a lot of impunity in Zimbabwe, truth could be sought for, but was not an end in itself.

Those for MERCY argued that in the Bible, you confess first before you are forgiven. They perceived peace as the end product and not a process. It is a condition. They further argued that we are living in the same communities; therefore we need restorative measures because if one goes to court, this will not help but only worsen the situation. However, the justice proponents hit back and arguing that perpetrators have to pay for the wrongs they did. Eventually, there was a general consideration on the need to transform governance institutions in order to transform negative peace into positive peace.

https://sustainablepeaceweb.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/ttp-what-lies-beyond-delving-below-the-surface-of-conflict.pdfThe exercise had shown that one could not focus on only ONE aspect of the quartet; Truth-telling was as important as having Justice served. Interestingly, some of the terms were used only in English; the vernacular equivalents either did not exist or were rarely used. This begged the question whether the concepts of Truth, Justice, Peace and Mercy were merely international constructs with either very different notions operating at a local level or those being ‘foreign’ concepts. The group had difficulty defining “Justice” as an objective notion – what does “Justice” mean to me? Nevertheless, even without vernacular for “justice” people seem to know what it is – communities use different language.

Similarly whose “truth” constituted “the truth”? How did one deal with layers of truth? Should the truth be told at all costs?

As the sharing deepened through the discussions and the sharing of experiences, the initial suspicion and caution of Module One gave way to curiosity and mutual respect across the disciplines. As the discussions deepened, so too did the questions:

On Transitional justice:

  • What strategies can we put in place to ensure that this will not happen again?
  • Are the Transitional Justice concepts universally applicable? Are they context-specific? Are there local
  • flavours of meaning to the concepts? Can one objectively verify truth, justice, mercy or peace? Or are
  • they intensely personal and individual notions?
  • How do issues of Truth and Justice link to traditional notions of reconciliation and justice?
  • Communities know how to deal with those issues; these include how to repair, restore, make amends,
  • discovering resourcefulness etc. 
  • The “victim”/”perpetrator” terminology can be problematic since under certain circumstances they
  • could be interchangeable. 
  • How is trauma perceived or addressed locally?
  • How do the local and global interrelate?


 On Reconciliation:

The issue of reconciliation was also traversed. Some felt that often we “come up with a prescription to a wound we don’t know”, that reconciliation and forgiveness are often forced and then do not last, since it is a process – not an event. Zimbabwe had undergone a transition from colonial to independent rule. There had been a prescribed reconciliation process thereafter. However, subsequently there have been waves of violence that need to be unpacked more fully – and need to be addressed. A top-down approach does not work; communities must decide for themselves.

Handshakes ≠Healing.

Even after several years, many communities did not know of national initiatives aimed at fostering reconciliation such as OHNRI and JOMIC – and more importantly, their mandate is not known in  communities.

The participants felt it was important to build and strengthen what was already in place within communities. Communities have proven to be resilient by working with the environment and adapting as appropriate.

Participants also raised the issue of communities coping. This included trying to understand what communities were doing to deal with successive waves of violence and intimidation. It was clear that more understanding was needed about how communities were coping, what that meant and what healing and transformation meant. What was clear was that there was no easy forgiveness. Zimbabweans are a resilient people; they often persevere until “the time” comes. CSOs would do well to help communities to build that resilience in times of calm (before the crisis).

On Culture:

Culture was also explored as another aspect of the work in communities that had to be deepened. Culture is a dynamic, living system of collective self-realisation. There is much resourcefulness within the culture.

One such element was the presence of avenging spirits or ‘ngozi’ which often served as a manifestation of unresolved issues. Where bodies were unburied or perpetrators had not yet been brought to book, these spirits demanded appeasement and concrete restoration or repair through tangible compensation or damages. In this way the avenging spirits (Ngozi) acted as a truth-finding mechanism/phenomenon, and offered the community an opportunity to repair and restore order.

Thereafter, the protagonists exchange snuff, signalling that “it’s over and we can move on” . Culturally what served as acknowledgement, suffering and confession was also defined; one aspect was for a perpetrator to stand in the fire of questions from victims. There was no ‘forgive and forget’ either; forgetting could not be forced – time was even needed before someone could forgive. Only once there had been proper acknowledgement could someone “come to your place and ask for fire” (forgive).


On the work of CSOs:

The last theme that bears reflection here was on the role work of CSOs in communities. Participants asked whether as CSOs they were still doing the ‘right’ things? How were they contributing? Does what they do matter and is it still relevant? The introspection also extended to whether the work involved merely reporting to donors and to what extent CSOs even maintain the crisis so as to ensure their own sustainability. Some CSOs enter into communities as “foreigners”, parachuting into and jetting out of the community. It was important for CSOs to realise that the kind of change that they are seeking was part of a process – it was important to plant a seed in the community, then to tend to it, water it and nurse it.Key to working differently was understanding what creates competition among CSOs and working around that competition. It was equally important to explore the role of donors in (even inadvertently) fostering the competition. 

Module Three: Sharing the Lessons


The third part of our journey took us south into Matabeleland, down into the Matopos and the magical hills that are the final resting place of the progenitor of the Matabele – King Mzilikazi – and the arch-colonialist – Cecil John Rhodes.

This workshop took place in the run-up to the referendum on a new constitution that would lay the foundation for the upcoming general elections in 2013. Political tensions were mounting – in spite of the indications that all political parties would support the proposed draft constitution. Nevertheless, land DailyGrindinvasions were still happening in the area; the most recent had happened just a few months before the workshop quite close to where the workshop was being held.

The workshop itself seemed to have attracted attention. In the middle of one exercise, the local constabulary arrived – ostensibly to check out the venue for possible use at some future date. On another date an unusual group of people dropped by and showed quite a lot of interest in what workshop was being run. These incidents, and the ongoing reports of high-ranking civil society members being arrested and harassed, brought home the reality of the context and the conditions under which much of civil society was operating. This was also the daily reality for the participants and their organisations.

Something had happened in the time between Module Two and Module Three.

Kufunda F600A 092Some of the Human Rights activists and lawyers had conducted a series of community visits where the aim was to listen (and not tell people what their rights were) – and they were struck by the tales of resilience and resourcefulness within communities – even in the face of trying circumstances. Communities did need much more knowledge about their rights this was true; yet their local responses to their daily challenges also opened new possibilities for even litigation innovation. Of the participants had also started to collaborate with each other – within their areas they had discovered in each other support and resources that they did not have before.

The value of this Learning Journey in the words of the participants included:

  • Sharing learning and insights with colleagues
  • Collegial togetherness in what can often be a lonely endeavour
  • The intra-country cultural exchange- this had been one of the few times where a comparable group of activists had been able to engage colleagues from around the country;
  • The realisation that we were not alone in confronting our challenges;
  • How to coexist and collaborate. This Series had also dispelled many misperceptions participants had had of each other or the different organisations;
  • Participants had developed courage, relationships and had unleashed their potential in that some participants had been promoted either within their own organisations, or had found new jobs and exciting challenges in other organisations
  • Realising that gender is a nuanced notion – women are not entirely powerless, indeed in some communities old women hold much power. Understanding these dynamics is important for successful working in communities;
  • Unpacking the nexus between Human Rights and Conflict Transformation;
  • Reorganising and tapping into what people know;
  • Recognising the value and complementarity of different expertise;
  • Innovation and new strategies as facilitators of both learning and of processes


It was also in this Module that the participants were introduced to the work of theorist John Paul Lederach on building webs of relationships between the “unlike-minded” and the “unlike-situated“.

Some of the key insights about “webbing” include:

  • The “web” is a platform for creative responses that emerge from the seemingly unimportant spaces of connection. It required a commitment to innovation and flexibility
  • The need for hub-like activities that link the “un-like”. By linking and connecting to those who are different, new responses can be created.
  • A web can be created, dismantled and remade as necessary. It is ‘smart -flexible’.
  • The centre of the web holds the strands, yet the centre is not a centralised hub
  • Like a spider, often what was needed was the time to be still, the time to observe and ‘make things stick’.

F600 Kufunda to Matopo 235

We also had an unexpected guest in the form of representatives of ZIPAAV – an association of Zimbabwean parliamentarians from across the political spectrum who were all working together to bring an end to violence. And in the shadow of the big rocks of the Matopos, civil society actors and Zimbabweans in parliament took a brave step to set aside their public face and their caution and in the act of breaking bread together to reach out and discover much common ground. A frank and honest conversation ensued about the need for working together, the perceptions of each other and the challenges of addressing decades of violence, hypersensitivity and trauma.

The evening ended quietly with a real sense that an important bridge had been crossed and significant connections established among the ancient rocks of the Matopo Hills. (You can read more about ZIPAAV and its work here).

Transcending violence is forged by the capacity to generate, mobilise and build the moral imagination. The kind of imagination to which I refer is mobilised when four disciplines and capacities are held together and practised by those who find their way to rise above violence. Stated simply, the moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity;

the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.

(JP Lederach, The Moral Imagination 2005, p5)

Module Four: In Conversation in the Village

The work rarely comes to an end; the journey is more important than the destination.

And so too it was with this Learning Journey. Originally, the project was intended to have only three modules , three stops along the way. And yet, the unfolding journey within had revealed the need for one more detour, one more exploration of a surprise oasis, just off the planned road. And thus some participants arrived at Kufunda Village, where they met new friends and engaged in new conversations and learnt new techniques – and about themselves.

We shall not cease from exploration.

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started,

And know the place for the first time… “

-TS Eliot-

This week spent at the Kufunda Learning Village would be one of immersion for the participants in the Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations that matter. The Learning Series, had taken its participants on a journey across the country with its first module in Mashonaland (Selous), then on to Manicaland (Mutare) and finally meeting in Matabeleland (Matopos). And now many of those participants were back, just outside Harare in Mashonaland, exploring what was felt to be a natural outflow from the Learning Series – the Art of Hosting (and Harvesting) Conversations that Matter.

During the course of the Learning Series many stories of resourcefulness and resilience had emerged from the experience of participants working in and with communities around the country. It was therefore perhaps appropriate to “return to the village” to learn new methods of engaging with communities and to share own stories and experiences with others. And in quiet contemplation, find some answers and more questions about the things that matter in this work of sustainable peacebuilding and community development. At Kufunda, both the hosts and participants found new insights, new connections and were touched by the magic of bringing passionate people together in a circle.

Truly, when people come together in a circle, there is wisdom.

Of the many treasures uncovered on this detour to the Village was the importance of having a conscious practice. One of the foundational pieces of the Art of Hosting is what is known as the four-fold path. Travellers on the Learning Journey found this path of outward action starting with working on the self of immense value – and of immediate application in their work.

4-fold path

Another of the gems was a framework for navigating the path that everyone treads in their work – the path between too much control and too much chaos – known as the Chaordic Path.


You can read more about Kufunda Village here, about the experience in the Village here and about the Art of Hosting here.

Perhaps it is fitting to bid farewell to our merry travelers with these words by Ben Okri, knowing that the journey is far from over… and that someday, somewhere our paths will cross again:

In a fractured age where cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives

(Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free, 1997)

Ongoing strands being spun


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Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights
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