My grandfather was born in a refugee camp, and so was my father, and I myself. What kind of life is this? I ask you my parents, my siblings, my relatives, my neighbors?
These are lyrics of a song composed and sung by a secondary student at Valley View Secondary School, in Zone 1, Bidibidi Refugee Settlement, in Yumbe District, West Nile region, Uganda. It is a deeply touching song on the cycle of violence that has condemned three generations to refugeehood. Literary scholars would love to call the question structuring this song rhetorical in the sense that the composer and singer does not expect answers from the audience, but when I asked him if indeed this was the case, he said he had asked the question not for rhetorical purposes, but to provoke every listener into providing an answer. It is this answer, he said, that will help the listeners to realize that it is they themselves who should break the cycle of violence; they should not expect somebody else to do this for them. “How are they to do this,” I asked him, “when they are in refugeehood themselves, away from the places where the destiny of the country is being decided—in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, Africa’s youngest nation, where this cycle of violence has played out, forcing people to flee their land again and again?” The young man answered with confidence: “Every little effort we make to live in harmony does not go to waste; it is a step in the right direction of building the foundation for bigger peace.”
In my time working with the peace clubs of Valley View High School and Highland Secondary School, both in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement, I have carried the above song and the views of its composer in my heart, meditating upon them. True, every effort counts, as several other club members testified that they have worked hard to resolve conflicts in their communities. Conflicts of different kinds arise from a number of factors, the three major ones being competition for essential resources like biofuel and water; friction between and among the refugees themselves, mostly owing to their ethnic differences; and friction between the refugees and the host communities. I interviewed the students and their patrons and held focus group discussions with them on what they were doing as members of the peace club to resolve conflicts and build peace among the conflicting parties through the medium of storytelling and performance. Four key themes arose from the interviews and the discussions: Raising peace issues for critical debate and reflection; resolving conflicts between different parties through analysis and discussion of the different stories shared; preventing conflicts by flagging—in poetry, song, drama, and anecdotes —the signs and “symptoms” of impending ones; and imagining the refugee settlement and the district, region, and country in which it is, as one big family, where people sit, talk, and eat together as brothers and sisters—a family where they resolve conflicts that arise, without having to shed blood or break bones.
In most of the poems and songs that they compose and perform, the students in refugee camps plead with their audiences to take a critical stand on the conflicts happening in their communities to discover their underlying causes, since it is only after the causes are known that the solutions can be found. The students emphasize the fact that, despite differences in race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and class, human beings are essentially the same since they have the same yearnings for peace, love, care, happiness, truth, and justice, among others. If this realization is reached, the students suggest, people will discover that they belong to one family, and will therefore relate with each other in a better, brotherly, and sisterly way. To the students’ minds, this will inevitably inform the way in which people resolve conflicts when they arise. Quite utopian, you may say, but this is a utopianism that needs to be translated into reality in the form of pro-peace actions, for it is indeed possible for people to sit down and resolve their conflicts in a peaceful manner, without resorting to fists and kicks, or machetes and guns.
It is heartening that the youth are at the forefront of sharing their experiences and creating poems, songs, and plays that are calling their communities to work hard to resolve conflicts and build harmonious relationships. What makes this intervention by the youth special is that they usually bear the brunt of war in devastating ways, for instance being forcefully conscripted into the army, hence Angela McIntyre’s contention that “[w]arfare is a betrayal of youth” (2002, p. 95). That the youth want to break the cycle of violence through storytelling and performance (as captured in the lyrics of the song I started this article with) shows their resolve to be active agents in determining and shaping their future. This is usually not the case as many interventions (by governments and non-governmental organizations) usually construct the youth as passive recipients of messages, services, or material things, and not as protagonists of the changes they want to see in their communities, in this case, the building of a society that solves its conflicts amicably to live with one another in peace.
But it is not all paradise in the peace clubs in the two schools. There are several challenges that need immediate redress if the peacebuilding work by the students is to meet with success, though this article will focus on just three major challenges. The first one is the lack of adequate financial and logistical resources to enable students to attend many events where they can perform their peacebuilding artistic works to larger audiences, for instance at inter-zone events and at radio talk shows. Besides, most students would like to have their work recorded in studios so that it circulates widely. Unfortunately, there are no funds to make such recordings possible. The second challenge has to do with human resources. There is a need to train the students in a number of areas, particularly how to write deeper and stylistically innovative stories, poems, and plays and how to perform them in an effective way to leave an impact on the audiences. Finally, each of the different clubs in the school lives like a little island. The peace club does not know what is happening in the writers’ club or in the debating club, and vice versa, yet there is so much that these clubs have in common. There is a need for the patrons of these clubs to meet in order to discuss how they can work together for better products and deeper impact since their target audiences—the students and the neighboring communities—are the same. This way, the clubs will grow stronger and perform better for the benefit of the schools and the communities that neighbor them.