This week (22 March), the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice hosted Fr Patrick Devine for a lecture on “Inter-Ethnic Conflict Transformation Methods: Applications in Eastern Africa.”
Fr Devine is the founder of the Shalom Center for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation in Nairobi, Kenya, an inter-religious organization pioneering conflict transformation and development work in Eastern Africa.
As a Research Fellow in the Institute, I had the privilege of organizing the event and learning more about Fr Devine’s work.
In many ways, Fr Devine’s approach reminded me of that of Fr Charlie Burrows, the OMI priest working in Chilachap, Indonesia. I’ve previously profiled Fr Burrows work on this blog, and he has written a few ‘guest posts’ for me as well.
Both Fr Devine and Fr Burrows seem to have a vision of a ‘church without walls,’ to return to the theme of my blog – one that sees the pursuit of social justice as integral to serving Christ in the world.
For them, being a Christian isn’t about ‘converting’ others to an institution or a religion. This is especially important in situations where ethnic divisions overlap with religious ones.
For example, Fr Devine told a story about a workshop Shalom conducted with Muslim and Christian leaders.
He said he opened by saying that the one thing they could all agree on at the start was that they wouldn’t break for lunch at 1 pm, because that is when the Muslims would pause for prayers. So he invited the Christians to pray at 1 pm as well.
“It’s very hard to refuse to pray!” he said.
“I also asked them all to pray that God would bless the others with peace and success in their families and their lives. Don’t pray that they become a Christian, or become a Muslim. Let’s give God a breaking on converting today!”
Fr Devine, who belongs to the Society of African Missions (SMA), worked for years responding to crises in Eastern Africa. He became dissatisfied with efforts that seemed only to tackle the consequences of violence and poverty, not the roots.
That dissatisfaction inspired him to establish Shalom in 2009. Shalom’s practices are grounded in long-term dialogues with effected communities. Shalom’s practices also are informed by conflict transformation theories and strategies developed through research by Shalom Center staff, and informed by international best practices.
Fr Devine reported that the centre currently works with 14 ethnic groups in nine conflict zones in Northern Kenya. The areas suffer from a lack of state and civil society institutions, and have been known for election violence and cattle rustling.
“There’s an average of 1.6 AK47’s per family,” he said, underlining that people are seeking to protect themselves in a situation where there has been a breakdown in the rule of law.
Fr Devine said that before it began its work, Shalom spent 18 months identifying opinion shapers in each ethnic group. Last year, they conducted 85 conflict transformation trainings with key leaders, making sure to include at least 40% women. A special training in 2013 was designed for police officers in an effort to minimize election violence.
“It is transformative for people when they come to understand how structural violence, in the form of neglect by the state, contributes to violence. It is not simply that violence is caused by cattle rustling,” he said.
Shalom also has developed special peace education programmes for inter-ethnic schools. Those schools are now powered by solar energy, which was secured through Shalom’s work.
“People are open to inter-ethnic peace education and we’ve moved on that with great success. We’ve also introduced solar energy in semi-arid terrain. Before students might have to try and do homework around a fire. This solar energy allows schools to stay open from 7-9 pm, or even 5-6 am, with light for the children,’ Fr Devine said.
Shalom’s work is in much demand and Fr Devine said they hope to expand their model of working to other regions of Eastern Africa, including Sudan.
Fr Devine is from Frenchpark, Co Roscommon. His work in Africa began in 1988 when he went to western Tanzania with SMA. In the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide he coordinated the pastoral care input of the SMA to the refugees from 1994-98.
He was awarded the 2013 International Caring Award, succeeding the Dalai Lama in 2012. Other notable recipients include Jimmy Carter, Mother Theresa, Colin Powell, George Mitchell and Bill Clinton. In 2014, eight countries in Eastern Africa presented him with the prestigious IGAD Award for his visionary contribution to peace and development in the region.
Photo: Fr Patrick Devine presents Prof Hastings Donnan, Director of the Mitchell Institute, and Dr Gladys Ganiel with an oil painting from Kenya.