Education as a path to peace, hope and prosperity

‘It has become part of the daily living experiences. I would be lying in my bed, and I would hear some shooting that’s taking place in the street near us, where people are protesting.’ – Ilaf Nasreldin (Khartoum, Sudan) a Next Generation Leader.

The resilience, hopes and challenges of countless young people and students around the world whose daily lives are forged amid ongoing conflicts goes largely unreported, a situation which the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities (TN) was prompted to address by the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

TN’s ‘Peace/Not War’ webinar on 22 March differed from earlier virtual sessions of the 2022 Next Generation Leaders cohort held in September and October last year, co-hosted by Tufts and Harvard universities.

This article on engaged research is published by University World News in partnership with the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

One of those sessions asked: “What does student leadership look like in a time of crisis?” Vu Duc Huy, a Lead Global Fellow, explained how the ‘Your Unique Understanding’ organisation, which he founded to provide education and career coaching to ethnic minority students and young people in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, had to pivot to virtual connections because of the COVID-19 crisis.

In another session, Vuthlarhi Shirindza, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Cape Town, discussed the company she co-founded that uses drones to deliver medicines to patients in rural South Africa, an initiative that exemplifies how the Next Generation Leaders are enmeshed in the practical needs of their communities.

Even the session on climate change had an undercurrent of hope. Stephen Mwangangi Munuoki, a psychology student at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, explained that “doom and gloom journalism” about climate change does more harm than good because it leads people to tune out the issue.

He ended by highlighting the power of democratic debate to produce accurate and balanced information that would be accepted by the public and form the basis of actions that the public would support.

A very different story

The Peace/Not War video tells a very different story. In stunning and, at times, painful detail, Fri Mercy Koti, a 29-year-old Cameroonian, and 26-year-old Ilaf Nasreldin, who lives in the storied city of Khartoum in Sudan, shared what happened to their countries when civic ties unravelled.

Each told how the peace of everyday life receded behind the terrible realities of what political scientists call ‘low-intensity conflicts’ but which, each made clear both in words and pictures, is experienced as war on their doorsteps.

“Some Next Generation Leaders, and too many university students around the world, have had to flee their homes due to armed conflict and war,” says Nieves Segovia, who is vice-chair of the Talloires Network Steering Committee and president of the Universidad Camilo José Cela (Madrid, Spain), one of the 425 universities in 85 countries that make up the TN hosted by Tufts University’s Jonathan M Tisch College of Civic Life in Medford, Massachusetts.

“To understand the impetus and implications of such violence, we need to listen to their lived experiences. These student leaders courageously use their voices to teach us as they navigate the challenges of disruption because they believe that education is a viable path to peace and prosperity.”

Untold stories of conflict

The ‘Peace/Not War’ webinar was a response to the outbreak of war in Ukraine on 24 February.

“The cohort was supposed to be finished at the end of February,” says Phil Mlanda, co-founder of paNhari, the Washington DC and Harare, Zimbabwe-based NGO that partners with TN to coach Next Generation Leaders in civic engagement and entrepreneurship skills.

Drawing on his experience as a senior technology manager, Mlanda teaches Next Generation Leaders to develop and scale up their own start-ups which make a positive social impact. The programme, funded by the Mastercard Foundation, has taught 38 students from 18 countries.

“In discussions and in chats there was a great interest in understanding the situation in Ukraine. But, at the same time, I realised that a lot of the students are also in conflict areas that are not getting any coverage at all.

“In hindsight,” Mlanda admits, “I wasn’t paying enough attention to the challenges some of our students were facing from ongoing wars or civil unrest in their countries. So we decided to have some stories from our own peers – what their experiences are like on the African continent, on the Asian continent, and what they wanted the world to know about their country’s plight.

“We all want peace. But for us to achieve peace, we have to understand what the problem is.”

To become a real advocate for peace, as in the Declaration (of Higher Education: A Moment of Challenge and Opportunity, issued by the TN in 2021), we have to understand what’s happening on the ground, on personal levels, says Mlanda.

“Research has shown that the capacity of the human mind is compromised when empathising with mass numbers of people. As victim numbers rise in tragedy, we become less likely to engage. When our students share their individual stories of the impact of war on their daily life, the interest on the issue is heightened.”

Further, says Mlanda, who helped organise (and who moderated) the ‘Peace/Not War’ webinar, these personal stories increase audience members’ compassion and empathy, which are important in finding a way to lessen conflict.

For her part, Lorlene Hoyt, TN executive director, told University World News: “The fact that they wanted to continue their discussions about civic engagement and focus on conflicts they are living through demonstrates the importance of their engagement, both in their communities and with each other in the Next Generation Leaders groups.

“Additionally, their decision to continue their international exchange of ideas has led them to develop a proposal to the Mastercard Foundation to explore the possibility of ongoing collaboration.”

Conflict in Cameroon

The ‘Peace/Not War’ webinar begins with Koti, a third-year student studying at Redemption Higher Institute of Biomedical and Management Services (in Muyuka, Cameroon), showing young people dancing and talking about her civic engagement project (teaching young girls about menstrual hygiene and consent) in her natal village of Banjah in North-West Cameroon.

The narrative tone soon shifts and the visual changes to a map of Cameroon, which allows us to follow Koti, who had to move from Bamenda to Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, in March 2017. Due to civil strife that had broken out in that part of Cameroon, the funding for the Ebola clinical trial she was working on at the Bamenda Center for Health Promotion and Research was not renewed.

A few moments later, the reason why Koti’s region and the region to the south-west were depicted on the map in the colour brown instead of yellow became clear: they are the two anglophone regions of the country.

In late November 2016, the regions were engulfed in violence after the government of President Paul Biya cracked down on university professors and lawyers who were protesting against the decision to appoint French-speaking professors to the region’s English universities and to require that all legal documents be in French and that the courts operate in French.

These actions abrogated the agreement under which Cameroon’s francophone and anglophone regions had federated in 1961.

“They sent judges [to the anglophone regions] who don’t understand anything in English and people went to prison because they didn’t understand the questions asked in court,” she says.

On 21 November 2016, the government unleashed its forces on the protesters.

“The lawyers were brutalised; they were hit by the military. The teachers, [who] also came out, were beaten. There were gunshots everywhere,” Koti remembers.

The violence spread to the area around Banjah, where there were killings and kidnappings, some by government forces, others by various groups that sprang up.

Koti didn’t need pictures to help us visualise the horrors of “a child of less than one year old who was dropped by a military man into a pot of boiling oil”.

A few moments later, by telling us in a matter-of-fact tone that it was a “normal day”, a Tuesday, and that people were going to work and students were going to school, she heightens the pathos behind her words: “There were gunshots in the morning. How many people died? I think about four people died around the market area. And many more were wounded.”

One of the issues that most concerned participants in the ‘Peace/Not War’ symposium is the dearth of stories in Western media about what Koti’s people are suffering.

There are, she says, a few places on social media where the conflict is covered. But, few in the West are aware that anglophone towns in her region are turned into ‘ghost towns’ on Mondays and on holidays, for example, National Day (20 May) and Labour Day (1 May). On these days, she says, “We stay at home. There is no work. No activity.”

The ongoing cycles of violence have killed most of the men who have left behind widows and orphans. Most of these women and children, Koti told me by e-mail, have seen their homes burned, which has turned them into internally displaced persons or refugees in neighbouring countries like Nigeria.

In Sudan: A question of survival

When people like me, who live in safe countries where civil society functions, speak to people who live in countries which are at war, such as Ukraine, or where internal violence has cut what Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic chords” that unite a nation, one of the questions we ask (without quite realising just how condescending it is) is: “How can you survive in such an environment?”

In part, Sudan’s Nasreldin answered this when she spoke about her six-year-old niece and four-year-old nephew, who live with her and do not go to kindergarten on Mondays or Thursdays, and why she was unavailable for a call with Mlanda one Thursday.

These days, she says, are set aside by the resistance to the military government under coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Hemedti Daglo, leader of Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, militia.

The government routinely responds to these protests with beatings, live ammunition, stun-grenades, with water cannons that spray unsanitary water at protesters as well as with sexual violence against female and male protesters.

“One thing that really strikes me,” Nasreldin says, referring to her niece and nephew, is that when … people ask them why they didn’t go to school that day, they say, ‘We didn’t go because of the protests and because of the bullets. If we go, we’re going to be hurt.’ I feel that this is something that no child should ever have to know. Why should a child know that if they [go to school] they might get shot and might die?”

Some weeks, however, violence is not limited to Mondays and Thursdays. Showing a picture of a road with bricks piled up to make a series of barricades and another of burning trash, Nasreldin says: “We go to work and then sometimes on, for example, a Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, usually on those days, the streets are open.

“But then, by the end of the day, protesters start building [road]blocks,” she says. Knowing that this might happen, “is not going to stop people from going to work” – nor is the knowledge that government forces might respond.

The most chilling part of Nasreldin’s presentation spoke to the infinite adaptability of people who have no recourse but to soldier on with their lives.

In 2018, when the protests began, the sound of shootings was traumatising. “But, now, it has just become part of the daily experience. I would be lying down in my bed, and I would hear some shooting taking place in the street near us, where there are people protesting.”

Nasreldin traces the cause of the conflict to Sudan’s colonial past in order to show that the international media is wrong when, in the few reports that appear about the civil strife in Sudan, pundits say that the conflict is rooted in traditional tribal, ethnic or religious divisions.

(Koti, too, traced the plight of Cameroon to the legacy of colonialism and told me that, while it is true that Cameroon has 250 ethnic groups, contrary to Western views, “when you go into the details, you find a lot of similarities in culture”.)

With a well-trained eye, Nazreldin, who has a masters degree in gender development and peace studies from Ahfad University for Women (Omdurman, Sudan), explained that the war is an outgrowth of the ‘divide and rule’ policies of the British who colonised Sudan for a half-century beginning in 1899.

By giving the power to tax to northern tribes, such as the Ja’al, the British policy “led to the under-development and exploitation of the resources of the South Sudanese people, which effectively created two different countries,” she told University World News.

Equally important, she stresses, is the fact that there has been no effort by the international media to talk about the need for reparations for the wealth extracted from Sudan by Britain and Western companies.

“They never paid reparations or apologised for what they’ve done to the country and how that continues today to affect the lives of millions and millions of Sudanese people,” she says.

Listening with a clear mind

While the aim of the ‘Peace/Not War’ webinar was not, Mlanda told University World News, to develop answers to the problems of Cameroon or Sudan, he believed that the Next Generation Leaders would carry the stories like those presented in the webinar with them as they advance into positions of power in organisations or governments.

Many of the Next Generation Leaders will also bring with them different ways of listening that, Talloires Network organisers hope, will equip them to better bridge the gaps in the societies in which the Next Generation Leaders alumni live.

One such system is ‘awareness-based change’ (A-BC) which was another discussion the Talloires Network organised after its 2021 virtual conference. In it, students from countries in Western Europe, Africa and Central Europe grappled with listening techniques designed to screen out preconceptions and understand deeply what the speaker is saying.

As Tisch College dean Dayna Cunningham, who explained A-BC to the Next Generation Leaders and is author of the article ‘Commentary from the field: Awareness-based systems change and racial justice’, A-BC’s goal is to change an individual’s “heart” by helping them to clear the mind and really see.

“You connect with all of what is [for example, linguistic injustice], as well as what could emerge in the future if you attend to the relationships with compassion and cultivate an organisational structure with compassion.”

Another structured listening method some Next Generation Leaders studied has been perfected by the Dayton, Ohio-based Kettering Foundation, an NGO devoted to advancing deliberative democracy.

According to Duaa E Zahra Shah, who is studying economics at the National University of Sciences and Technology, Islamabad, one of the key requirements for structured listening is that the conversation among different stakeholders follows an agreed set of rules or guidelines.

Since different participants come to the table with different perspectives and knowledge levels on, for example, climate change, the issue has to be broken down issue by issue as objectively as possible.

Further, Shah explained, participants must examine the facts. A discussion follows about different approaches that can be taken to tackle the issue.

“So, for instance, with climate change, the discussion will examine how to alleviate the negative impact of climate change with the technological capacity a country has. Is renewable energy an option?” Participants consider the trade-offs, the pros and cons of each approach.

The aim is not necessarily to come to an agreed-upon solution to a problem. Rather, it is to have a conversation and so everybody gets the opportunity to voice their perspective on the issue. They can provide alternative approaches; they can have a discussion about experiences and perspectives, to increase understanding, she says.

“The idea is to create an environment in a particular place at a particular time in which people have a genuine dialogue about different issues and not just react to different events and have sort of random and arbitrary policies coming from nowhere. Speaking in this space creates the potential for reaching a solution … that works for everybody.”

Shah ended our discussion by answering my question about whether structured listening has a role to play in the hyper-partisan politics of the United States (where she lived for five years while her father was a PhD student at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia), and in the politics of her country, which has seen a number of military coups since independence in 1948 and today can be considered an ‘illiberal democracy’.

“Yes, I definitely do. And I think that’s part of the reason I thought the idea is so interesting … because it is a counterweight to that sort of politics. In a time when politics has become so polarised, I feel like for a lot of the public it’s just so distant from whatever happens in the capital of any country,” says Shah.

“Really listening to each other’s perspectives and experiences and collecting them and incorporating them into the solutions and the discussions that we have, I think, is a very transformative sort of habit and practice.”

Keeping hope alive

“We are enormously grateful to the Next Generation Leaders who have generously shared their talents with us during this period of uncertainty,” says Dr Philip Cotton, director of Human Capital Development and head of the Scholars Program of the Mastercard Foundation.

“In the wake of conflict and violence, they remain hopeful. They lead by listening, reminding us that solutions are possible when we open our hearts and minds.”

In July, 12 Next Generation Leaders from Cameroon, Ireland, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Uganda, United States and Zimbabwe will be attending a one-week exchange at the Kettering Foundation’s campus in Dayton, Ohio.