International Ministries

Voice from the Empty Chair

June 26, 2012 Journal
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I placed an empty chair at the front of the sanctuary where we were holding the conflict transformation training.  Above was the sign "Ngoroko," which means "Warrior."  That was the name given for a fictional Pokot young man who had been killed in the cattle rustling conflicts that plague this area of northern Kenya.  The chair was for his mother:  what would she say?  Suddenly a woman walked to the front, sat in the chair and began to speak.

Pini Kidulah invited me to the Pokot region of Kenya to lead a 3-day conflict transformation training.  While studying in the U.S. Pini had attended a 10-day training I'd run for peacemaking leaders who wanted to do the kind of work I do.  Now she was back home carrying on the work for peace in a variety of settings.  She invited me to come and lead some trainings.  She briefed me on the particular conflicts and cultures of the area.  Pokots generally have done little to acknowledge those killed in the conflicts over land and cattle.  Many dead are left unburied out of fear of evil spirits.  Life goes on, and fighting goes on, as if nothing had happened.  Pini and I discussed a number of ways to approach this topic, but even as the day began when we'd deal with trauma in conflict I still wasn't sure what to do.

We began with the story of Rizpah in 2 Samuel 21, a mother who loses two sons to political violence (in the name of religion).  She takes up a nonviolent vigil over the bodies, and after many months finally moves King David to public repentance.  (Send me an e-mail request if you would like a Bible study presentation I gave on this passage at a World Mission Conference.)  This story is always a powerful and climactic moment in the trainings, but now we wanted to move it toward a direct application in the Pokot context.

I asked participants to talk about what happens when someone is killed in the cattle rustling conflicts.  Various men spoke out about the issues of revenge or compensation depending on who did the killing and where the killing took place.  They went on for a while trying to make sure I caught all the nuances about their process to determine the appropriate response.  But no women spoke.  I sensed a significant gap between the men and the women on this issue.  I decided to make the discussion more concrete, so I invited them to name a hypothetical young man who was killed in the conflicts.  They chose to name him Ngoroko, Warrior.  I placed the chair under Ngoroko's name inviting the participants to think about what the mother might say.

Instead this older woman came forward, sat in the chair, and began to speak.  She told of her pain and sadness.  She told about the sadness that more people would die because of the death of her son.  She told of her loneliness.  She was unable to receive support and comfort from the community, something she longed for.  There was no talk of revenge or compensation, rather of the pain and a desire that no more killing take place.  Her face reflected her message--grim, somber, and etched with anguish.

Then in the group we talked about culture and how cultures change.  No culture is static, but people are faced with new challenges that can force them to come up with new solutions that reflect cultural values but that may transform the situation.  We can face choices about enduring the limiting behaviors made normative, or we can choose a better way for ourselves, reshaping our culture in the process.  What was defined as "Pokot culture" was actually an expression of the men's values.  The Pokot women were silent and isolated.  But a Pokot woman spoke, revealing how the cultural ways of dealing with death by violence were inadequate.  She challenged her contemporaries even as Rizpah challenged the people in her time.

At the break I made a beeline for this woman.  She said she was able to get into the role of Ngoroko's mother because her aunt had lost a son in the violence.  Another woman entered our conversation.  She wanted to speak in the chair and tell of the loss of her two sons but knew she would break down if she spoke in that moment.  She deeply appreciated how we dealt with the topic and the challenge to face up to the cost of violence upon their families and society.

After the break we explored creative ways from various cultures around the world of recognizing victims of violence that lead to healing and reconciliation rather than perpetuating cycles of violence.  The next day Pini arranged for us to plant trees in memory of the dead and in hope for the new life these trees would help sustain.  The tree planting was a joyous time, allowing an affirmation of a hopeful vision rather than the calculations about appropriate levels and means of revenge.

Much of peacemaking is about supporting the voices that are drowned out in the rages of violence.  Some of those voices bring us the words of wisdom to see the cost of our violent ways and point us to better behavior and healing actions.

In peace and hope,

Dan Buttry