Global Peace: Reflections from a grandmother in the spirit of Ubuntu

The following blog posting was written and delivered as a speech by Carold fellow Peggy Edwards on the occasion of a Peace Walk at the Carleton Place Community Labyrinth in June of 2013. International Peace Day is September 21st – a great occasion to read and share this posting with others.

Dear friends. Thank you for being here, for organizing this event and for sharing this time together.

This is a special place to be today. The labyrinth has long been associated with peace. I’m looking forward to walking through its circular, interconnected path. It helps us discover and embrace peace. It invites us to search and question rather than defend a position, which is often at the heart of conflict.

I have been asked to speak about global peace. I am no expert on this, nor have I been at the forefront of research or activism about global peace. But Debby and Christine invited me because they thought that I could offer some reflections on global peace from my experience with the “grandmothers movement”.

Have any of you heard about the “granny movement?”

We are grandmothers and grand-others (you don’t have to be a grandmother to belong to a group) from all across Canada who work in solidarity with grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa. These courageous women have buried their own children and are now raising the majority of the 14 million children and young people, who have been orphaned by AIDS.

Think about that number. It is more than all of the children in Canada and Norway combined.

In some countries, grandmothers – who themselves may have experienced considerable violence – are also the primary caregivers of many more young people who have been victimized and orphaned by conflict.

We work with the Stephen Lewis Foundation to support grassroots projects led by grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of us are also members of the Grandmothers Advocacy Network, independent of the Foundation.  As advocates, we work for change in policies and treaties in Canada and in international forums that will further development, health, dignity, human rights and social justice. While we may not say it out loud very often, peace is the primary determinant of all of these goals.

Let me begin with a story… about Mama Dembe (her name means peace) who I met at a gathering of African grandmothers two years ago.

Mama Dembe is looking after 4 grandchildren who have been orphaned by AIDS and war. She, her daughter, and three granddaughters walked from war-torn Northern Uganda to find a home as squatters in a small rural village in Southern Uganda.

In Northern Uganda, her son-in-law and grandson had been forced into the army. When the father returned a year later, he was very sick and died within a few months. The women knew that the Lords Resistance Army would come for the other children and force them to become child soldiers. So they became refugees. They walked away penniless on a long hard road to freedom.

Once they were somewhat settled in a rural area near Jinja, Mama Dembe’s daughter went to the nearest city in search of work. She became a hairdresser and married again. She was sending small amounts of money home to her mother who was taking care of the family by selling charcoal and petty trading at the market.  Mama Dembe had also become part of a grandmothers group who came together to support each other, to build a better future for their grandchildren and other vulnerable young people, and to fight the stigma, abuses and violence often associated with AIDS.

Then Mama Dembe got bad news. Her daughter was dying. She went to the town as fast as she could but she was too late. Her daughter had died of AIDS-related causes. Mama Dembe spent her last money on a funeral for her daughter and brought home a sickly infant to care for. Now, she has learned that the baby is HIV-positive. The closest health clinic to her home is a long walk away and has few pediatric medicines available.

Mama Dembe’s story is one of pain and injustice and violence, but also one of courage, solidarity and resilience. Unfortunately, it is a story that is not uncommon on the African continent and in other places in the world.

In preparing for today, I thought about her story and searched to find out what global peace means to me, in light of our solidarity with our sisters in Africa.

Clearly, global peace means an end to war. The humanitarian consequences of war—especially for women and children—are well known. Yet we tend to either glorify war or put it out of our minds… maybe because it is “too frightening” or “far away” or “not relevant in our busy lives”.

Consider this:

  • There are still some 20,000 nuclear warheads in existence. Our very survival depends on a handful of political and military decision-makers in nine countries. Their fingers remain on or close to nuclear buttons 24-hours a day.
  • In 2012, more than 45 million people were displaced from their homes, mostly as a result of war.
  • This translates to a new refugee or internally displaced person every 4 seconds and to human suffering on a massive scale.

These are relevant realities we cannot ignore and a responsibility we all face.

At the same time, I believe that global peace is more than the end of war. In our families, communities, nations and on the global front, we are called also to be peace builders.

What does peace building look like from the grandmothers’ perspective?

It is a peace that

  • sustains life and dignity
  • protects human rights
  • fosters social justice
  • sustains future generations (and our planet)
  • promotes equality for all, regardless of your gender, ethnicity, race, skin colour, age, sexual orientation, religion or spiritual calling, social class or place of birth.

Your postal code should not predict how long you will live or whether your life will be fraught with violence and poor health.

A baby girl born in Canada can expect to live to age 85. A girl born in Swaziland has an average life expectancy of 49 years.

Your sex should not dictate whether or not you are able to go to school. The African grandmothers tell us that after they secure a roof over their heads and can feed the children in their care, education is the top priority—for both girls and boys. And that education and lifelong learning is the way out of poverty and violence for the next generation.

When one thinks about actors for global peace, older women do not immediately come to mind.

But one does not have to be a politician or a scholar or a visionary like Martin Luther King or Gandhi. Grandmothers can make a difference. So can you.

It may be as simple as learning more, and talking with your neighbours and your family members about peace and non-violence in the world. Or joining a group of like-minded people working for weapons bans, or human rights, or education for all, or poverty reduction or protecting the environment.

It may mean being conscientious consumers and supporting policies that will reduce conflict and violence in other parts of the world. For example, the current war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has claimed more than five million lives. Congo has become the most dangerous place in the world for women, where government troops and warlord militias fight to control the mines, using rape and murder as the main way to fracture the structure of societies.

The treasures they are fighting over are the minerals that are used in our smart phones and computers. Ottawa MP Paul Dewar has recently introduced a bill that would require the makers of these products to practice due diligence and to show that they are not sustaining this violence by using conflict minerals, but rather sourcing from legitimate mining operations.

We use our phones and computers every day. By supporting this kind of legislation, we are not boycotting these products but we are making a consumer-driven statement. We are insisting that the large corporations who make the products we need join the peace process by refusing supplies that fuel war.

Technology, the Internet and social media have opened up global communications in a way we have never seen before. It is accelerating the interconnectedness that is in the whole of the earth’s processes.

The African grandmothers talk about the importance of human connections at all levels. They call it “Ubuntu”. Ubuntu means, ”I am because you are”.  When we acknowledge our connection to others, we affirm our own humanity.

As we meet here, the world is praying for Nelson Mandela, the father of peace in South Africa who is critically ill with lung problems brought on by the 27 years he spent in prison for his fight against the brutalities and injustice of apartheid.

When he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace, Mr. Mandela spoke of the need for Black and White people to live in harmony in South Africa and around the world.  He said: “Let the strivings of us all prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct, when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war.”

The Dalai Lama said: “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, story tellers and lovers of all kind.”

So let me close with another story, told to me by Murray Thomson–a friend who is a leading peace activist both in Canada and on the global stage.

Murray’s father was a missionary in China when the Japanese army occupied the territory. As he was being arrested and taken away to a prison camp, he asked the officer “How do you want to live your life—like this (two fists hitting each other) or like this (hands clasped in unison). The brave interpreter who was assigned to the situation did not bother to translate for the Japanese Colonel, who had the power of life and death over them both at this point. He simply clasped his hands in unison and said in English “like this”.

I invite you to turn to your neighbour beside you. Try the combative way of knocking your fists together. Now try the path of inter-connectedness, and peace making by joining your hands together.

Which one feels right for you?