Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A new generation of African change-makers on the march (Photo: Dmitriy Pritulenko)Ten years ago a Chinese teacher launched an initiative to ‘develop a new generation of change-makers’. Today it is happening. Mike Brown reports from Africa…

Compared to the surging mass of Egyptians who brought a historic climax to their demonstrations on 11 February, the procession of 80 young Africans that same day through the streets of Nakuru in ‘upcountry’ Kenya seemed insignificant.

But it had a similar spark. Wearing T-shirts branded with ‘Beyond me… it’s time to act’, these youths from eight countries between Rwanda and Sudan carried slogans like ‘Corruption is a moral issue’ and ‘To raise the standard, I must raise my standards’. And they sang over and over:

‘We are the change generation and we’ll impact the nation…
For change is within us.’

‘Inner moral change’, they insisted, is the driver for social change, adding that it starts with each one of them – not those in power or with privilege. That was the core message of the Eastern Africa Youth Conference, 9-13 February, of which the street demonstration was a part. Many cited personal examples – a Cameroon student leader who turned down thousands of dollars offered to influence exam results; a Sudanese human rights activist who, when arrested, refused to give the asked-for bribe to the police, saying he ‘would rather die at peace than be free with no accountability’.

The conference was conceived last year in Ethiopia, at a Harambee training programme, organized by Initiatives of Change. Those present resolved to bring youth leaders from East African and the Horn together annually for eight years with the vision of creating ‘an Africa that is economically prosperous, politically vibrant, ecologically sustainable and socially inclusive…’ Nakuru was the first.

Supporting this conference in Kenya was one of the mobile teams of Action for Life (AfL), now operating on four continents. This IofC programme, in its tenth year, was conceived and initially led by Liu Ren-Jou, a Taiwanese teacher. It has played a key role in helping to inspire and train a rising leadership of IofC in many countries. Its goal is to ‘develop a new generation of change-makers, equipped with integrity and faith, who are committed to transformation in the world, starting with themselves’.

The current AfL programme operates with an inter-generational group of 32 from 18 countries. It began last November with an intensive two months of training and team-building in India, at the IofC centre in Panchgani. From there, smaller groups have moved to other regions for three months ‘action’ supporting initiatives of this ‘change-generation’, many of them led by graduates of earlier programmes. Ugandan Joanne Nabbanja, the Chair of the Nakuru conference, was a graduate of an earlier AfL. So was Ann Njeri, its key Kenyan organizer.

From a Kikuyu family who lost their home in one of Kenya’s tribal conflicts, Ann had struggled with her prejudice and bitterness, and has now become an active trust-builder among women’s networks. On this visit, she took the AfL team to stay with her Kalenjin friends in their small farming lots outside Eldoret, epicenter of post-election violence in 2007. ‘Peace starts with us; others will join in,’ said Salina Tororai, one of their hosts who has defied tribal politics in her community. After three days of school workshops and community dialogues, Ann and the AfL group were honoured by Salina and her friends – each receiving a decorated calabash (gourd).

To the West of Eldoret, the AfL team spent three more days in a ‘forgotten valley’ which has no roads, electricity or running water, and is dominated by ‘drinking, thieving and laziness’ according to Kipkorir Andrew, the first university student from the area. Adopting IofC ideas and principles, he has started remarkable farming and youth cooperatives in a region where youth unemployment is 70 percent. ‘I am inspired by these people,’ observed Dmitriy Pritulenko from Ukraine. ‘My dream is to serve communities in this way. My habit, when I don’t immediately trust someone, is to withdraw and build a wall. Now I want to listen more… to see how to help.’

In March this team moves on to Juba in South Sudan, and then to Uganda. Meanwhile, another AfL ‘action group’ has been based in Eastern Europe. They spent January in Romania, interacting each week with another Club of Young Leaders, started by Diana Damsa, graduate of AfL3. Despite the deep snow and European culture, visitor Nhat Nguyen found many similarities with his home in Vietnam: ‘We also have a young IofC team, full of enthusiasm, but looking for deeper conviction and a bigger vision. Our countries both have the same problems: corruption, leadership issues and young people feeling disillusioned.’ At their sessions in Romania, Nhat takes the ‘Club’ through a team-building activity before other AfL members lead dialogues on various topics, such as listening skills, habits, dreams and fears.

Three Creators of Peace Circles have also sprouted at Diana’s initiative, and the AfL women were welcomed to them. From the intimacy of these home encounters, AfL ventured into the public with a presentation in Baia Mare’s library, and two interviews at a local TV station, as well as presenting IofC at an ecumenical service at the Reformed Hungarian Theological College in Cluj-Napoca. Now they are in Moldova with New Civilization, another well-established network of IofC activists.

Life Matters workshop in AucklandHalf a world away, there’s no snow – only white beaches. But the AfL team in the Pacific have been hard at work. Far from her native Romania, TV journalist Dana Lazar found herself facilitating a session on identity at a Life Matters workshop in the multicultural city of Auckland, New Zealand: ‘one of the most challenging and powerful experiences I've ever had’.

The programme was organized by two couples, all former AfL participants. On the other two weekends in January they lined up a family camp in Wellington and a Creators of Peace Circles gathering. In between, AfL explored Maori culture and community empowerment.

By February this ‘action group’ team were in Fiji, welcomed by a local chief, Ratu Meli Vesikula, and AfL graduate Aashil Prakash – representing Fiji’s interracial diversity. They will spend March in Solomon Islands, where IofC has been involved in the camps bringing reconciliation between former militants of bloody civil conflict.

In nearby Indonesia, Huda, Umam and Wazeen – all AfL graduates – planned a busy programme for the fourth AfL ‘action team’. Following the footsteps of former IofC President, Rajmohan Gandhi, they visited two huge faith-based civil society organizations, Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah (each with millions of members), to understand the context of Islam in Indonesia. Vietnamese Bui Khue found these ‘such interesting conversations, based on the spirit of trust and sharing, helping to clear my own assumptions about Islam’.

Thus briefed, the AfL group began presenting their application of moral and spiritual change to young Indonesians in several pesantren (Muslim boarding schools) and at a workshop in the Islamic State University. In Bandung, Lebanese Rawad Raidan was inspired by Peace Generation, an NGO developing value-modules for teachers to use in their classes. ‘It's very practical and tangible, bringing Muslim and Christian students together.’ In March the AfL team return to Jakarta to join IofC Indonesia in running a Teachers for Change workshop. But meanwhile they are spending February in Malaysia, interned with several NGOs and supporting IofC Malaysia in conducting a Tools for Change workshop for civil society.

This snapshot of this rising ‘change generation’, connected through IofC, could describe many more – Mexican Jose Carlos Leon Vargas (AfL3) building houses with the rubbish pickers, and Chris Breitenberg setting up an exchange for young Americans to work with him. One should also include other programmes and networks, like the European Foundations for Freedom, the annual Asia Pacific Youth Conference, Caux Scholars and others.

What is notable is their growing consciousness of each other, around the globe – and of their shared commitment to the ‘change within us’ concept. As Xiong Ming Ling from Shanghai asked herself, during a day of reflection before leaving India on this current action: ‘How can I find the bigger plan? To know it’s Your plan or my plan?’ Her dialogue with ‘the Divine’ brought its own answers: ‘When you totally surrender, all the plan will be My plan, because there will be no yourself in you... One thing you need to always remember, everyone is equal in my eyes. Treat everyone equally. I give everyone different tasks only because everyone is different. Learn to respect the difference. Keep your clean heart, clean mind. This is the way I can live in you.’

For more information about Action for Life see http://www.afl.iofc.org/
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