Kenyan Loreto sister teaching non-violent conflict resolution
By Paul Samasumo
Sr Wamuyu Teresia Wachira, PhD, belongs to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM), commonly known as the Loreto Sisters, a congregation of women religious dedicated to education, founded by Englishwoman Mary Ward, in 1609.
Sr Wamuyu is a woman of many firsts, with a long history of advocating for a culture of peace and non-violent conflict resolution in her native country of Kenya. Some of her activism, especially in support of the girl-child and Kenyan women, began to be noticed around 1991.
Sr Wamuyu is also a Senior Lecturer and Programme leader of Peace and Conflict Studies at Nairobi’s St Paul’s University, a Christian ecumenical institution, and co-President of Pax Christi International, and accepts speaking engagements the world over. In an interview with Vatican Media, Sr Wamuyu’s passion for imparting her skills in peaceful conflict resolution to Africa’s students is palpable and profound. She explained the programme at St Paul’s University:
“In the programme, we teach non-violent ways of creating peace. Part of what we teach is Peace Journalism because we have noticed that our media sometimes escalates conflict situations. This is when journalists take sides and create further conflict through their words or how they communicate or frame the message. For instance, if you are reporting on two fighting communities, you do not need to demonise one community. The media should look at both sides and explore how they can bring these two sides, these two communities, together. Communities can be helped to arrive at a situation where they are ready for mediation. So, mediation is important for us. It is key in our training at St Paul’s,” explained Sr Wamuyu.
She continued, “Media should be helping people see what the other side is seeing. The media, especially in Africa, needs to be reconcilers and bridge-builders instead of taking sides. Many conflicts, especially around election time, sometimes happen because of how the media carried a particular story.”
Tradition and resolving conflict
Sr Wamuyu also believes that Africans need to rediscover and embrace traditional African ways of resolving conflicts. She explained that traditional African society had time-tested methods of peaceful conflict management. She refers to this as “alternative mediation”.
“Elders would come together, listen to both parties of the conflict and through listening and dialogue would attain common ground. Traditional mediation prioritises harmony and building community. We need to carry on with these values and pass them on to students,” she emphasised and added, “It is not just about consensus. It is about walking in the shoes of the other and feeling as they do,” she explained.
Sr Wamuyu says that young people know what is right and wrong but need to be challenged, especially regarding harmful and toxic social media use.
“I often look in to see what our young students post on the internet and blogs on social media. I sometimes challenge them, ‘Isn’t there another way you could say what you want to say without using hate speech? Why do you think it is necessary for you to belittle the other person? What would you feel if you were on the other side?’ And I find that when you begin along this path, you start to change their mindset. Remember, young people know the truth…. Young people are very creative and are already doing a lot of peace-building through art and music. It is not like we are teaching them something completely new,” she said. “I always tell my students it does not matter what is happening out there. Go and make a difference and begin with yourself”.
Yet, according to the religious sister, adults first need to be model peacemakers. “If we are teaching young people to be peaceful, we must ask, are we peaceful as adults? How are the parents, husband and wife communicating when they disagree?”
Fitting the pieces of peace together
What about Africa’s endemic ethnic and tribal conflicts?
In Sr Wamuyu’s view, Africa’s ethnic conflicts are perpetuated by spoiler politicians who weaponise tribe as a means to attain political power for their own benefit or that of their family and friends. “It is men who want power. All this talk of ‘my people’ is about putting one man into a position of power.”
“We should not always be stressing the otherness of persons. We are the same. The different ethnicities and tribes in Africa should be celebrated. If God wanted to, he would have created us to look alike. But God wants us to appreciate our differences. Appreciating each other’s cultures means I should never entertain the thought that my culture is better or superior. There are always good things that I can borrow from the culture of others. It is about appreciating that we are different flowers growing in the same garden. Africa is like a jigsaw puzzle that, when put together, is beautiful. Every piece is different but part of a whole,” said Sr Wamuyu.