By Mercia Takavarasha, Programmes Officer at Generations For Peace
I have always had a call to give back. But it was not until in 1996 when I began teaching in Mvuma, a small mining town in the Midlands province of Zimbabwe, that my volunteer streak was awakened. The mining community had people from poor economic and social backgrounds. My interaction was with mischievous students who were ready to defend their territory and did not value school.
These youth bullied other students, expressed dominance through physical fights, used crude language and had very little respect for authority. Other teachers at the school and I began coaching football, netball and athletics, committing time after hours and during weekends, and deliberately focusing on some of the notorious bullies. We started these activities to teach the students life values with the hope that this would instill in them a greater sense of responsibility. Our prime purpose for choosing these popular sports was that they are easy to run in Zimbabwe, even with some improvising of equipment and facilities.
Over time, we discovered that some of the bullies were really talented and began to harness their energies to break the cycle of bullying. The immediate result was increased discipline and a visible change of behaviour – the bullying had drastically decreased. They now belonged to a team and began to build relationships. We then seized the opportunity to educate the students on Olympic values like fair play, respect and equality – values that can be translated into life.
What started as a school activity gradually extended to the youth in the community. With other teachers and coaches, we continued to use sport as a positive behavioural change tool in both the schools and communities where we worked and lived. Our commitment stemmed from wanting to contribute to the change we wanted to see in the broader communities. We then became involved in a number of initiatives like the Youth Education through Sport Programme (YES) and Olympic Values Education Programme, run by the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) and the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee (ZOC) respectively. The SRC selected me to participate in a Youth Sport Exchange Programme and I was sent to Sport In Action in Zambia, where I was further trained to use sport as a tool for development to create positive change in communities.
Could this experience and the knowledge and skills I had gained qualify me as an expert in building peace? The reality is that as a sport enthusiast with no peace-building background I still had knowledge and skills that I could bring to the table. The impact of my contribution on local peace building could be viewed as minimal and perhaps irrelevant when all is said and done. However, every effort counts and that is why I did not disqualify myself, and this is why Generations For Peace (GFP) did not disqualify me either!
GFP is an international, Jordan-based peace-building organisation that firmly believes that sustainable peace requires the sustained grassroots level effort of community members. These community members, who are carefully selected volunteer leaders of youth, are mentored and supported by GFP to implement regular activities for children, youth and adults to address issues of violence in their own communities.
How then does an organisation based in Jordan connect with volunteers like me around the world? In my case, GFP contacted the ZOC to identify youth leaders who were already working to bring change in their communities. By then, I had moved from Mvuma to Gweru and had continued to work with children and youth in schools and the community of Mkoba, a high density suburb in Gweru. Through ZOC, and together with seven other volunteers, I was selected to attend a training camp in Jordan in 2008. At this camp, I gained a comprehensive understanding of peace-building concepts and of the change I wanted to see in my community. Peace building was demystified! My training in Jordan marked a significant shift in my inner desire for peace building. I became more acknowledged by locals who recognised my international exposure to peace-building theory and wanted to give me a chance.
Further equipped, I became more passionate and realised I had even more time to volunteer. Maybe, I had realised I had more to offer to my community too. This was the chance to pass on my knowledge to colleagues, and other teachers and coaches who had continued to use sport as a behavioural change tool in the schools and communities they worked and lived in. The schools around Zimbabwe had similar issues and bullying was one of the major problem. With support from GFP headquarters we trained 70 more volunteers in designing and implementing peace-building programmes based on each community’s context. These volunteers also had teaching or coaching backgrounds and were already working with children and youth.
Having implemented peace-building programmes in my community, I became a certified Pioneer and took the lead on working with other volunteers and mentoring them in their programme implementation. My peace-building career path was further developed at two Advanced Trainings and furthermore, when I was invited to be part of the Specialised Pioneer Facilitator Training. In 2016, I took up my present role as Programmes Officer at GFP. I now manage peace-building programmes in six countries across Africa, Asia and Europe, and work with volunteers who have been and are still on the path I have described above. I mentor them in the implementation of programmes in their communities and support their journeys.
So why does GFP focus on local volunteers? Could they possibly have “expertise” that outsiders do not have? How has this approach by GFP worked so effectively around the world? I believe creating peaceful societies is context-specific and varies from community to community. Members of the community like me play a key role in their different communities and so understand their communities best. Therefore, as a local volunteer, I was an expert. But how exactly was I an expert?
. My understanding of the local culture and the issues in my school.
. My sporting background and ability to use sport as an entry point and vehicle for integrated education and behaviour change for children and youth.
. Understanding the values of the community and ensuring that the activities designed were in harmony with the local culture.
. My fluency in both Shona and Ndebele, the major ethnic languages for the target community in the Midlands was vital in gaining trust of both groups when implementing programmes.
. High receptivity of and successful programme implementation.
. GFP helps local volunteers around the world soak up the process, the concepts, the design of programmes and helps them merge the “expertise” to transform conflict in their communities using the appropriate vehicles for peace building.
Building peace relies heavily on active community participation. As such, there is a need to train more volunteers in order to harness the energies, perspectives, knowledge and expertise of even more community members. This guarantees sustainability since a local member of the community is not going anywhere!
While it is easy to view peace building as a role undertaken by exceptional people who are different from us, it is important to note that peace building is something that can take place in our daily lives and in small ways – on a personal and local level. If we all utilise the expertise within us, we can make a bigger difference than we thought possible. So yes – you do need to be an expert to build peace but guess what, you already are one!
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