Grassroots work builds sustainable peace


“We help people affected by war. Many have lost family members, wives have been widowed, some have lost property. We go to them, support them and carry the message of peace,” says Margaret Barsaba, president of the Women of Faith network in the South Sudanese capital of Juba.

A woman with colorful clothes.

Insider reconcilers are building reconciliation in communities from within, explains Margaret Barsaba. The Deaconess Foundation supports Women of Faith in training reconcilers. It is especially important to provide them with the tools to provide psychosocial support.

In recent years, peacebuilding has become increasingly aware of the importance of practical reconciliation work from within communities and close to people. In many people’s imaginations, reconciliation is built by neutral peace negotiators from outside who arrive in conflict zones and use their almost magical skills to defuse tensions within communities. However, reconciliation cannot be imposed; it is a long-term, day-to-day effort to heal communities. That is why the Deaconess Foundation, together with its international partners, is investing in supporting the work of insider reconcilers.

Insider reconcilers are members of communities in need who, for one reason or another, are in a position to help others. In Africa, such people – like Margaret Barsaba – often work within religious communities.

“Religious leaders play an important role because they are used to listening to people’s concerns and responding to requests. But they also need psychosocial support to overcome their trauma, having themselves suffered violence in their communities,” explains Barsaba.

Religious leaders in Africa working together for peace

In addition to belonging to Women of Faith, Barsaba is a member of the Inter-Religious Council of South Sudan, which works under the auspices of the African Council for Religious Leaders – Religions for Peace (ACRL). The Deaconess Foundation supports the work of these networks through its development cooperation programme. This support strengthens the skills of peer mediators in reconciliation building, psychosocial support and social healing.

“Here in South Sudan, for example, we use phrases from the Bible and, in the case of Muslim leaders, the Koran. They help to build a rapport with religious leaders and understand the importance of dealing with trauma,” says Barsaba.

Barsaba says that in total, they have already trained nearly 100 people in South Sudan in peace and reconciliation work. Not all of them are religious leaders, but women and young people, whose role as peer mediators the Deaconess Foundation and the African Council of Religious Leaders are particularly keen to strengthen.

Barsaba has made her career as a teacher. She says that teachers are an important target group in their work.

“It is through teachers that we can help children. Some children from poor home situations and traumatised children cause problems at school. If teachers have an understanding of how to deal with trauma and reconciliation, these problems can be addressed in the right way.

People’s everyday concerns must be addressed first

Barsaba’s organisation is based in Juba, and its workers go out to different parts of the city, which are home to a wide range of people, from Christians and Muslims to non-religious people. Barsaba stresses that they treat everyone equally. The work is done on people’s terms, in practice it often concerns giving advice and finding solutions to everyday problems.

“We can offer spiritual support and advice, but people also need concrete help. When Jesus spoke to people, he was also looking after their well-being and providing food. Here too, many of the people in need

are hungry. More than 10 people may be living in the same house, none of them having a paid job,” Barsaba explains.

Because the organisation Barsaba represents focuses on women and children, the work often deals with stopping domestic and sexual violence.

“We have been going door-to-door to talk about the issue and provide psychosocial support. If a husband and wife fight, we can talk to the wife and give support. We also explain to mothers why it is important to protect children; children can be victims of violence if for example they are sent to the market alone,” says Barsaba.

Barsaba describes how an important part of promoting peace and reconciliation is encouraging vulnerable people to get involved in the community. Victims of rape or people with mental health problems are invited to join in and their sense of self-worth is strengthened. This can empower them to help overcome traumatic experiences and take control of their lives.

“It is important to encourage young girls in particular to take part in education. Good examples, stories of change for the better, can help here. We call this ‘self-help’: if a woman gets the skills and support to run her own business, for example, she can help herself and not have to keep going back for help. Later, she may in turn assist others who need help.

Work continues, despite the challenge

The practical nature of the work is also underlined when Barsaba is asked about the challenges of the operation and the plans for the future – which are also very concrete.

“Getting around is a challenge, we need transport. Those who need help can call us, but the distances in Juba are several kilometres. We would also definitely need an office, some kind of centre where people could find us and where people would dare to come! For example, victims of rape should be able to get to hospital within 24 hours for an examination, so it should be easy to get help.”

As the in South Sudan violence continues unabated, the need for reconciliation work is constant and growing. Insider reconcilers across the country need support and training, and Barsaba says the military has also turned to their organisation to increase its understanding of trauma management.

Women of Faith’s work will continue to expand beyond Juba, with training courses also being organised in the Upper Nile and Bahr-el-Ghazal states.

“We want to expand our activities because of the huge need for psychosocial support and reconciliation skills in our country due to the protracted conflicts,” says Barsaba.

The writer, Mikko Hautakangas, is a media and journalism researcher specialising in reconciliation issues.

Translation from Finnish Mark Waller.


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