World Peace, Really

The beauty pageant answer; the cliche along with rocket science and brain surgery. World Peace. Give Peace a chance. Marches and diplomats; the glib and holy grail. The fine ambitious scent of ambassador’s parties and the scandals of diplomacy. Presidents smile whitely as Arafat and Rabin shake hands.

It’s not like that on the ground. Jody sleeps under a mosquito net and has never been on television, as far as I know. It’s a maddeningly hot, humid night in the ever-sweltering lowlands of Gambella. Tomorrow morning Jody will get up and walk along mud streets to the little three-room PACT office. Gambella has a history of tribal conflict, and…

How to describe a place I don’t understand myself? She drew a little chart for me once, all of the ethnic groups and sub-groups here, all of the shifting and diffuse allegiances. Sometimes you can tell a Nuer from an Anuak by the facial scars — three thin lines across the brow for Nuers, traditionally — but often not. But it’s a small town, right? Everyone knows everyone else, or at least their families. Everyone’s on some side of some line. Or lines. To be neutral is to be without identity.

Jody’s job is “peace building.” She works for an international NGO called PACT. Check the old news on Gambella, what you can find of it — it would have been utterly buried before Google, I’m sure. In January 2004 there was a massacre, said to be Anuaks killing Nuers. The Anuaks in question were maybe retaliating against previous killings by government peacemaking troops. That in turn was retaliation against the killing of eight highlander (government) personnel in a land rover a few months prior. Maybe. I don’t know exactly what happened. Nobody knows exactly what happened. There aren’t any newspapers in Gambella, and not many people could read them if there were. So it’s all heresay, and it all depends who you ask. Two hundred people were killed. Maybe raped.

It was originally about the placement of new camps for Sudanese refugees streaming across the border. Or it’s a traditional animosity between Nuers and Anuaks. Or there are valuable mineral rights in the region and the Anuaks want to retain their formerly dominant political position. Does it matter? There were months of gunshots at night.

Things finally settled down.

The Ethiopian staff of PACT Gambella thought that a faranji — a Westerner — might be a good mediator. An outsider would be seen as neutral. White people tend to be respected anyway, symbols of a rich and peaceful world that no Ethiopian will ever have the cash or visas to visit. Jody accepted and signed a multi-year contract to live in this unpaved place. Raw cinderblock houses are going up by the dozens, but it’s still mostly corrugated metal shacks and goats wandering the street. The river provides no relief from the heat, only breeding ground for the mosquitos. Everyone brings bars of soap down and bathes in the brown water, but you have to look out for crocodiles.

Now Jody gets up every day and heads to the office. Everyone says hello on the street; there really aren’t that many white people in Gambella, and all of them work in the aid business. It’s rather interesting work. She goes out into the field a lot. She talks with all sides, scheduling private meetings, moderating discussions at more formal gatherings. She does HIV/AIDS education and tries to find other employment for those who make a living doing female circumcision. She works roughly within the “people to people peace method” that PACT developed in Sudan; but every place is different, and the ground shifts under her feet with every new rains, as rivers flood and erode and farmers gain or lose irrigation — or their houses.

Her job is to build a lasting peace. I have no idea how she does this.

“Look for the strengths,” she told me. “This is a beautiful place. The people are very cool. They have a rich culture. Unfortunately it’s much eroded now.”

She also does classic development work, trying to raise the hopes and fortunes of the local population. The hypothesis, she explains, is that “economically marginalized groups will decrease conflict if their economic situation improves.” So she oversees eduction programs (especially for girls), business and trade training, microcredit programs, cross-border trade and stability. Reality meets political fiction here: Jody isn’t allowed to cross into nearby Sudan, but the locals do it all the time.

How? I press. How do we make peace? What are the mechanics of your job? But she says there’s no master plan for how to get people to stop fighting. “I’ve learned from PACT Sudan, and the people to people method, but also just from all the things that make sense. We try something, and we see if it works.”

This is her profession. This is how peace is built. From the ground level, at the community scale, by trial and error. “I don’t think anyone in the world has the answers,” Jody tells me. “The academics don’t. We don’t. The government doesn’t.”

“But,” she says, “people here want something better.” And you can actually work on world peace as a day job, if you want to.

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