Peace-building in Africa’s Great Rift Valley
From March 1 - 6, at the pristine and beautiful environment of the Gallmann Africa Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya, DDM monastics and youth delegates attended an interactive conference, a ground-breaking peace-building event for the youth of Sudan and other international youth peace delegates from the Young Leaders Peace Council.
The Global Peace Initiative of Women, along with Ruder Finn Foundation and DDM, co-sponsored this “Sudan Youth Dialogue” which was aimed at creating a forum for the youth of Sudan, a country that has for decades been afflicted by civil war, ethnic conflict, poverty, and much suffering. The forum provided a neutral and safe place where various youths from different areas and ethnic origins could discuss ways in which to improve the current state of their country, and establish peace and stability. The focus of the event revolved around discussing the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which target issues like poverty, gender, AIDS, and environmental concerns.
The DDM delegates included Venerables Guo Guang, Guo Chan, and Chang Wen (DDM Taiwan) as well as Venerables Chang Ji and Chang Wu (DDM USA), with youth delegates Andres Chang (Vancouver), Byron Wong (Toronto), Belinda Li (Chicago), and Lys Lin, Phoebe Wang, and Sophie Hsieh (Taiwan). Altogether there were 45 participants from Sudan, many professionals and doctors, as well as members of NGOs and other youth organizations. In addition, in attendance were 5 other international youths of the Young Leaders Peace Council, who attended the last year’s Compassionate Youth Retreat at DDRC.
Participants spent 6 days in the beautiful, natural environment of the conservancy, surrounded by 100,000 acres of pristine savannah—grassy fields, forests of olive and sage, and acacia, and sharing the space with the elephants, lions, zebra, impala, and buffalo, among other charismatic megafauna. They lived in two person tents, with roofs made of sticks and logs, as well as cottages made of clay, painted in stripes in the traditional patterns of African homes, all amidst the fields and wide-open spaces.
The meeting place was generously provided by Kuki Gallmann, the owner of the conservancy, whose personal life story inspired everyone. After the death of her husband and son, she was left alone on the huge plot of land to care for her baby daughter as well as manage the cattle and fend off animal poachers. With the support of local people and friends, and because of her incredibly strong will, she vowed to use the land as a way to make a difference in the world and help to build peace. Currently, it’s one of the only places in Africa where there is no human interference in the management of the animal population, as she allows nature to take its course. For more info on the story see www.gallmannkenya.org
In addition to discussing the MDGs, participants shared their stories of suffering and success throughout the years of conflict in Sudan, giving presentations of their own NGOs and current activities. Also, workshops were given by Jackie Wilson of the US Institute for Peace, who led the youth through problem solving exercises and other communication activities. In between activities, all shared delicious meals together and talked freely, sharing their views and ideas, as well as making friends and connections.
For a short portion of the event, DDM delegates spent some time together practicing meditation, and taking advantage of being in such a pleasant environment, used the method of direct contemplation. Forgetting the labels and subjective discriminations that they usually placed on top of their normal everyday experiences, delegates practiced letting go of these filters and just observed directly the wonder of being in the present moment, together in one continuous moment with nature. This brought them an even greater sense of calm and peace, of which they were able to share with the other participants—peace-building with their silence. After the daytime activities, the nighttime was spent around the fire, dancing to the rhythms of Africa, folk songs from Japan, as well as pop songs and nursery rhymes from Taiwan.
These nighttime festivities especially were able to create bonds between participants, as the talented musicians who joined the event brought the international language of music and dance to the group, allowing all to express themselves and revive their spirits. All the while, the animals of the night grouped close by, surely curious as to what was happening. After bedtime, while many rested in their tents and cottages during the night, they were greeted by the sounds of the night, as elephants and other herds grazed just outside, sometimes galloping and grunting by.
After the six days of peace-building, problem solving, sharing, and bonding, the participants were filled with inspiration, having made such connections with their neighbors in Sudan as well as many international friends. On the final day, the group gathered at a scenic site, where one could view the expansive horizon overlooking a part of the Valley, where the forests and hills are glowing with a serene green color, still pristine and untouched by human activity—a untouched land that many claim is the ‘birthplace of humankind.’
At this place, all sat together and shared prayers from various faiths, such as Shinto, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist chanting done by the DDM team, as well as a Christian hymn sung by friends from southern Sudan. After this, many were moved to tears, and sat in silence observing the sense of peace and community shared by all. The final night consisted of a closing by the GPIW team leader Dena Merriam, who brought the meeting to a close by speaking of the inner peace and compassion that she has learned from Shifu, as well as speaking of the great diligence and kindness of all members involved in bringing together this rare event. Final closing prayers were said, and a section of Shifu’s message to the assembly were read aloud:
Dharma Drum Mountain promotes the movement of “Protecting the Spiritual Environment.” This refers to protecting our mind from the influences posed by the external environment. These influences refer to all kinds of stimulation, enticement, torment, etc. When the environment does not influence the mind, it can then confront all problems and seek for conflict resolution calmly and peacefully. However, if our minds are full of discontent, anger and revenge, as we interact with any ethnic or religious group, conflicts will easily arise. If our inner mind is at peace and without prejudice, then we can maintain true objectivity. When we interact with others, even if they are hostile or unfriendly, we can still extend a sincere and friendly hand to them. At least there will not be instant conflict upon meeting. As long as one party is willing to extend a peaceful and friendly attitude, then they both can sit down to talk it over slowly.
After the prayers, the group closed the night with a few songs of drumming and dancing, and cherishing the last moments of the meeting together.
With regards to a concrete outcome of the meeting, an action plan has been created to further the networking and cooperation among the participants. An unofficial organization has been formed, tentatively titled the Sudan Youth for Dialogue and Development, SYDD, which will be a network of youths in the different regions of Sudan, who plan to share their difficulties and successes along the way of rebuilding and stabilizing their communities by implementing the MDGs. By keeping in contact, they can share precious resources of information as well as experience, and also have a link with the international community and other NGOs.
In addition to the success of bringing the Sudanese youth together from various regions into mutual understanding, friendship, and cooperation—a groundbreaking event in itself—participants from DDM remarked that for themselves, the experience was life-changing. By living so close to nature for many days, in the heart of Africa, such a new and beautiful environment, and by having seen the strength of the Sudanese youth, the DDM youths perspectives on life has changed. One remarked that no longer was his own individual livelihood so overwhelmingly important, rather the livelihood and peace of the entire world is what’s most important.
There is so much work to do in bringing people together in a peaceful way to solve the problems of poverty, war, etc., thus he has gained a new momentum in life to become involved in this work. The DDM youth continue to contact the Sudanese and international participants, and share their visions and ecourage the Sudan youths through email, and hope to continue their involvement in DDM’s International Development team, headed by Venerables Chang Ji and Guo Chan. In the future, there are plans to continue to cooperate with Ms. Gallmann and hold more peace-building events in the Conservancy.
All in all, this meeting has brought about great change in all who attended, as well as those involved in the care taking of the event, planting the seeds of peace in the field of mind.
May peace come quickly to Sudan, and may this tree of peace spread it seeds to all corners of the world!
“Sudan Youth Dialogue” 2007 March 1 – 7
Gallmann Africa Conservancy, Laikipia, Kenya
by Shi Chang Wen