My first encounter with dialogue as a process of conflict transformation was in 2008 shortly after the post-election violence in Kenya that left over 1,200 dead and thousands of others displaced.
Emelda Ochieng is a journalist and filmmaker from Kenya. In this blog post she is writing about her experiences with dialogue. Emelda was attending the Nansen Dialogue Summer School 2019.
There was a sudden craze and concerted push by the international community and civil society groups in Kenya for leaders and the general public to engage in dialogue in order to restore peace. Following a long and grueling process of dialogue, mediation and power sharing arrangements, Kenya was able to bounce back to a state of normalcy. However years later, there still is a strong sense of mistrust, injustice and hostility amongst certain communities due to the egregious acts of violence committed.
We were different, in every sense of the word.
Cut to June 16, 2019 — we arrive at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue in Lillehammer, a picturesque location overlooking Lagen river, forest-clad hills and the famous Ski Jumping Arena where the 1994 Winter Olympics took place. We are 28 participants between the ages of 18 to 42 from 13 countries. Doctors from Somalia and Georgia, students from Minnesota and Hawaii, assistant professors from Indonesia and Colombia, activists and advocacy practitioners from Kenya and Ukraine, health practitioners from Myanmar and Uganda. We were different, in every sense of the word. Some were shy and kept to themselves, others were animated and talkative, while some like me were somewhere in between.
While I was open to learning about dialogue and conflict transformation, I must admit I had my own preconceived notions. As a journalist and filmmaker from Kenya who’s worked in settings where proof of “Impact” and “Return on Investment (ROI)” are worshipped, dialogue seemed rather passive, abstract and a bit “Kumbaya”. I mean, “how can conflict be resolved just by talking about feelings and experiences? Where is the action plan? How can we measure the impact of the process?” I wondered.
It was a safe space with clear ground rules
When the rubber hit the road, we sat in big and small groups for close to 8 hours a day engaging in conversations about contentious issues such as capitalism, surveillance and gender roles. As expected, the process was taxing and stirred a range of emotions. It also provided an opportunity to reflect, re-examine and challenge some of the beliefs we hold so dearly. Although I have had dozens of conversations about these issues before, there was something different about the conversations we had at the Nansen Center. I felt heard. It was a safe space with clear ground rules and where all perspectives were accommodated. By listening to others openly share their stories, experiences and feelings, I felt a sense of empathy, connectedness and understanding—even though we sometimes didn’t agree. How do you measure that or report that as an impact? You can’t. You just feel it and experience it. And that in itself is enough.
We can create opportunities for dialogue in unconventional ways
One of the striking realizations from the experience was the discovery that we can create opportunities for dialogue in unconventional ways and break down barriers between people with intractable differences who would never otherwise have even considered speaking to each other. While the common conception is that dialogue is confined to boardrooms and agendas, we learned how people with extremely divergent worldviews and perspectives managed to find common ground over food, over drinks at a bar or how physical spaces such as walking down the iconic Olympic Park in Lillehammer can foster shared experiences. Dialogue as a process can be fluid, immersive, blend into and flow from physical spaces and interactions.
Peace and conflict resolution may seem lofty and unattainable especially in countries with long histories of conflict. While we might not see or measure the immediate impact of dialogue, the mere act of having open conversations characterized by mutual respect, active listening, humility and empathy, fosters understanding and better relations.
Written by: Emelda Ochieng ⎥ Photo: Kai Eldøy Nygaard ⎥ Published: September 23rd 2019
Would you like to read more about the Nansen Dialogue Summer School 2019? See the article “A world of dialogue”, and also the article about Seinn Seinn Min who works for Doctors Without Borders, and attended as a student at the Nansen Dialogue Summer School 2019.
The Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue has more than 20 years of experience in developing methodologies, and supporting dialogue projects in the Western Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Ukraina, Norway, Poland and other countries. The Nansen Center provides capacity building on dialogue, with trainings, seminars and workshops. The Nansen Dialogue Summer School is in partnership with the International Summer School at the University of Oslo.