Local traditions of reconciliation
A research project of the Missionaries of Africa, Southern African Province
The research on local African traditions of reconciliation is a response of the Missionaries of Africa to the second African Synod. We hope for wide participation for this research, which is coordinated by FENZA. Please send contributions to the firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our areas of apostolate differ greatly. What follows is not meant to be a universally applicable questionnaire, but a tool to give some hints into which different directions the research may go; a deeper investigation into any one point alone would be enough for a meaningful research. Point number 4 may be interesting for a future publication, if the concerned people agree.
Proposed method: after looking at the different possible points proposed in this paper, to come up with our own appropriate open-ended questions, relevant for the area we live in and for the people we live with. Encourage people to talk, and see where they want to go with the topic of reconciliation. To take notes, compile, and continue researching.
Whom to interview? Elders, traditional authorities (chiefs, headmen, counsellors), different traditional healers, court clerks, church counsellors, pastors of different churches, people with an interest in culture, women groups, church groups, … no limits.
- What are the different local terms that are used to describe crime, aggression, misconduct, conflict, hatred, injustice, sin, pollution/defilement, shame, guilt, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, mediation, peace making, mercy, love? Can something be said about the roots of the terms and about terms that use the same root? Many nouns go back to verbs: can something be said about the movements that are expressed by the verbs and what this may mean for the concepts of conflict and reconciliation?
2. Oral traditional wisdom
- Any proverbs that deal with conflict, guilt, reconciliation, peace, forgiveness? In which situations are they used?
- What about traditional stories and their lessons for reconciliation. Any examples?
3. Every day usage:
- How do people say sorry/ ask for forgiveness? According to expectations, what needs to be said & done? What needs to be brought? What is the meaning? Who starts the initiative? Who helps?
- Domestic conflicts: Who can help? How? Are there recognised boundaries in domestic conflicts which must not be overstepped?
- Land disputes / disputes with neighbours / adultery / early pregnancies / insults / witchcraft: how are such issues solved?
- Compensations paid (for example for early pregnancies, or witchcraft related offences or bodily harm): what is the meaning of it? What does it mean to pay? What does it mean to accept the payments?
- How does one show a good inner disposition towards the offender or the offended? Or a bad inner disposition?
4. Personal stories (testimonies, or case studies) of reconciliation
- Can something be said about the crimes, hurts, triggers for reconciliation, help, procedures, change of attitudes, consequences of reconciliation?
- Witchcraft and witchcraft accusations have been identified as borderline cases, where reconciliation is very difficult and sometimes seems even impossible. Any case studies where reconciliation became a reality? How did the case unfold? To whom did people go? Which parties intervened? How? In your estimate, what were the key factors leading to reconciliation?
5. Lessons from history:
- What were the major historical ruptures in the area? Did earlier inhabitants face expulsion or extinction? Or were they incorporated into the new polity of the invaders? Through slavery? Marriage? By being given meaningful positions of authority so they could identify (and reconcile) with the emerging polity? Left with powers over certain rituals or over the land? Or was coexistence characterised by resistance? Any collective memory of peace making?
- Which different forms of slavery existed? For what reasons was a person enslaved? How were slaves treated? Who could intervene in case of grave abuse? How were slaves redeemed?
- Which forms of punishment were known? For which offences? Why? Administered by whom?
- Rituals & practices after battles: to humiliate the dead? Or to appease the dead? To gain more powers? Or to deal with collective guilt?
- Any examples of covenants of peace?
- Some groups of former enemies in Africa developed joking relationships with each other (examples: Bemba – Ngoni; Lozi – Tonga; Bisa – Yao, etc.) Can joking be a way of dealing with historical tensions? A way of creating social identities in view of a history with one another? A way to inspire cooperation? Avoid open conflict? Does joking imply / create a certain level of reconciliation? What are the effects of “joking” when living in an environment of differences and tensions?
6. Local courts & traditional justice systems (chiefs, headmen, …)
- Compare different types of courts in your area: In whose authority are people called together? Who calls? How? In whose authority is justice pronounced and obeyed?
- What are the procedures / the steps that are followed? How is the space divided? Circle? Or classroom? Who is in the middle? Where is the judge? Does he/she talk much? Who is present? Who speaks? Who are the experts? Procedures for witnesses? How do relatives of the different parties participate? What is expected from the offender and from the offended? What does this all say in regards to the aim of a court case and the concepts of crime, justice, and reconciliation?
- Fines to be paid: on which basis is a fine calculated?
- How is judgement enforced? Mutual understanding? Fear and pressure? Recourse to spiritual values?
- What other forms of gatherings (formal, informal) are present in the area? How do they function? At which level (family? village?) How can emotions and hurting be expressed and recognised? How can they deal with conflicts that cannot be brought to court (for example conflicts with close relatives)?
7. People’s evaluation of justice in praxis:
- Which features do people find missing? Most frequent complaints? People’s main concerns that are not addressed?
- Compared with the past: do people evaluate present court systems (traditional & official) positively or negatively? What important historical changes do people see?
8. Cultural evaluation of crime
- Hurt that is afflicted through crime goes often much beyond the direct empirical damage of the specific actions. Reconciliation needs to take account of this. What are the deeper meanings attributed to offences such as insults, gossip, theft, adultery?
- Many crimes cannot be repaired (homicide, rape). In the view of people, is reconciliation nevertheless possible? If so, what makes it possible?
- What are the known spiritual consequences that result from serious crime (for example murder)? How are mystical or spiritual factors evaluated or allayed that are behind a crime or that caused the crime, or that are caused by the crime?
- Any concrete examples of mediation? What are the characteristics of a good & accepted mediator?
10. Anticipation of conflict, prevention of conflict, and representation of conflict
- It has been said that the role of the chief was not just restricted to participating in conflict resolution, but also to anticipate and prevent conflict. Any examples? Can also other mechanisms of conflict prevention be given?
- Are there public cultural rites that can express conflict, represent conflict, make conflict visible, and put conflicts into the sphere of public debate?
- Any examples of common expressions of mockery or ridicule to verbalise conflict and discontent?
- What about popular songs: any examples how they have enhanced public debate?
- Expressing conflict through passive resistance: not working / not singing / not dancing / when expected. Any case studies?
11. Study of common traditional rites in view of reconciliation
- Funerals: which aspects of the funeral rites relate to reconciliation, forgiveness, or new life? What about the effects of the extended mourning rites: do they unite a community? Renew the affective community?
- Cleansing rites: in many cultures widows and widowers need to be cleansed after the death of their spouse to enable them to remarry outside the late spouse’s family. Are the rites also an occasion to deal with misgivings & tensions between in-laws, to enable both parties to walk out “clean”? If so, how is this expressed?
- Rites of purification/cleansing: on an individual level (including babies): to be cleansed from a state of being polluted? Polluted by what? And on a wider social level: purification of a kin-group or a larger group: what does the need for purification say about aspects of reconciliation (with one another, with the ancestors, with the land)?
- Sacrifices: any examples in your area? What does the praxis say about reconciliation (with the ancestors / God; with one another)?
- Oaths & conditional curses: Any role for oaths for the establishment of the truth? Any role of oaths/curses for a firm commitment to resolutions for the future?
- Initiation rites: prepare boys / girls also for future tensions: with the spouse, in-laws, own family, society. Are there specific symbols that deal with tensions? With reconciliation? Which deeper values are put across in regards to conflict resolution?
- (Improvised) rites of traditional healers: What different rites / medicines do traditional healers prescribe to resolve conflicts? (for example conflicts that contributed to sickness or misfortune; domestic conflicts; “runaway husbands or wives”; problems at work) What are the symbolic meanings? What are the effects? Are they meant to outwit /overpower the other? Or do they contribute to reconciliation? Any case studies?
12. Traditional prayers:
- Were reconciliation and peace addressed by traditional prayers for wellbeing / rain / fertility / health / good fortune / thanksgiving / deliverance from natural disasters (draught, disease…)? Which sorts of traditional prayers do people remember? Who is addressed? Who prayed? How? What was the occasion? In case of grave conflicts preceding the prayers: could such prayers be listened to by God or ancestors? Did reconciliation precede common prayers? What do the prayers say about the understanding of reconciliation or the interconnectedness of the universe with human affairs?
13. Rites used in different churches
- Usage of holy water: what is the meaning for people?
- The ministry of deliverance has become very pronounced and important in many areas during the last decade. Why? Different ways in different churches? Are the wider families involved? In many churches people are “falling down” during deliverance sessions. How is this interpreted? Does deliverance have references to sin? To a state of being polluted? To reconciliation? Any examples of successful deliverance that had positive transformative impact on the individuals and their families?
- Catholics practise private confession. Some churches practise public confession: often simultaneously, and sometimes in the context of giving testimonies. What effects do people see in regards to healing and reconciliation?
- In some churches vomiting is induced during prayers and overnights (witnessed in some Pentecostal, some Zion-type churches, and some AIC). Also many traditional healers induce vomiting. What is the meaning? Getting rid of defiling substances? Is vomiting in churches equated with confession of sin? Or with purification? Start of a new life? Does it say something about the meaning or quest of reconciliation?
- Usage of ashes (purification, forgiveness, restitution) (for example in some Zion type churches). What is the meaning of the ashes on Ash Wednesday for Catholics?
- Some forms of prayer have become very popular in some areas: overnight prayers/ novenas / whole day prayers on the mountains. They are often attended by whole families. Apart from specific personal prayer requests that people have, do such prayers also have a real transformative character (on the individual, on the family, on the community): what have people experienced?
14. Conflicts within our church: how do we deal with our own conflicts? How did reconciliation come about, and what was involved? Which types of conflicts are difficult to solve within the church?
15. Conflicts within church groups: How do groups of children / groups of youths / women groups (and other groups) deal with conflicts? What are the main problematic issues that lead to confliuct, and how do they strive for reconciliation?
16. Conflicts among ourselves (Missionaries of Africa): How do we deal with conflict? Which issues are addressed, which issues are not addressed? What has helped?
17. African philosophy of reconciliation
The following statements have been proposed in regards to African concepts of reconciliation. Do they correspond with experiences in your area? Do you know of better ways of saying what is at stake?
- “You don’t reconcile with someone with whom you agree, but with someone with whom you disagree.” (Desmond Tutu)
- “We tend to think of reconciliation as generally involving tensions, such as between two or more different interpretations of events. But reconciliation, as with multivocal memory, does not involve the total elimination of tensions. Rather, the tensions are incorporated into a new narrative, and people find a way to live with it.” (Susan Dwyer)
- “Ubuntu is very diﬃcult to render into a Western language. It speaks to the very essence of being human. When you want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobuntu’; he or she has ubuntu. This means that they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means that my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people’ (in Xhosa Ubuntu ungamntu ngabanye abantu and in Zulu Umuntu ngumuntu ngabanye). I am human because I belong, I participate, and I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, aﬃrming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes with knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when other are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.” (Desmond Tutu)
- A person is a person through persons. Reconciliation needs empathy for the other’s distinct experience of life. One is not reconciled to a category or an image, but to someone in whom one recognises (again) a human person. (Halpern & Weinstein)
- Reconciliation requires relationships and re-humanising encounters that proceed in a social space marked by truth, mercy, justice and peace, where grief and anger of both parties can be expressed and acknowledged, and where concerns about past and future can meet. (John Paul Lederach)
- Crime in Africa is rarely understood as a matter for individuals: one who harms (aggressor) and one who is harmed (victim). Crime affects the whole community and answers to crime must also involve the community. (Dzor & Olson)
- The vertical (spiritual) component in African thought is addressed through the horizontal dimension (community). One cannot be at peace with the spirits and with God when one lives in conflict with the community. (John Meiring)
- “Reconciliation is unthinkable without all parties concerned recognising a shared basis of communality. It is precisely ritual which enables us to produce, in preparation of reconciliation, points of view and bases for communality which so far had not been perceived consciously by the parties involves in the conflict. Especially African healers/diviners, whose task it is to bring out interpersonal conflicts and guide them towards reconciliation, tend to be masters in constructing a temporary, improvised language of communality. In ritual, the normal time, when conflict is taken for granted, is interrupted, and it makes place for an ideal time, one of reconstruction, purity, clarity, sociability.” (Wim van Binsbergen)
- “African jurisprudence is restorative rather than retributive.” (Desmond Tutu)
- When listening to grass-root practices of reconciliation, one may find that they not always correspond with our treasured idealistic assumptions of what is necessary for reconciliation and what is not. In many parts of Mozambique, after so many years of horror, local ways of reconciliation were concerned much with appeasing the spirits of the dead, innocently killed and not properly buried, to avert pollution that would make a healthy future impossible. This was considered more important and also more feasible than concerns about telling and knowing the truth, or with asking for forgiveness [as was the case in South Africa]. We must be aware that reconciliation does not proceed through abstract and universal concepts, but becomes embodied in people’s ordinary lives, interwoven with culture and religion, economics and politics, and unfolds often in unspectacular ways. (Summerfield)