An MPI alumni round table conversation
Written by: Patrick van Wersch
They had optimistically agreed the night before to attend Sunday morning mass. But one of them—ironically the pastor—overslept. So instead, after a late breakfast they gathered around a table to read and reflect on their favorite Bible passages. A few hours later, after being joined by a fourth peacebuilder, they found themselves in a similar setting as they sat down with Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute’s (MPI) Marlies Roth and Patrick van Wersch for a round table conversation. Eager to share their experiences as MPI Annual Training alumni they were challenged to answer two questions: ‘How have you put your learnings into practice?’ and ‘What can you learn from each other?’ The exchange illustrated the sense of community the foursome has grown accustomed to in their work for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)*.
Imprint on the mind
Manjula has been with MCC the longest, twenty-seven years. She took the MPI training in 2002 and 2006. She vividly remembers the second time as she was just coming out of a difficult period in her life. Her trainer, Babu Ayindo, taught her that out of brokenness a new thing can be created. Manjula now applies this lesson in her own classes. Bee, a 2014 alumna, shares that the class ‘Religion: Dialogue, Theories and Practice for Peacebuilding’ made a particular impact on her. That’s why she’s retaking it this year. “In Laos, most religious organizations work in isolation. The training showed me there are different perceptions on religion and that we should not be afraid to share our core beliefs.”
Jacky, who comes from a Buddhist background, started working with MCC Laos as a volunteer in 2014 and joined them as a staff member three years later. He did the MPI training in 2015 and 2017. Just like Manjula, the dealing with trauma class imprinted on his mind. “The older generation of Laotians expects youth to internalize trauma in the same way they did, suffering through war and exploitation. The MPI training helped me to better understand and handle these inherited traumas.” Rounding out the quartet is Pastor Prakash who has been with MCC India since 2013 and in 2016 traveled to Davao to join MPI’s Annual Training. Coming from a background of social work and theology, he thought he knew a lot about peacebuilding but soon realized he was wrong. “At MPI and in MCC training programs I learned that to do peacebuilding you first have to bring peace to yourself before finding creative ways to impart your knowledge onto others.”
Play a role
The group agrees that creative and hands-on approaches prove most useful in their daily work. Roleplaying, for instance, is a tool used often by the peacebuilders. Prakash recalls a MCC India workshop—with Manjula as one of the trainers—where Manjula stepped outside the classroom to take a phone call. The other instructor started badmouthing her, complaining she should stick to the schedule. This went on for a while and Prakash decided to defend Manjula who was still outside calling. He went out to urge her to come back in. She did and matter-of-factly said, “Let’s begin.” Prakash knew then it was a simulation. “It was a great lesson in how to deal with conflict and, equally important, how to move on post-conflict. The experience showed me the value of taking simple things and being creative with them.” Prakash and Manjula have performed this roleplay many times since as a duo.
All smiles throughout Prakash’s trip down memory lane, Manjula recalls an unusual perception tool she sometimes relies on during conflict transformation trainings. It’s a yellow ball with a smiley face drawn on it with a black permanent marker. As she holds it between two fingers, seated in the middle of a circle of trainees, she will ask them, “What can you see?” Some will say the color or the smiley face, while others just see a dot. Manjula will then challenge the group on whether they believe each other. This prompts the participants to get up and look at the ball from their peers’ perspectives. “The ball represents conflict which is always static,” explains Manjula. “Therefore, you have to change your perspective to get a clearer view.”
After exchanging fond memories of MPI trainings the peacebuilders get into some more details of their work. Jacky mostly works with students in projects dealing with religious discrimination. In his assessment, discrimination between religions in Laos constitutes above all a mental barrier that was built up over many years. It stems from the country’s war history—Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world—and its colonial past with French and American colonizers introducing Christianity into the predominantly Buddhist nation. “Some people still equate Christianity with these war interventions,” says Jacky. “This has led to policies prohibiting Christians from working government sector jobs or even joining certain youth groups, which is a stepping stone to becoming a civil servant.”
Recently, the young Laotian went to southern Laos, a region known for conflicts between Buddhists, Christians and Hmong, an ethnic group in Laos. He was startled to find out that eighty percent of the people didn’t know anything about other religions. That’s why MCC started conducting religious dialogues with community leaders and organizing peace camps in an effort to bridge the gap and bring the communities closer together. Jacky explains they are now working on a concept paper to extend the project to different high schools. “Working with youth is key to achieving sustainable peace,” he says.
Start at school
This last statement doesn’t fall on deaf ears. Especially Manjula, whose projects predominantly involve youth, wants to know more.
Manjula: “Jacky, do these youngsters go to school?”
Jacky: “Yes, they are university students.”
Manjula: “So, are these activities integrated in the school curricula?”
Bee, who works for Santi, a partner of MCC involved in this particular project, decides to take the question: “No, it’s an extra activity, usually half a day on the weekend, based off of the peacebuilding manual we’ve developed.”
Manjula: “Are the schools okay with the extra work? Because in my experience they usually aren’t.”
Bee: “We actually train teachers to be facilitators and we recruit older students to train their younger peers. Nothing is added to the school curriculum.”
Jacky then invites Manjula to tell the group about her recent project working with high school students. The experienced peacebuilder explains that her team restarted an intervention that was initiated ten years ago and dealt with conflicts between Christian and Hindu communities, although Manjula points out that in fact both were tribal groups pressurized by fanatic groups to convert. Together with partners MCC started organizing activities, such as games and peace gatherings. Gradually they moved into vocational training, bringing in trainers to teach youth to do mobile phone repairs from home. Later, a big mobile phone company invited them to come and work in the city. Similarly, the project team helped masons in the community to become more skilled. Work was plenty because the government needed a community hall and school buildings. Now some of them have small construction businesses themselves.
“What we learned from all of this,” Manjula summarizes, “is that we have to start at the school level.” Currently, the team is working with ten high schools on various peace-related activities. “We tell our partners to look for little things such as, ‘Are the children sitting together or are they separated by caste?’ We want culture of peace teaching to become part of school curricula. This intervention will likely only be three years, but peace needs more time. And it has to come from the top. That’s why we work hard on getting principals and teachers involved. It’s challenging but I’m hopeful we can move things along.”
Pastor Prakash shifts the conversation into a different direction. He wonders whether the other MCC peacebuilders are ever questioned about working for a Christian organization. Speaking from his own experience he shares that he’s been challenged on his intentions to work in certain communities. “People can be a little suspicious and they sometimes think we’re missionaries aiming to get them to ‘join our side.’ That’s not how we work, but if it’s in the intervention’s best interest we do step back and train our partners and their staff members to lead the project.”
Chiming in on this topic, Jacky contributes that he doesn’t feel targeted by the government but that there are people who think negatively, especially when it comes to the peace camps MCC organizes. “We get a lot of questions from the parents. Some think it’s a ‘convert camp,’ which of course it’s not. Most of the organizing staff are in fact Buddhist, like me.” Elaborating on this aspect of diversity, Bee adds: “I guess you could even call us the Buddhist Mennonites, but in our work we don’t cling to these religious labels. MCC Laos works with all parties involved, be it government agencies or religious organizations.”
The ‘why’ of MPI
It’s the obvious question and moderator Marlies saves it until the end of the conversation: ‘Why did the alumni return this year?’ Prakash kicks things off saying that almost every MCC India staff member has been part of the MPI Annual Training at least once. “I think that says it all. It’s easy to say you have to bring peace, but how do you know which activities and creative approaches work? And how do you measure their effectiveness? These are the fundamentals MPI offers and it does it in a warm and inspiring setting.”
Underscoring Prakash’s point, Manjula mentions that this year’s new course on monitoring and evaluation is what drew her back to Davao after more than a decade. “As team leaders we need to learn how this stuff works first. PM&E has become a vital part of peacebuilding work. We’ll make sure to share our lessons learned with our partners back home.”
For Bee, her reason for coming back is clear: “MPI provides what I need for my work.” Like Prakash and Manjula, she’s doing the monitoring training followed by interreligious peacebuilding. Both are relevant to Bee because her team consists of representatives from different religious organizations and government sectors. "We aim to be a model to local authorities, partners and participants alike. To build bridges and help groups in society become less isolated. By investing in my personal development I feel better equipped to take on this formidable challenge.”
There’s a lot of agreement around the table, but Jacky provides another perspective on why he chose MPI for the third time. “To me, the value of the Annual Training is the practical input I bring home every time after attending the courses. Sure, we have to contextualize the learnings, make them suitable for a younger and less experienced audience, but I always return to Laos with more tools in my kit than before.”
* Manjula Patnaik and Prakash Thankachan are based in Kolkata and represent MCC India. Fellow round table members Manichanh Keohavong “Bee” and Vongsone Xaythanith “Jacky” work with MCC Laos. In addition to the 2019 edition, all four have participated in the MPI Annual Training at least once before, albeit in different years.