May I embrace you, Ma’am? Pembain Suga Olimpain, a feisty 48-year old Muslim mother of ten children (all of them girls!) respectfully asked me this on the second day of our time together. She was one of the twenty-two participants of the 3-day workshop on Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation that I was privileged to conduct in North Cotabato,Mindanao from February 25-28. She was also one of those whose amazing story struck a chord in me.
Pembain is from a barangay (community) in Aleosan, North Cotabato that is affected by sporadic outbreaks of armed conflict. She bore sixteen children in her lifetime, but only managed to save ten of them from the pangs of poverty and want. The hardships she has been experiencing have been exacerbated by the recurring cycles of conflict and violence in their area. For Pembain, surviving them meant that she had to teach in the nearby madrasah to be able to earn a living and bring food to their table. Helping her husband plow the fields and till the farmlands brings little financial security to the family in times of war, she said. There is very little money to be had there that would compensate for the heavy toll this took on her body. So she prefers teaching children to become better Muslims, she said, and she finds deep fulfillment in it.
Pembain’s story is one of the many stories that remain vivid in my memory. There is Sive’s story as well, and Lourdes’ and many others. They are awe-inspiring stories of courage and hope that stand out against the stark backdrop of violence and war.
It was a thrill for me to be able to return to North Cotabato just three weeks after having been there to conduct our Fetzer Institute funded workshop on Interfaith Dialogue for Muslim-Christian Understanding. I was invited this time by Mon Plasabas of Balay Rehabilitation (based in the municpality of Midsayap) to give a workshop on Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation to women leaders of Cluster Level Associations and Self Help Groups (SHEG) representing five barangays (communities) of Aleosan, a municipality in North Cotabato affected by armed conflict. Three men (local barangay leaders) took the courage to join the women and likewise engage themselves in the workshop experience. It was heartwarming to see them there!
I was glad for another opportunity to see how the peacebuilding training modules that I had developed–using John Paul Lederach’s teachings on MORAL IMAGINATION (MI) and its four disciplines–would work in helping Balay Rehabilitation, our Mindanao-based partner organization, realize its objectives in providing its grassroots community leaders with training in peacebuilding and conflict transformation.
I was told upon my arrival there that violence had erupted anew in two neighboring communities in Aleosan, and residents feared that this might escalate to such an extent that their lives would be adversely affected and endangered again. But despite the apprehensions our workshop pushed through at a venue about 1 and 1/2 hours away from the area of conflict.
Conducting the workshop was a huge challenge to me for various reasons. One of which was the fact that the participants were tri-people– composed of Maguindanaon Muslims, Ilonggo Christians, and indigenous Manobos– who all spoke their own dialects! So I had to switch from speaking Tagalog, the language that most Filipinos understand, to Bisaya, the language that is widely spoken in Mindanao (but is not generally accepted by Muslims because it is identified with the Christian settlers). Although I was born and raised in Mindanao, I now live in Metro Manila where Tagalog is the language used, and not Bisaya. So I was pleasantly surprised that, after some awkward attempts at first, I was able to switch from Bisaya to Tagalog with ease, and could understand a bit of Ilonggo (because my parents were from Iloilo).
Those three days of training in Mindanao made me realize why I love the work that I am doing. This calls for designing and developing workshop programs on dialogue and peacebuilding, conducting them and engaging myself in the exciting process of training people in the grassroots! It is always awe-inspiring to bear witness to the “miracle” of transformation happening in our midst as the days unfold!
While conceptualizing and drafting the workshop design, it is all I can do to hope that the modules and activities that I decide to include in it would work for the participants and serve them well. But as I go through the process of actually facilitating the workshop, I experience anew the humbling realization that what we are engaged in together is not happening because of my work alone. There is something bigger than myself that is always moving and weaving its Spirit within me and among everyone who participates in the experience! Thus, my workshops are deeply listening processes that are fluid and open to revisions and re-directions as we go with the flow of the spirit moving in our midst.
It amazes me no end to see how these workshops become catalysts for self-awareness and transformation among us. It moves us in ways that are spirit-filled and “larger than ourselves” than I always imagine! It is like throwing a tiny pebble into a pond and seeing the ripples grow wider and wider or putting yeast in a dough and seeing it rise!
The participants came in the first day looking tired and weary, but they later seemed to come alive and become energized in the course of the workshop–with their eyes growing lively and attentive, bodies fully engaged in the creative work of the modules, and minds processing the experience with questions and reflections. As workshop facilitator and trainer, holding a workshop group together fully and completely in mind, body and spirit for three days is not easy. But seeing the transformation happening is always worth all the sacrifice!
I was with them and, happily, they were with me too. We were one in the journey of heart and mind! And it was fulfilling beyond words to realize that the energy, positive thought forms, and heartfelt intentions that I invested of myself in the endeavor set into motion more energies, positive thought forms, and heartfelt intentions that inspired all participants together to commit themselves (individually and collectively) to engage in co-creative action in order to realize their shared visions of peace in their respective communities!
Here are glimpses of how the days unfolded:
DAY 1. We began the journey with INNER WORK FOR SELF-AWARENESS & TRANSFORMATION. This called for exercises that “unlocked the door to our inner landscape.” The journey inwards began with breathing exercises. Then, while engaged in mindful breathing, the participants slowly walked around in a big circle–the sacred space and common ground they had earlier created–and then around a table where black-and-white photographs were displayed. After another walk around the table, the participants picked a photograph that attracted them the most, took this to a quiet corner of the hall for silent reflection, then later gathered in small circles to share with others their reflection on what it was that attracted them to the photo and why.
This led to reflections on conflict in their lives, and to exercises that enabled them to see conflict as “neither bad nor good” but as a turning point in human relationships that heralded opportunities for growth. A moment of guided reflection encouraged them to express their experience of conflict in their lives, to image their “enemy” in their minds, and to express negative thoughts and feelings with their hands through clay work.
This exercise was followed by presentations on what conflict is, and John Paul Lederach’s six relational shifts that happen when conflict is not perceived as an opportunity for growth in relationships and addressed accordingly.
The participants were given a glimpse of how thought forms affect human relationships. Then the Listening Stone exercise enabled the participants to anchor themselves deeply in stillness and listen to silence speak within themselves. Listening Stones were painted with vivid colors to visually express the beauty of the participants’ inner landscape.
The day ended with a ritual of burning negative thoughts and feelings.
DAY 2. The journey continued with exercises that engaged the participants in the experience of awakening their capacities for Moral Imagination (MI). After the presentation on what Moral Imagination is as defined by John Paul Lederach (in his book Moral Imagination: Art and Soul of Building Peace), its four disciplines were explained in detail, followed by a guided visioning exercise on what peace looked like in their community in the year 2020.
The participants were divided into four groups (according to barangays or community). Each participant in the group shared his/her vision of what their community would be like in 2020. From the vision sharing of individuals in the group, a big picture of the community was created by everyone as they participated in drawing and coloring their shared vision of what their community would look like six years from now.
Then each barangay group discussed the current situation of conflict that they were experiencing in their community and, using the MI discipline assigned to their group, presented in drama form the steps that they would take to realize their shared vision of their community in 2020.
One of the most powerful sharing was on the MI discipline of risk-taking. The feisty Pembain said that, for the sake of her ten surviving children–all girls in their teens and early thirties–she wanted to see the end of violence in her community. She said that she would take the risk of reaching out to the women in the “enemy camp” to encourage them to join her in the peacebuilding endeavor. She went on to detail her risky “covert operation” which to her would lead to all participating Muslim women wearing the same colored tondong (veil) and the Christian women wearing the same colored scarf around their necks as a statement of their stand for peace. This was received with applause by everyone around the circle. I could not help but wish that John Paul Lederach was there to witness this. In the silence of my heart I felt deep gratitude for this gift of awareness of the power of Moral Imagination and its four disciplines that I had received from him!
The importance of anchor points (or people of influence) was brought to the fore in the process, and the steps that needed to be taken in DIALOGUE for conflict transformation and peacebuilding were identified by the participants themselves. The day ended with exercises in SEEING DIFFERENCES in Position and Disposition, and this gave rise to many rich insights and realizations concerning dialogue and relationship-building from the participants.
DAY 3. The last day focused on Awareness of the Self in Relation to the “other.” It highlighted the value of DIALOGUE in relationship-building and conflict-transformation. Deep Dialogue was defined and practiced in small dialogue circles with the aid of the Listening Stone, and the participants were encouraged to listen deeply to the NEED of the “other” that lie underneath the POSITION, INTEREST, and VALUES of the person. Words of comfort and assurance (arising from their listening stillness) were given by each person to the other in their small circle.
To prepare the participants to face the challenges of peacebuilding in their conflict-affected communities, an orientation seminar on the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamroro (FAB) was given. This gave rise to many questions and expressions of apprehensions concerning the impact of the FAB on their lives. Lisa Ugay, who did the presentation, responded to them with reminders on how they could be the change that they wished to see in their respective communities, and make something good out of this opportunity for transformative change to be possible in their midst.
The closing ritual saw the participants transform the negative thoughts and feelings that shaped their clay artwork (during the first day) to one beautiful Symbol of Peace in their community that they all participated in shaping together. This they presented at the sacred space at the center of the common ground that they had earlier created, and a WEB OF PEACE was woven out of their individual pledge of commitment to hold in their hearts and minds the individual responsibility for ongoing collective conflict transformation and peacebuilding in their community.
On my flight back to Manila, the sense of awe, joy, and gratitude for all that I have experienced in Mindanao kept my spirits high. It stayed with me long after we landed on solid ground. Bearing witness to the ways that poverty stricken and conflict-ridden people in the grassroots can become aware of and awaken to the power within themselves–for being the change that they wish to see in their world, and for being part of a co-creative peoples’ movement for social transformation—is a larger-than-life human experience that never ceases to amaze me!