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African Religious Philosophy as a Resource for Peacebuilding

African Religious Philosophy as a Resource for Peacebuilding

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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Appiah-Thompson, C. (2020). The concept of peace, conflict and conflict transformation in African religious philosophy. Journal of Peace Education, 17(2), 161-185.

Talking Points

In an African context:

  • Proverbs, and related art symbols, contain the practical wisdom of their societies and, as such, can be resources for peacemaking in conflict situations.
  • Conflict resolution approaches drawing on traditional African religious philosophy—especially in the form of proverbs and art symbols that express the social values and moral codes ordering society—can complement and even substitute for formal political institutions and actors, “infusing some creativity, innovation and sustainability” into peacemaking efforts on the continent.

In the context of Akan society in Ghana:

  • Proverbs are one of the main tools used by traditional authorities when mediating disputes—even more complex, intergroup conflicts—as they serve to “reinforc[e] the moral, social and political principles that govern the society” and/or convey precedents.
  • Skillful mediators know that choosing just the right proverb for the context at just the right moment can be enormously powerful for resolving a conflict—in large part because the parties all have a shared understanding of these traditional proverbs and their “potency.”

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • It is crucial to root peacemaking and peacebuilding strategies in the local cultural context—especially local religious/philosophical belief systems and institutions—whether in Africa or North America, in Belfast or Aleppo. However well-intentioned and thoughtfully designed outside conflict resolution frameworks and processes might be, they are no match for the power of home-grown processes that garner legitimacy and draw on shared wisdom and the influence of local leadership.

Summary

Unlike Western and Eastern philosophical traditions, African philosophical/religious traditions are largely oral, passed down from generation to generation in the form of proverbs. These proverbs, and related art symbols, contain the practical wisdom of their societies and, as such, can be resources for peacemaking in conflict situations. Author Christopher Appiah-Thompson contends that understanding the traditional worldviews embodied in these proverbs and symbols is key to understanding conflict, as well as political legitimacy and dynamics, on the continent. Understanding them is also critical to developing more effective peacemaking strategies, especially in the context of unsuccessful international interventions in African armed conflicts. Yet, the role of traditional African religious philosophy in conflict resolution has been underexamined, prompting the author to explore how these ideas are relevant to peacemaking. In particular, he is interested in how Akan proverbs and symbols from Ghana—as one manifestation of traditional African philosophy—might “contribute to our understanding of contemporary conflict resolution mechanisms in Africa.”

Basing his analysis on a 2007 volume illuminating some 7,000 Akan proverbs,[1] as well as ethnographic data compiled by a range of African scholars, the author proceeds first by discussing the Akan philosophy of peace and violence, as revealed through its proverbs and symbols, and then by examining how these function in conflict resolution processes.

The Akan philosophy of peace and violence takes shape as follows (drawing on only a selection of the proverbs and symbols discussed). Peace, translated as “asomdwoe” (“the absence of noises or disturbances inside one’s ears”), is more than the absence of violence; it is characterized as a broader state of positive well-being and harmony in the human and natural worlds. Other symbols and proverbs suggest a concern for “individual dignity and integrity” and the belief that the source of both violence and peace is the individual human mind—suggesting that the capacity to end violence or build peace exists in human beings. In addition, the “funtummireku” symbol—the symbol for society, which depicts two intersecting crocodiles with a shared stomach—highlights the “futility of violent conflicts in the polity,” given how short-sighted it would be for the two crocodiles to fight over food while sharing an interest in filling the same stomach.

Multiple Akan proverbs and symbols express and reinforce personal and communal morals, which are considered the foundation for peace in society. God is the ultimate source of peace and harmony in the universe, and each person has a responsibility to behave morally in order to maintain these harmonious relations. Breaking these moral laws brings shame—a significant deterrent in Akan society where reputation is highly valued. Furthermore, priests’ or elders’ invocation of the judgment of God and the ancestors in a mediation processes compels parties to accept the proposed solutions.

As this philosophy of conflict is clearly embedded within the broader cultural system, it is evident how and why peacemaking in Akan society is appropriately the purview of traditional authorities (whether chiefs, priests, or elders) as opposed to formal political actors. As described by the author, proverbs are one of the main tools these traditional authorities use when mediating disputes—even “complex intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic conflicts concerning chieftaincy, resource distribution, and land and family disputes”—as they serve to “reinforc[e] the moral, social and political principles that govern the society” and/or convey precedents. Expressing these principles and/or precedents in the rich language of proverb is considered to be a courtesy to parties, constituting a form of face-saving. As a distillation of practical wisdom, each proverb contains polyvalent, layered philosophical insight and can provoke wide-ranging discussion. Skillful mediators know that choosing just the right proverb (or symbol) for the context at just the right moment can be enormously powerful for resolving a conflict—in large part because the parties all have a shared understanding of these traditional proverbs and their “potency.” Furthermore, reconciliation does not require complete agreement; rather, it is enough if everyone feels that their views have been adequately considered.

To illustrate, the 2002 Dagbon chieftaincy dispute stymied more formal conflict resolution efforts (involving government, CSOs, and UN agencies) but was ultimately resolved with the help of a Committee of Eminent Chiefs who successfully employed “indigenous proverbs and symbols,” including the “two-headed crocodile,” to invoke the families’ interdependence and common interests in the well-being of the community, as well as “the need for harmony, reconciliation and peaceful co-existence.”

The author concludes that conflict resolution approaches drawing on traditional African religious philosophy—especially in the form of proverbs and art symbols that express the social values and moral codes ordering society—can complement and even substitute for formal political institutions and actors, “infusing some creativity, innovation and sustainability” into peacemaking efforts on the continent.

Informing Practice  

The findings here—though seemingly specific to the Akan ethno-linguistic group in Ghana—actually contain important insights for managing conflict without violence more broadly. In particular, this research draws our attention to how crucial it is to root peacemaking and peacebuilding strategies in the local cultural context—especially local religious/philosophical belief systems and institutions—whether in Africa or North America, in Belfast or Aleppo. However well-intentioned and thoughtfully designed outside conflict resolution frameworks and processes might be, they are no match for the power of home-grown processes that garner legitimacy and draw on shared wisdom and the influence of local leadership. There appear to be at least three dimensions to this insight. First, calling on locally revered traditional authorities—whether these are religious leaders, elders, or figures otherwise vested with traditional sources of authority—to facilitate a conflict resolution process can be particularly effective, as the respect they garner from conflict parties on all sides will make these parties more likely to join and stick with the process, as well as to accept its outcome. Second, it is clear how beneficial it can be in peacemaking processes to draw on the shared religious/cultural/moral values of a community. Expressed in a form everyone has grown up hearing, these values can be used to adjudicate conflicts that arise, as community members who share them wish to live in a way that is consistent with them. Of course, there will be different interpretations of how these values apply in a particular case, but that is where the role of widely respected leaders (above) comes in. Third, this difficulty of divergent interpretations also highlights the importance of commonly accepted institutions and procedures for conflict resolution. When institutions and procedures are seen as legitimate, people can accept even outcomes they would not have preferred and with which they disagree. This point applies just as much to the institutions of democratic governance on a national scale, but when these have lost some legitimacy (even if misguidedly, due to actively crafted disinformation campaigns), it becomes even more valuable to call on locally legitimate community decision-making institutions that have the buy-in to help resolve conflicts, rebuild trust, and reconcile adversaries from the ground up.

True, this reminder about the power of local, traditional cultural leaders, value systems, and institutions may be most relevant to conflicts that arise within a particular cultural or religious context where respect for these is shared among the conflict parties (and where no conflict parties are systematically oppressed by them). What of conflicts between diverse communities or cultural/religious traditions? The answer may reside somewhere in the insight that these are never airtight communities or traditions to begin with. In this hybrid world of ours, where identities are multifaceted and transnational and cultures are always interacting and changing, surely salient cultural/religious/philosophical material can be found and worked with regardless of the structure of the conflict at hand. At the very least, alliances between elders or faith leaders of the conflict parties’ different traditions can provide leadership that resonates with their respective constituencies and brings them along in a peacebuilding process. Similarly, the mobilization of local values that translate well between the traditions of the two or more sides of the conflict can provide the parties with motivation for peace that is consistent with their moral frameworks and self-conceptions. So-called “religious peacebuilders” have long engaged in this sort of work and provide many powerful models of inter-communal/interfaith peacebuilding. In this moment of intense political polarization here in the U.S., such work—creating meaningful links between people of faith on both ends of the political spectrum—may provide a promising path forward for overcoming mistrust and dehumanization that might otherwise descend into further violence. [MW]

Discussion Questions  

What are the institutions in your community that are widely viewed as legitimate and whose legitimacy cuts across other societal divides? How might they be enlisted in peacemaking or peacebuilding efforts?

Which cultural, religious, or philosophical beliefs or values resonate most with the parties to the conflict in question? How can peacebuilders draw on these to help conflict parties perceive the conflict, their role in it, or their adversaries in a different light?

Who are the most widely respected leaders in your community (considering those beyond the political domain, particularly elders or faith leaders)? How can alliances be built between them and similarly respected leaders on the “other side”?

Continued Reading

Waindim, J. N. (2019). Traditional methods of conflict resolution: The Kom experience. ACCORD. Retrieved on March 5, 2021, from https://www.accord.org.za/conflict-trends/traditional-methods-of-conflict-resolution/

Ajayi, A. T., & Buhari, L. O. (2014). Methods of conflict resolution in African traditional society. African Research Review, 8(2), 138-157. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290233437_Methods_of_Conflict_Resolution_in_African_Traditional_Society

Sadkni, E., & Azar, N. (2017). Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms: The role of different community figures. Syrian Voices Paper. Retrieved on March 5, 2021, from https://peace-labs.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Syrian-Voices-paper_2_TCRM_English.pdf

Frazer, O., & Owen, M. (2018). Religion in conflict and peacebuilding. United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved on March 5, 2021, from https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Religion-in-Conflict-and-Peacebuilding.pdf

Organizations/Initiatives

Religions for Peace: https://www.rfp.org/

The Common Table: https://www.commontableoregon.org/  

Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding (Peacemakers in Action Network): https://tanenbaum.org/programs/conflictresolution/  

Key Words: local peacebuilding; philosophy of peace and violence; religious peacebuilding; culture; Africa; Ghana

[1] Appiah, P., Appiah, K. A., & Agyeman-Duah, I. (Eds.). (2007). Bu me be: Proverbs of the Akans. Oxfordshire: Ayebia Clarke Publishing.

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