The Power of Theatre in Transforming Conflicts at Kakuma Refugee Camp

Maurice O. Amollo

January, 2008

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

The major theoretical approaches to peacebuilding provide for the systemic dimension in the peacebuilding process. However, the cultural dimension — which carries with it local indigenous knowledge — has not been well integrated into the system; nor have practical indigenous methodologies been well integrated with theory. To understand these shortcomings, we need to look at John Paul Lederach's widely applied model. He has gone one step further than most, and many peacebuilding programs in Sub-Sahara Africa use his model. He outlines four stages in what he calls conflict transformation.[1] They are:

  1. Dealing with immediate crisis;
  2. Re-establishing working conditions;
  3. Dealing with the systemic issues underlying the conflict;
  4. Finding a way to introduce the systemic issues so as to uphold, re-enforce and build on the mutual relationships established in stage two.

Lederach's "transformational" model offers the best available theoretical framework for integrating the indigenous and cultural dimension in the understanding of conflicts. His first stage includes establishment of a ceasefire, clean-up of war-torn areas, disarmament, delivery of relief aid, and restoration of security. This may take one to two years. The second stage, which is the building of relationships, may last twice as long as the first stage and includes getting the groups to talk, interact, and work with each other. From here, he moves to the systemic stage, where the focus is on transforming the systems of injustice and oppression — on unraveling the deep-seated structural incongruities and imbalances that are built into the system through traditions, history, and culture. In a way, this stage seeks to change whole cultures and the pathways that create and sustain situational injustice. The third stage attempts to arrive at a clear vision for the path that the peace process must follow. This stage is the hardest to achieve in any peacebuilding process.

However, most peacebuilding initiatives today get stuck in the second stage, even though states often create policy to deal with the third stage or its equivalent. Moving on to the third stage has remained a pipe dream in many such cases, because it presents the challenge of fostering a cultural integration process based on previously established cultural knowledge. To move into the third stage requires not only some element of institutional retooling and an examination of the socio-cultural roots of the conflict, but also an adequate "integrational vehicle" with which to facilitate the cultural changes sought in the third stage. Theatre/drama has the capacity to achieve this onerous task because:

  1. As an oral medium in the local language, it appeals to and involves those audiences which, either through problems of illiteracy or through a lack of knowledge of the prevailing language, are kept out of the development of the political, social, and economic structures within which they live;
  2. It is a means of cultural expression, and thus enhances the sense of ownership for everyone within the community;
  3. The message to be put across becomes an integral part of entertainment — an enjoyable social occasion;
  4. It provides a forum within which diverse — and sometimes sensitive — issues can be discussed without the fear of victimization or intimidation.

Crossing the Barrier: Rebuilding Relationships at Kakuma Refugee Camp

In 2000/2001, Amani Peoples Theatre (APT), in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Caritas Italiana, conducted a drama peacebuilding program with young Sudanese refugees and local Turkana youth at the Kakuma refugee camp.

The Sudanese refugees, numbering about 80,000, had escaped war from Southern Sudan and had been settled at a camp in Turkana-land, Northern Kenya. The Turkana are Nilotic pastoralist peoples of Kenya, and number around 350,000. The rate of poverty and insecurity is high in Turkana-land. The land itself, for the most part, is parched desert plain strewn with rusty sun-baked rocks and coarse sand, and some low and equally barren hills. The climate is dry and often blisteringly hot, and the paltry annual rainfall of around 250-300mm prevents all but the hardiest of desert plants from growing. In any case, rainfall patterns are unreliable and patchy. Life here is tough, and the arrival of thousands of refugees only made things worse.

The Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) consisted of three main factions: the SPLA Torit faction, led by John Garang; the SPLA Bahr-al-Ghazal faction, led by Carabino Kuany Bol; and the South Sudan Independence Movement, led by Rick Machar. The internal divisions had intensified fighting in the South, hampering any peace negotiations and affecting life in the refugee camp due to tribal alignments. A clash between any two of the adversaries in Sudan would always spill over to the camp with adverse effects. Even worse, the local community (the Turkanas) hated the refugees; they thought the UNHCR and other international NGOs were providing a good life for the refugees while turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Turkana community, even as Turkana land was used as a home for the refugees. The clashes between the refugees and the Turkanas were serious and deadly. APT was to work with the two parties — but particularly the youth, who were the main characters in the intermittent violent conflicts.

The APT project aimed to use drama/theatre as a tool by which peacebuilding and reconciliation could be enhanced among young refugee leaders and the local Turkana community. In the initial peacebuilding initiatives to end the violent fights between the refugees and the Turkana community, it had become clear to the UNHCR that a theoretical discourse with the youth in the camp on why they should embrace peace was proving ineffective. (It had slowly become clear that the famous dialogues between the "Turkana elders and refugee representatives" were not bearing much fruit; something more dramatic was required. The conflicts, having taken on a violent dimension, did not simply resist dialogue but actively destroyed it, bringing about an active reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned; only now it was accompanied by lived memories of pain.

Working with 200 refugee and Turkana youth (divided into groups of 25 each in three-week blocks over two years), the artist facilitators started by asking them to do what neither the experience of a peacebuilder nor a rational solution for the problem could justify. In groups of five, the participants were asked to go and compose a play or dramatized dance in which they could express whatever they wanted — to the UNHCR, their friends, their governments, their countrymen, or the outer world and universe. Instead of talking, they were supposed to perform all their fears, nightmares, doubts, and opinions, and let the characters they had created do the talking for them.

At first, this process was hard and undertaken only with a lot of skepticism, confusion, and dead ends. But after five days, the artistic pieces started shaping up, showing the first contours of potential plays. The game of reconstructing life through stories on stage, in times of pain and destruction, started picking up. Their stories got condensed in time, space, and action, even as they were expanded to create new perceptions and understanding. It is in this sense that John Paul Lederach's conception of devising an appropriate infrastructure for peacebuilding[2] becomes important; this was a way to establish a safe space for a negotiated transition for a successful conflict transformation. This space, according to Soyinka[3], can be interpreted as the reflection of the archetypal struggle of the mortal being against exterior forces. It becomes a transitional abyss which confronts the actors in the same way it confronted Ogun (the first creative instinct and conqueror of transition leading to accommodation and harmony). However, the above analogy should not be restricted to the actors/performers on stage, but must be extended to the audience. After two visits, we had two open-ended performances, one of which was a play titled Bor, and the other a Dinka dramatized dance called Pinda, about new initiates into society. The two pieces allowed for audience involvement and participation through a facilitator. They were constructed as a microcosm of the realities of life at the camp and its implications for the local Turkana community, revealing fears, anxieties, aspirations, dreams, and visions. As such, when their performance was opened to the public, the theatrical space was constructed to transcend the actors and engulf the audience in order to create an unsigned mutual contract. The mutual arena of confrontation represented a symbolic conflictual space, and the roles of the characters within it revealed the fearful awareness of the delicate context of the participants' existence. The performances incorporated audience interaction, which precariously challenged the transitional abyss that nobody dared talk about in the "dialogue meetings" and made the play uniquely effective. The audience members could question the characters — their decisions, cultural assumptions, and values — and this led to extended dialogues long after the performances were over. These scenarios reinforce Soyinka's argument that: "Acting channels anguish into creative purpose which releases man from a total destructive despair, releasing from within him, the most energetic, deeply combative inventions in which, without usurping the territory of internal gulf bridges it with visionary hopes."[4]

A clear example of this power was manifested in the cultural creative dance, Pinda. Although the main spoken language was Dinka, the piece actually used very little dialogue, relying mainly on songs, dances, and mimes. It is important to understand that most of the songs and dances were ritually derived and would, under normal circumstances within their authentic culture, not be performed by non-Dinkas. But in making the dance drama, Dinkas and Turkanas sang and danced together, overcoming the challenges of putting together a creative work of art, oblivious to their cultural differences. During the performance, the crowd joined in the presentation, completely ignoring cultural affiliations within the theatrical space. Athough the central theme of the dance was drawn from the Dinka community, the audience came from a wide spectrum of the refugee community; it included Ethiopians, Somalis, and hundreds from the local Turkana community, and all participated enthusiastically without any particular cultural or racial inhibitions. The audience was drawn into the aesthetic nuances of the dance and the songs, and did not prioritize the source of the material. Indeed, at this time, all cultural "differences" and "otherness" got dissolved into the lyric and rhythm of the dance.

This power of song and dance to melt cultural and conflict boundaries is further captured by Tania Kaiser in an anthropological study of the ways in which musical and dance forms have been used to negotiate identities, bring about social transformation, and deal with political upheavals at the Kiryandongo refugee settlement in Uganda. Kaiser concludes that music and dance have been used by the residents of Kiryandongo "to negotiate competing and overlapping identities, providing a forum in which both a specifically Acholi identity, as well as a more inclusive Sudanese identity, can be asserted and explored."[5]

It is in this sense that the theatrical space becomes a neutralizer of barriers — dismantling some and redefining others — and, in doing so, creates a safe space for discussion of pertinent structural imbalances and builds social harmony. As Cecil O'Niel observes, "the medium of drama is available for discovering and articulating ideas, feelings and aptitudes, and shaping this private understanding into public form."[6] If, in John Paul Lederach's[7] words, "to look is to draw attention to, or pay attention to... and to see, is to look beyond and deeper," then theatre is an appropriate and powerful tool, "a way of looking, as well as seeing."

But the possibilities offered by theatre in bridging Lederach's third stage gap are not restricted to dramatized dance. The play, Bor, dramatized a conflict and the attempts at challenging the transitional abyss at several levels. Though the narrative focused primarily on the cultural and generational conflicts that were common at the camp, it also portrayed, in a larger sense, the developing tension that emerges as a result of the coexistence of two different cultures.

In the play, the girl called Rot is a foreigner in the society she lives in, even though she has been a resident of this community since childhood. She has been brought up in their ways, but when the time comes for "initiation" (a rite of passage in her society), she is denied the opportunity to participate. However, her age-mates who go through the initiations vow to initiate her. They want to do this by allowing her to participate in the initiation dance, and moreover, to actually be the leader of the dance. Ultimately, however, the girls (but not the boys) feel jealous about Rot being the leader of the dance and rebel, marking the beginning of conflict between the male and female initiates.

Through this conflict, the play magnified itself not only into a cultural and a generational gap, but also captured the discrimination against refugees by the local Turkana community, and the exclusion of Southern Sudanese from engaging in all sectors of Sudan by the Arab North. But, the play's dynamics became even more interesting during a discussion with members of the audience who saw the jealousy and rebellion against Rot by the female initiates as representative of the troubles in SPLA that had led to its eventual split.

In the play, the role of the ritual was subverted. Ordinarily, rituals should signify the whole process of cultural identification and consciousness; however, for the Turkana youth in the story of Bor, the converse is true: the initiation rite not only alienates them from their culture and tradition, but propels them to a new level of consciousness, leading to a rebellion. The new initiates challenge the community's long-held beliefs, which they deem as prejudicial against the aliens living among them. Thus in developing this play, the participants deliberately set out to subvert the ritual as a prelude to challenging the transitional abyss through a conflict, and subsequently introduced reconciliation and harmony.

When the play was staged, its theatrical space acquired ritual proportions and perspectives among the diverse audience. The space ignited a conflict intended not only towards transition, but also towards a transformation of behaviors among the parties in conflict — in this case, the Turkanas and the refugee community. This is well articulated by the protagonist hero of the play, Kur, when he implores his fellow initiates:

Patience, patience my dear friends. We swore when the knife ate away our childhood that ours would be the season of light and sight. Our manhood and womanhood would be a fight against all darkness and blindness. Rot is part of our fight; if the elders have refused to admit her to womanhood with us, that is their blindness and we should not follow blind men into ditches of their ignorance.[8]

The play reaches its climax when the initiates become adamant in their demands, confronting the conservative elders and the transitional abyss. Hence, the young actors and their audience not only dared look into transitional essence, but also triumphantly bridged it with knowledge and vision — a scenario well captured in protagonist Kur's words when he declares:

Here in this great land of our forefathers, in the soil of their bodies,
You the future of our forefathers,
Take up your spears...Raise them before our ancestors and the elders
Here before the father of the hills and the valleys
Swear, WE WILL NOT KILL no man, or woman, no
Child will die at the strength of these spears.
This is our season, and it will be a season of life and peace
We will not kill,
Men must live
Here before our forefathers,
We deposit our spears. [thrust spears on the ground]

Kur's statement must be understood in a larger and wider sense. The statement, though directed at characters in the play, was meant for the refugee and local Turkana community in attendance at the performance. In this way, one can see how the theatre and its space becomes a conciliatory medium, as the statement challenges our narrow cultural beliefs and attitudes. Within the safe confines of this play, the youth explored Lederach's nested paradigm[9], bringing to the fore issues deeply buried in the system, taken for granted even though they contributed to the recurrent conflicts.

The power of theatre as a vehicle for negotiating transitions and transformations is captured by Wole Soyinka in his description of the Yoruba Ogun, or the first creator. He says:

The first conqueror of transition was Ogun. The Yoruba metaphysics of accommodation and resolution would only come after the passage of the gods through transition gut, after the demonic text of the self will of Ogun the explorer, god in the creative cauldron of cosmic powers — only after such testing could the harmonious Yoruba world be born; a harmonious will which accommodates every alien material or abstract phenomenon within its infinitely stressed spirituality.

At all levels, theatre includes a mechanism for transformation. At the level of staging, there are costumes and masks, exercises and incantations, incense and music, all designed to allow the performer to exist in another time and place, but to simultaneously manifest a presence in the here and now, so that time and place are doubled. It is in this doubling of time and space that theatre becomes privileged among other reconciliation approaches in serving as an "integrational vehicle," able to unblock movement to John Paul Lederach's stage three. It becomes paramount in the whole process of intervention and transference of information, as well as in the entire process of mediation and conciliation.

The two productions in Kakuma acted as a lens to help the parties in conflict perceive the patterns of their conflict — to realize that domination and injustice were part of endlessly repeating social and personal "scripts." When the world is a theatre of violence, as is the case in post-conflict communities, the roles are strictly limited. There is the aggressor, the accommodator, the avoider, and the counter-aggressor. The scripts for each of these roles, when played out on stage, can expose the conflicts for what they really are.

True transformation should discard old scripts and enact a new system, using locally sourced symbols. Theatre offers the opportunity to dramatize possibilities where none existed before. It offers a space in which to try alternative ideas for resolving conflict and to jar ourselves and others loose from the spell of structural imbalances, breaking the action/reaction cycle so typical of protracted conflicts. It offers a space for exposing the offending scripts of violence and structural domination and then the ability to rewrite those scripts, enacting a drama that replaces the existing conflicts with a formula that is more human and just. In this sense, theatre becomes an active process of revision and re-enactment of the systemic structure of our life.


The second stage of John Paul Lederach's conflict transformation model — getting the groups to talk together, to interact and work with each other — is much easier than making them face up to the challenge of unraveling the deep-seated structural incongruities and imbalances that are deeply built into the system. It requires a different approach from what was originally happening in Kakuma. The initial approach failed to account for the fact that the players in a conflict frequently have no other frame of reference. It is the world in which they live and move. It is "the way things are." In this case, people's ideas about conflict had become culturally conditioned and constructed. But in providing a space within which these assumptions can be challenged, theatre tells us that those scripts of structural violence, though enshrined at the heart of a culture, can be re-written. Scenarios of violence, though reinforced endlessly and thus often forming well-grooved neural pathways, can be transformed.

[1] See John Paul Lederach. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconstruction In Divided Societies (United States Institute of Peace, 1997).

[2] John Paul Lederach. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconstruction In Divided Societies (United States Institute of Peace, 1997), 112.

[3] Soyinka Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 145.

[4] Soyinka Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 146.

[5] Tania Kaiser. "Songs, Discos and Dancing in Kiryandongo, Uganda" in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 32, No. 2 (2006): 183-202.

[6] Cecil O'Neal. "Drama Culture and Supermoment" in Orientations of Drama, Theatre and Culture. Opiyo Mumma, Evan Mwangi, Christopher Odhiambo, eds. (Nairobi: KDEA, 1996), 117.

[7] John Paul Lederach. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (Good Books, 2003), 9.

[8] Quoted from Bor: Unpublished script. Amani Peoples Theatre, Nairobi-Kenya.

[9] For a detailed explanation of the nested paradigm see John Paul Lederach's Building Peace: Sustainable Reconstruction In Divided Societies (Washington: United States Institute of Peace, 1997), 55-61.