The Power and Risks of Conversation in Zimbabwe

Merwyn De Mello - Eastern Mennonite University and
Ann McBroom - Eastern Mennonite University

April, 2006

Editors' note: This was originally a larger paper. The first part of the paper was Merwyn's story of his experiences in Zimbabwe (which follows here), and then the second part was a broader look at the theory of conversation and conflict transformation which explained, at least in part, why Merwyn's efforts in Zimbabwe were so successful. That part of the original paper has been made into a Beyond Intractability essay, Conversation as a Tool for Conflict Transformation. We hope readers will read both; each part enhances the other.

"Never walk away from failure. On the contrary, study it carefully and imaginatively for its hidden assets." -- Michael Korda

This story begins with a "failed" practicum in Zimbabwe, and traces Ann McBroom's and my attempts to make sense of what happened. Its "hidden asset" for us was that conversation, as conceptualized by John Shotter,[1] is a promising tool for making and building peace. It is a tool that is often neglected.

Merwyn Recounts His Experiences in Zimbabwe

Master's degree students in the Justice and Peacebuilding programs of Eastern Mennonite University (Virginia, USA) are required to perform a practicum. I opted to work in Zimbabwe, and had made arrangements to split my time between leadership, peacebuilding and governance organizations in the capital city, Harare, and in Mutare. I arrived on June 14th 2005, just a few weeks after the government of Zimbabwe embarked on Operation Murambatsvina (literally, "Drive Out the Filth"), a nation-wide campaign of demolition and eviction carried out by the police and army. Popularly referred to as Operation Tsunami, because of its speed and ferocity, it resulted in the destruction of homes, businesses and vending sites. More than 700,000 civilians lost their homes, their livelihood, or both.

Upon my arrival at Harare International Airport, the immigration officer summarily cut my six-month visa to one month. Security officers there labeled me high-risk; they permitted me to enter the country, but informed me that my movements would be monitored. When I made contact with my first practicum base, I was told that I would not be able to attend grassroots workshops in the rural areas - my presence was considered a security threat to facilitators and participants. I also discovered that my practicum supervisor was fully occupied, dealing with the demands of Operation Murambatsvina.

After a frustrating week, I was ready to leave Zimbabwe. Reflection over the weekend, however, convinced me otherwise. I wanted to stay. Zimbabwe was in tumult. I was completing a two year program in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding. Surely, I could learn from it, and may be I could help. But how? At this point, I drew more on my instincts than my book-learning. I spent most of my childhood in Kenya, spoke Kiswahili, and had worked for five years with Jesuit Refugee Service in the camps of northwestern Tanzania. I also had with me a copy of John Paul Lederach's book, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace,[2] a book that I had read, been inspired by, but not fully assimilated.

To maximize my learning, I articulated four guidelines for my revised practicum: i. To keep my experience closely rooted in the day-to-day interactions of the people. ii. To view every difficulty as an opportunity for learning and creativity. iii. To reflect on my experiences by asking: Who am I in the process? And why am I responding as I do? iv. To be willing to take risks - to take one step, or several, into the unknown.

Over the next three weeks, I contacted a cross-section of people involved in the conflict - government officials, politicians, diplomats, religious leaders, community leaders, conflict resolution professionals, NGO workers, business leaders, private citizens, educators, activists, people working in the media, people representing funding agencies. I contacted people because of the positions they held; I met others by referral, and many by happenstance. I attended several public meetings. I walked almost everywhere, making contacts en route. What did I ask for? I told everyone that I was completing a practicum for a Master's degree, and wanted to learn all I could about the current situation in Zimbabwe. I asked only for a chance to talk, and this was seldom denied.

What Did I Discover?

First, I discovered how ready most people were to tell me candidly what they thought and felt. I had the advantage of being a non-threatening presence. I was not part of the Zimbabwean context, I was a temporary visitor with no political agenda. I followed my intuitions, developed from years of working in environnments of protracted conflict. My conversations did not have an implicit agenda, but accepted the here and now of the exchange. As trust built, the location of the "here and now" became a safe space.

The second thing I learned was how electric and polarized was the atmosphere in Zimbabwe. Potential allies were fearful of meeting, and there was no conversation across the political divide. Having listened to a number of viewpoints, I began to identify potential allies and people with conflicting views. If people wanted me to, I gladly served as a go-between, relaying their perspectives. If both parties wished it, I arranged for people to meet; my temporary home in Harare was often the venue. I was able to bring people together who otherwise would not have met or conversed. Again, I was drawing on my past experience working with Jesuit Refugee Service in the camps of northwestern Tanzania. There, over a five year period, we explored innovative ways of advocating for refugee rights. We created networks of relationships that traversed local, national, regional and international boundaries. The refugees were partners in this venture. These networks enabled us to advocate with, rather than for, the refugees.

I frankly did not know what to expect when I brought people together. But what surprized and delighted me was the willingness of many to talk candidly with people who were their opponents. When people from opposite sides were able to meet and converse, relationships formed that straddled these divides. As often, I brought together potential allies. The outcome, again, was a relationship. I was told by participants that these meetings were very useful. People pointed to the ideas, information, influences and relationships that they otherwise would not have known.

What Was Happening?

My decision to stay in Zimbabwe was inspired by John Paul Lederach's book, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace[2]. But it was not until I finished my practicum that I appreciated the profundity of his insights.

Lederach places great emphasis on the power of networks. An individual in society has a multitude of contacts - family, work, political, geographical and more. And so, influencing one person can trigger changes in many. He offers the analogy of the spider's web crisscrossing society, with the hubs in the web representing mutual contacts between people at the extremes. He offers the example of women caught up in the cross-clan fighting in Somalia. "Their fathers and brothers were often fighting their husbands and sons. In the long Somali tradition, women could travel from their clan of marriage to their clan of origin with greater safety and often were the informal diplomats opening the process of ceasefires..."[2]

One thing that at first worried me was the happenstance nature of my networking in Zimbabwe. My web of relationships was not preplanned; rather, it evolved from many a serendipitous moment. Its construction did not always proceed smoothly. When I detected a potential stumbling block, be it a person or an attitude, I simply diverged. I tried to maintain positive momentum, moving towards my goal of understanding more about the situation. I tried to look upon blockages as opportunities for learning, insight, reflection and creativity; and I used those around me as sounding boards for possible solutions. I stopped worrying when I realized that I was not - and could never be - the spider!

The peacebuilder has no control over the architecture of the web. The peacebuilder has no "silk" to weave people together. The peacebuilder does not create safe spaces. So what was I doing? I was merely offering people the opportunity to risk, exercise curiosity, creativity, and consider a new relationship — what Lederach terms the four disciplines of the Moral Imagination.[2] As the intermediary, I could not promise a safe space - a safe space emerges if the participants trust one another, and this is when they will risk being candid. I was leaving Zimbabwe, they were the ones who might pay for their risks. If a relationship developed, fine; if not, there was nothing I could do. I was not the spider, nor was I the scientist scattering corn starch on a web to study its architecture. I was a facilitator, at best looking for possible connections. But once a relationship formed, I had no control over where it might lead. There are webs that exist, and webs that potentially can form. I imagine that there are many webs, all architecturally different, that could support a peaceful solution. The complexity of the situation in Zimbabwe does not lend itself to easy solutions, but it does present intriguing opportunities for imaginative responses.

During my happenstance networking, I met many people who by their spirit and commitment embodied the Moral Imagination. Although they had very different priorities, allegiancies, beliefs and concerns, they shared some vital traits. Each recognized the complexity of the social reality in Zimbabwe, seemed willing to take risks with no guarantee of success or safety, and was searching for creative ways to transcend current contradictions. This is why I left Zimbabwe with some hope. If people with a Moral Imagination can be brought together, they possess the potential to break the destructive cycles of violence that are so deeply embedded in Zimbabwean society. Sustainable peace depends on building and rebuilding relationships of trust.

While John Paul Lederach's writings certainly hold the answer to "Why did I do what I did?", I was still left with the question, "Why did it work?" If people with Moral Imagination are what Lederach calls "the critical yeast,"[2] what are the critical conditions? For if the kitchen is too cold, the bread will not rise, however much yeast is present. I am now convinced that one critical condition is the opportunity to converse. When I returned to Virginia and reported on my practicum, Ann McBroom was finishing a paper exploring John Shotter's theories of how conversation can alter relationships and ideas.[1] A fortunate serendipity![2] That paper, which reflects on the experiences reported in this paper, can be found at Conversation as a Tool for Conflict Transformation.


1. Shotter, J. (1993) Conversational Realities: Constructing Life Through Language. London: Sage Publication

2. Lederach J.P. (2005) The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. New York: Oxford University Press.