C O N F L I C T or T C I L F N O C?

What if a certain conflict serves as a kind of precursor to attain something of a higher order i.e. that births generosity, empathy, a sense of ethics and restores authenticity to being human(e)? How would that transform our view of our worlds? Through which eyes would we look at conflict? What would we automatically or intuitively begin to look for in conflict or situations of conflict?

Conflict is defined in the dictionary as a dispute, quarrel or difference of opinion; a divergence; something antithetical and/or irreconcilable.

I have been thinking a lot about conflict lately, and how much of life, centers, is challenged, expressed and surrounded by conflict.

Conflict enters our homes daily, at times through horrific stories we see on social media, newspapers, radio or TV. Conflict is so commonplace that it seems we have come to banalize it. We experience conflict at work and at home. It can result in the breakup of friendships, families, and homes. Conflict is often the reason why businesses and other relations sever and breakdown. In spite of its apparent omnipresence, conflict (particularly in western societies) is generally something to be avoided.

Brené Brown (research professor at the University of Houston, who studies shame, vulnerability, empathy, and courage) says the root of most personal and professional conflicts is miscommunication. She admits the most damaging conflicts do not involve communication (i.e. no dialogue). I think this approach helps understand the nature of conflict, at the micro (person-to-person contact) and macro level (on the political front) of human engagement and interaction. Rene Brown´s definition is comprehensible, in my view, at a macro level of conflict, like armed conflict within a country or between countries.

I interrogated Brown´s notion of conflict. What if at the core of the conflict, communication/dialogue is scarce, erratic or non-existent, not because the conflicting parties do not want to communicate. Rather, they do not know how, or cannot translate into meaning the message they wish to convey, because of a language or a paradigmatic barrier? What if a conflict tells a different story, one that has not been told or surfaced before? What if that story tests the preconceived notions of conflict(s), or the meaning of (a different way of) life or about the role of (non-verbal) communication in conflict?

What if a certain conflict serves as a kind of precursor to attain something of a higher order i.e. that births generosity, empathy, a sense of ethics and restores authenticity to being human(e)? How would that transform our view of our worlds? Through which eyes would we look at conflict? What would we automatically or intuitively begin to look for in conflict or situations of conflict?

In 1994, under the auspices of a sticky political transition, the United Nations (UNOMOZ) stepped in to overlook the demobilization process in Mozambique, as a means to achieve definite peace in the country. As a first step, soldiers from the two warring camps, Renamo and Frelimo, were required to gather at Assembly Points (APs) throughout the territory, hand over their full dress uniforms, and arms. The APs marked the crossing over from a bitter past of combat and armed conflict, into the realm of peace and civilian life. The demobilization process meant also that assembled soldiers would receive a new (civilian) identity, a travel allowance, civilian clothes, and a small vegetable tool kit.

Long queues hid the uncertainty of a future in the making. And there, in the midst of an inordinate crowd, stood a solitary woman- an elderly woman engirdled in colorful African cloth. She slowly made way to the front of the line, where I stood. She was standing in line to receive the travel allowance provided by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), for erstwhile soldiers, like her son. I was the one giving out the allowance. We were the only two women in sight at the AP that day.

She spoke in the vernacular language. No Portuguese. Her movements were slow yet orderly and light. I could sense her eyes on me, as she made her approach. I was sitting down behind a table. I had no more than two colleagues with me. I spoke English and Portuguese, nothing in the native language.

Suddenly, I sense her hands on my face. She is rubbing my face like someone who is cleaning a window. I was wearing sunglasses. The first thing that enters my head is, this woman wants (to take) my sunglasses! A strange trigger of fear trickles down my back. I do not panic, although I wonder if I am in any kind of danger. Pretending all is ok, I quickly turn to the safe box where I have the money for the travel allowances, grab the amount I need to pay her while trying to keep her at bay. Suddenly she gets a bit rowdy. She looks defiant, blabs something in her native language. Oh no, she sounds pretty angry! What do I do now? What did I do? I mean, she is the one doing me wrong- is what I repeat to myself over and over again!

She takes the money from me. With the one hand clutches the money tight, with the other hand that is free, I sense her grab my naked skin, through an opening in my shirt. I feel like screeching NO. This is harassment, I cry out in silence.

What I was experiencing was a conflict of a different kind. It needed translation, or rather to be translated into comprehension to help me make sense of it and address it in a way that would be mutually intelligible, and thus, respectful and compassionate. I learned an invaluable truth/lesson about (a different side of) conflict that day: from what and how it may normally be perceived, or at least in my socialized narrow definition of conflict. Never assume you know. Every context has a set of cultural codes. These can be blurry and often are. Every story has more than one side to it. Seek the truth, until it is found.

In this particular setting, the elderly are veneered. Here, something almost un-cultural occurred. I was the one being extolled, even though, at first, I believed I was being harassed by an unlikely intruder. I learned the noblest of values is generosity. The travel allowance she clutched onto with one hand, while the other found an opening in my shirt, intending to find a suitable spot to deposit the money there i.e. in my bra (quite an ingenious way of keeping true unwarranted intruders away, don´t you think?), was probably the only money she had. I was told by my colleague translators, she wanted me to have the money because she believed I was responsible for bringing her estranged son back. I did not keep the money but it is not about that. This was an awe-inspiring humbling revealing moment for me. The one that apparently lacked much was not only willing but adamant to give something she needed away- not only to someone much younger but to someone, a total stranger, who in relative (monetary) terms, lacked nothing.

I share this story as a memorial to her, but that is only part of the reason. This is a story about history that was made. It is about the creation of (new) meaning(s) in the context of a larger political conflict. It is about twisting the perception that barriers cannot be crushed or paradigms cannot undergo major shifts. This is a story that speaks to true power, the kind that really matters.

The moral of this story is not so much about notions surrounding monetary or other western-style values, like having a legalistic sense of the value(s) of justice (the understanding that it was her right for her to keep the money she received). Rather, it is far more about what this woman valued, is what I-we should value more, in this (short) life we have been given.

Author: Carla Paiva, Africa University Cooperation/Youths & Global Citizenship/Project Coord./Bridge-connecting/ Multi-disciplinary Research – Portugal

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