Polarization Part 3: Sacred Cows and Citizen Forums

Stephen K. Muntet was born and raised in Maasai Mara, Kenya, here in his article entitled: “A Cow is Life”, he recounts firsthand experiences of growing up in between Heaney’s two buckets- in his case the Pokot–Turkana conflict.

I have vivid memories of working in West Pokot and Turkana villages in 2009-10. The regular sight of young boys (many as young as 9/10yrs old) carrying semi-automatic rifles like herding sticks, as they shadowed cattle along the roadsides; the nightly raids; the senseless loss of life marked me. The Rift Valley, their home, is the cradle of civilization, from whence our first forebearers emerged, and across the arc of time populated the planet. My invite came from West Pokot and Turkana elders that I meet with separately in Nairobi and Eldoret, Kenya, in 2008.

It struck me then, as I spoke to the elders, that they broadly agreed on a number of things:

  1. What is now a tragic ongoing conflict is firmly linked to colonialism, and the damage it has done to cultural ways of dealing with conflicts; promoting reciprocity and negotiating the fact that “a cow is life”, in these parts. Cows define status, manhood, martial rights, and prosperity;
  2. The conflict between Pokot and Turkana communities will be resolved in part by building up the capacities in each community one village at a time;
  3. The conflict has meant that the best grazing lands have become no go zones, because of cattle rustling.
  4. These communities want peace, wellbeing and prosperity but not at any price.
  5. They suffer exploitation in market dealings by “middle-men”, who play both sides off each other to drive prices down.
  6. Drought and soil erosion-the result of environmental abuses by industrialised countries- is making a bad situation much worse.

When I first met them, the elders on either side of the conflict were accompanied by some young warriors, who said very little, but when they did speak, their few words carried disproportionate weight in the room. Cows and guns were their most prized assets; they wanted to know how these would be protected. And for their cows, they were prepared to live and die by the gun. There were no women in these early conversations. After a few days, I was asked to come to be with them in a number of their villages over an extended period. I agreed if my invite could include the voices of women -whom they referred to as the “Mamas” -in each village. After some discussion, they agreed.

Out of the listening conversations in 2009 and 2010, emerged self-organized pastoral field school and village banks, supplemented as required by supports from some hands-off NGOs. The pastoral field schools as well as advancing skills and encouraging innovation in animal husbandry and drought mitigation also functioned as civic forums. It’s not a precise equation, but a number of villages would group up in twos and threes, to co-create a farmer field school. And over time these pastoral field schools then networked with other pastoral field schools either side of the conflict. This networking was a fresh way for West Pokot villages on their side of the fault line, and Turkana villages on the other side, to build associational life and confidence with, and in each other. And so before beginning to speak of building peace with their “enemies”, they built community and cooperation among their own, based on their own gifts and priorities.

Often in conflict situations, we become so focused on the trying to mediate between the sides, that we fail to recognize that there are also disconnections, traumas and conflicts within the communities on either side. Working to collectively build power, reveal citizen agency and agree shared priorities towards the common good within each village; pastoral field schools and district and regional networks was a critical starting point. One of the measures of a confident community is its capacity to welcome the stranger at the edge. That being the case, they started by building their confidence from inside out, by first welcoming the strangers among them, in the hope that their strength would grow and extend beyond the edges of their tribal thresholds, towards peace with the “other” at the interfaces between opposing communities.

Parker Palmer teaches that “violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” These folks in the cradle of humanity in the Rift Valley did something different with their suffering. Back in each of the villages that created pastoral field schools, something beautiful happened. Each village identified between 15 to 20 villagers, mainly young men and against past tradition, women, who engaged as connectors in having learning conversations with every member of the village. They found out from every one of their neighbours what gifts, knowledge, skills, and passions they were willing to contribute to the wellbeing of their community. This bank of village gifts circulated through the field schools, and through village life in countless ways.

There are no Hollywood endings here, but I can tell you, that several of these villages have found sufficient equanimity and social carrying capacity to build bridges towards peace with the “others” across lines of conflict between several West Pokot and Turkana villages. There is still a long road ahead towards a comprehensive peace in this region and thousands of villages that have not even begun on this road.  I am reminded of the words of St. Benedict: “Always, we begin again”. There is no finishing line, no summit, no victory march.

Still, I have seen many incredibly inventive initiatives emerge from this inside-out way of organizing community life. By replenishing the social top soil that had eroded largely due to the mono-cropping approaches of outside actors. the possibility of an alternative future is emerging. Even if it frequently flickers and often fades; always they begin again. Mutual support; self-help and self-financing solutions are matched by other less tangible outputs: trust, confidence; the welcoming in of people and resources that had previously been exiled. Healing of old wounds; risking new.

Whether in the Rift Valley or in another corner of the world, institutional reform alone, rarely results in sustainable peace; improved health status, better-educated communities, or increased security. The replacement of one president with another, the rolling over of harsh policies with more humane ones, while making things marginally better for a time, doesn’t bring us towards a preferred future. Like sitting through airconditioned misery, we can, of course, convince ourselves otherwise, by dissociating from reality; lionizing our leaders and demonizing the leaders of our enemies-but at night will your sacred “cows” be safe?

I continue to hold fast to the belief that when the issue is polarization a critical response is to animate citizen forums, even if that has to start from inside out. These civic forums can take many shapes, the pastoral field schools in the Rift Valley, national conversations such those that occurred in Ireland on the Eight Amendment, and the countless neighbourhood and village conversations that have found space beyond meetings; for neighbours to gather and to truly hear each other into expression. In these forums, freedom of speech is secondary to freedom of listening. The questions matter infinitely more than the answers. Being civil is the point. For those who gather authentically in such fora being right is the least of their concerns.

Such civic gatherings are hard to find, of course many exist, though not always visible. The dual challenge is to make the invisible ones visible, and to call new forums into existence even if doing so, requires us to start with small modest steps, close to our own doorsteps.

Facing the challenges of polarisation, COVID-19, or indeed any socio-economic challenge starts with building the strength and vitality of citizen associations.

Forums place citizens and their associations in the driving seat, as the primary actors towards a preferred future. When crime is the issue, police become the primary actors. When peace is the aim, citizens are the key actors. When sickness is the issue, medics become the primary actors. When wellbeing is the aim, citizens and their associations are the primary actors. When polarisations are the issue, politicians become the key actors. When democracy is the aim, citizens in association are the key actors. When institutions take the driving seat, often, citizens, at best, end up in the back seat, and at worst, on the side of the road.

The trouble is that civic discourse has been severely undermined over the last four/five years in particular. Much of what goes for facts to shore up various viewpoints is not reasoned argument based on evidence but opinions based on what might be termed pseudo-evidence. When we have masses of isolated people who can’t conceive of alternatives to their opinions, the body politic loses its mind, and the citizens lose their power, heralding in the age of the technocrats.

Citizen forums, especially at neighbourhood scale, seek to address these challenges. This is achieved by creating and curating spaces where people can grapple with controversial questions that do not have correct answers, and in doing so come to peace with these truths:

  1. One can’t be right until one has first conceived the possibility of being wrong. People can evaluate the truth of theories only by envisioning them not to be true. Growing up “in between” requires that we come to see our view of the world as in amidst alternatives of other legitimate viewpoints. Seeing one’s own opinion in a framework of alternatives allows us to consider we might be wrong, and to better gather the evidence to affirm our beliefs.
  2. There is always a possibility that evidence exists that can disconfirm my viewpoint. Acknowledging this truth, allows one to sufficiently distance oneself from one’s own opinion to be civil to an-other. To treat one’s neighbour as more real and valuable than one’s own thoughts. One learns in these spaces, not to follow Robert’s Rules of Order but to think about one’s opinions and to stop thinking with. Polarization, in essence, can only occur when people think with their opinions; polarization is dissolved when people learn to think about their opinions; with neighbours with whom they disagree. In other words, thinking with your opinion is an isolationist act; thinking about your opinion is a democratic one.

In the next and final blog in this series I discuss how citizens and communities have been consistently pitted against each other and seduced by hidden persuaders, including Cambridge Analytica, for the political and financial profits of elites.

Cormac Russell

Part 1 of the series

Part 2 of the series

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  • Some real gems in this article.. Love the phrase ‘replenishing the social topsoil’ that describes our work. I can’t read these blogs without taking notes, new language, new ways of thinking, encouragement to begin again. Thanks Cormac!

    February 12, 2021 at 11:19 pm
  • Katrina Robson

    Always appreciative of the wisdom and messages in your blogs Cormac. There is much to apply to our work in our own community. Made me think about what has happened here and the feeling that who we are, our history and culture has been disregarded, even robbed. It’s a scary thought-the consequences are being ignored at our peril. What’s it like to feel you are being exploited, to know and yet not have a way of understanding or expressing it? Partly it’s because the exploitation is insidious and breeds mistrust. Where do these feelings go in a community like mine? There is a mismatch between what many of us value here and the values of the corporate world of greed and profit. The language of the unheard surely contribute towards polarisation and extremism and keep the focus away from where it should lie. You have to know who you are in order to truly welcome the stranger, the invisible maybe becoming visible but please don’t interfere with it, leave it as it is. Maybe then we can take our first small steps, in our zone of proximal development, starting with welcoming the strangers who are already here in our midst. I wonder if it is possible to love through listening, to heal and then to be able to step into new risks. These feel like the steps to take allowing everyone to contribute their unique spark of genius and meaning that no-one has to be on their own thinking with their opinions rather than thinking about them.

    February 14, 2021 at 10:17 am
  • Thank you Cormac for such wisdom packed and eloquent articles.
    I heard Sadhguru say “treat all truth as gossip rather than gospel” and I think you bring even greater clarity to the wisdom of that statement here.
    Looking forward to the more.

    February 20, 2021 at 10:00 pm

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