Who is Responsible for Maintaining Peace?: The Need for Self-Awareness in Zanzibar and Beyond
By Elisabeth Biber
How can ordinary people like you and I make a real difference in a world beset with troubles and divisions? And if not us, whose responsibility is it to maintain peace?
Before leaving for my internship in Zanzibar with Search for Common Ground, people around me used to ask what kind of conflict transformation work I would be really doing there. An island, whose exotic name is enough to create mental images of beautiful white sandy beaches, palm trees, exotic spices and crystal clear blue water, is hard to imagine as a conflict zone. So what happened that weekend almost two weeks ago, when Stone Town turned overnight into a ghost town where the only sound you could hear was the shooting of tear gas bombs and water cannons by the police trying to hunt down rioters? Locked at home without much information apart from what I could get on social media, I wondered how quickly underlying tensions can be escalated to violent clashes between an initially peaceful demonstration and the police forces.
One is quick to blame “religious sentimentalism” for the riots; however, there are more dimensions to the protests. Upon my arrival four weeks ago, I was not aware of such a thing as anti-union in Zanzibar. As a tourist or volunteer you do not realize it at first – the anti-union stickers put on certain cars, the anti-union messages at Jaws Corner, a place in mid-Stone Town where the elderly meet to drink coffee and the accentuation in random conversations that “they are Zanzibari, claiming separation from Mainland Tanzania”. It seems as if the root causes of what led to the demonstrations and the riots are part of a bigger context, connected to the recently begun constitutional review for the United Republic of Tanzania. While for me, as a non-native Kiswahili speaker, I am left out of most discussions, I have quickly come to realize that there exist as many “truths” around the events as there are people in Stone Town. No one really knows what happened exactly and who should be held responsible.
Maybe the question is not so much of whom to blame but rather how to prevent a further escalation. This was exactly what SFCG’s Zanzibar Program Director Spes Manirakiza and our partners from Civil Society Organizations and partner radios came up with: an idea to organize a radio roundtable discussion of moderate voices offering an alternative to the usual official manipulative messages from all sides.
Spontaneously organized, four representatives from all walks of life and backgrounds joined together at the recording studio to express their observations of the reaction of civil society and their view on how peace can prevail in Zanzibar. It was fascinating to see how excited the participants were to share their honest opinion, speaking only for themselves without representing a certain ideology. I was deeply impressed by their common emphasis that lasting peace begins within the parameters of our ordinary lives. It is our own responsibility to disagree in a non-violent way and find solutions without endangering the well being of our families.
The common take-away from the roundtable discussion was that we are responsible to live in harmony with our own flaws while appreciating and relating to the differences that separate us from the people around us, always looking for a common ground. “Be aware of your own words”, was a sentence mentioned regularly during the discussion and it is indeed something that could be easily extended to “be aware of your own behavior first”. Whatever exists inside us, as an ordinary citizen or as a leader of a country, is what might influence others, what might provoke certain reactions and thus, have consequences for society as a whole. Awareness of the role one plays in maintaining peace might be just a first step towards greater self-responsibility, yet, to me right here in Zanzibar, it seems to be one of the most important.
Elisabeth Biber is an International Intern with SFCG’s Zanzibar Office.