• Background Image

    News & Updates


October 13, 2012

Art as a Social Force for Change – a Folklorist for Peace Relates the Stories of Life

What were you doing this summer? It was by complete chance that I ended up living in Washington, DC, and met Mike Synder. Mike, it just so happened, is a past American Rotary Ambassadorial Fellow who studied in my home of Scotland a few years back. When he returned to the US, Mike started his own filmmaking company to highlight environmental issues within Appalachian communities. He is a talented, passionate filmmaker dedicated to his art and to making the world a better place. Mike and I found a connection in our passion for the arts, so it seemed natural to combine a folklorist’s interest in the stories of life with film. Together we produced a slam poetry film that explores art as a social force for change.

“No Such Thing as Fair Trade Cocaine” features a slam poem I wrote a few years ago while working with people affected by conflict in Colombia. While in Colombia, I met people living in refugee camps, internally displaced by a conflict that has plagued the country for years. According to the UN refugee agency, Colombia has around three million internally displaced persons (IDPs)—the second highest number in the world after Sudan.

There is No Such Thing as Fair Trade Cocaine – Kiran Sirah

On my return to Scotland, many people, I among them, attended music festivals regularly such as Glastonbury. At one of these music festivals, set in a lush green field covered by a sea of multicolored tents, I saw people sipping fair trade tea and coffee. They talked about the greatness of our nation with a population so supportive of the “fair trade” concept as a way to help producers around the world—they chatted about fair trade even as many did lines of cocaine. People seemed oblivious to the fact they were fueling a war thousands of miles away.

Although I had not thought of the connections before, after being in Colombia and making so many friends there, I was inspired to write the poem “No Such Thing as Fair Trade Cocaine.” The theme of the poem is the idea that each line of cocaine connects to stories of destruction in another part of the world. Despite worldwide perceptions of Colombia as a country of violence, I found it to be a place of beauty and determination with a passion for life. Colombia is a country where, regardless of their living situations, people take you into their hearts. Nowhere in the world have I been and felt more accepted and welcomed than in Colombia.

This poem is a response to the unfair ways Colombians have been blamed for the trade in cocaine. My poem emphasizes the idea that we embrace fair trade while remaining ignorant about how some of our other choices negatively impact social justice. Today, the primary demand for cocaine continues to come from the UK and the US. Through this film, we hope to raise awareness about how western cocaine consumption continues to fuel conflicts, destroy families, and ruin lives.

What I discovered this summer is that when we look for and listen more closely to the stories of life, we find artistic connections, new friendships, and inspiration for powerful artistic ventures that can make the world a better place for all.


October 9, 2012

Using Stories to Build Peace: An Experience of a Lifetime

One of the most fascinating and relevant sessions during our fellowship at the Rotary Peace Centre at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok in 2011 was on Storytelling for Peacebuilding, facilitated by Dr. Kacie Wallace. For a long time, I longed for an opportunity to try out some of the skills.

This opportunity finally came last month, when I was fortunate enough to be invited to the 4th Annual UNISA Children’s Reading Conference September 11-12, 2012, and the storytelling part that ran up to September 14th. There were three of us international storytellers, myself from Zimbabwe, and two others from Norway and the Philippines, respectively.

Because of my familiarity with South African history, I chose for all my stories the common theme of peace-building. Thus my stories were about how as a human race we can live together in peace; how we can tolerate our differences, respect each other and how we can be at peace with our environment. In Pretoria we told our stories to a wonderful and most appreciative audience at Oost End Primary School. After that we traveled to the North West Province. There, we had an out-of-this-world-experience at the Royal Bafokeng Institute. Before we led our workshops there, we had visited a number of historical places, including Nelson Mandela’s old SOWETO home, the Regina Mundi Church, Hector Pieterson Memorial site and Museum, among others.

At the Royal Bafokeng Institute, we each got an opportunity to facilitate a 3 hour workshop on a topic of our choice, in addition to telling stories. Of course, this had been prearranged and my topic was how we can use stories to build peace. This was based on the premise that people make sense of reality, and construct reality, out of stories. Besides, if you look closely, most conflicts occur because people want only their stories to be listened to, and hardly want to listen to others or put themselves in their shoes.

Conflicts are also born out of the bad stories that we hear about us, about others, and about our future. From the workshop it became clear that while we could not change our stories, we needed to face the truth about them in order to understand who we are, because only then can we know our strengths and weaknesses and be able to listen to others with empathy.

We dwelt much on the River of Life and other practical activities that entrench tolerance, respect and human rights. I do not think that these activities in my group, which were attended by more than 50 adults from the Rustenburg Community, could have come at a better time because, as we went about them, a few kilometers away the Marikana miner strikes were occurring, where apparently more than 30 people had needlessly lost their lives in riots the previous week.

Nevertheless, I was filled with hope in the common story that the racially mixed student body at the Royal Bafokeng was trying to weave together, and that their cheer and evident industry and harmony would spread and live in every nook and cranny of their beautiful Rainbow nation, that is, if nobody shatters their story.

storytelling for peacemaking groupPart of the group that participated in the Storytelling for Peacebuilding Workshop at the Royal Bafokeng Institute.

Edward Chinhanhu wishes to thank Professor Thomas van der Walt and Professor Bosire Onyancha of UNISA, Ms Denise Kunstler of the Language and Literacy Team at the Royal Bafokeng Institute, and their teams for arranging all tours and activities.

October 8, 2012

Malvo – Should We Ever Forget?

We’re all selfish. That seems a given. The question becomes, will we foster and train selfishness that leads to violence, or instead put all of our energy in developing selflessness that extends to forgiveness and ultimately peace?

As our discernment of people grows with advances in neuroscience, psychology, and greater understanding of cultural issues, including the influence of faith, we still cannot determine all the reasons why people cause violence. Yet, it is clear that violence can fueled by and fertilized within systems and structures that allow it to grow. It is also clear that we can and must do more to water down and weed out patterns of violence before they grow and ignite.

lee-boyd-malvoThe extended harm caused by human violence is given a face in the Washington Post’s Lee Boyd Malvo ‘I was a monster’. Malvo, just 27 years of age now, was only 17 when he and John Allen Muhammad enacted the killing spree in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area. Muhammad had been training Malvo for years to execute their plan as his “adopted” son.

Many people do to not want to read interviews like this, where we gain perspective from the murderer. My sense is that most people want murders like this to be locked up and forgotten. Many persons wish Malvo, like Muhammad, would have been executed.

Lee Boyd Malvo interview as reported on CNN

Intriguingly, Malvo makes nearly this exact claim. Having come to discern the grief, hurt and harm he caused with his violence, he states:

“Once I began to list the victims for every single possible crime that I could think of, the number, quickly, it was like multiplying by seven. It just exponentially grew—the enormity of it.”
– Washington Post, Sept. 29, 2012

Malvo notes that his apology can never be enough to placate the harm he has caused. When questioned directly about his apology, Malvo said:

“We can never change what happened. There’s nothing that I can say except don’t allow me and my actions to continue to victimize you for the rest of your life. . . . Don’t allow myself or Muhammad to continue to make you a victim for the rest of your life, it isn’t worth it.”
Washington Post, September 29, 2012

I wish I could agree with Malvo because I want to forget his story and his violence but I can’t forget as an individual, and we can’t forget as a society. His violence has caused hurt that has reshaped the families of his victims and it has given an ominous shape to the future we all share.

john allen muhammad and lee malvoSince we can’t forget Malvo, what can we do? I suggest we use stories like these to help us create a new vision for the future. Malvo’s young life was shaped by unrelenting training at the hands of John Allen Muhammad in how to act violently. Malvo was taken to a gun range nearly every day, shooting up to 12 hours per day and being told to shoot and kill “the old Lee Malvo, the weak Lee Malvo, the wayward Lee Malvo.”

Malvo was conditioned, educated, and trained for violence. While Malvo is an extreme case of targeted training to produce someone motivated solely by murderous violence, the origin of his violence emerged from the emotions and grief associated with family loss and divorce, and the vulnerability of the young to please their primary caretaker. Tragically, Lee Boyd Malvo mistook the murderous control of John Allen Mohammad for a father’s care and protection, an emotional need so strong in humans that it can trump any grasp on, however tenuous, our ability to empathize with others and turn us away from violent interaction.

Malvo could have been trained differently. Someone could have explained to Malvo the complexities of relationships and the importance of forgiveness. Family members, school teachers, the curriculum in school, neighborhood and religious community organizations could have offered an alternate vision for Malvo.

Malvo wants to be forgotten, but to forget him is to forget the cycle of selfishness that leads to rage that leads to violence. We can’t forget the cycle lest we allow it to be repeated with some other child who is trained for violence.

There are children in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our cities right now who are being educated to view their future and the world in deliberate ways. How can we insure more of their training is for reconciliation instead of revenge?

How can we foster selflessness that extends to forgiveness and reach our goal of global peace?


October 6, 2012

Celebrating a Life of Activism – Desmond Tutu at 81

General Douglas MacArthur famously said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”   The same will not be said by or about Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  As he celebrates his 81st birthday, Tutu remains very much the activist, with the emphasis on “active.”

“In everything he stands for, everything he says, and everything he does, he displays a consistent obligation to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak the uncomfortable truths,” said Mo Ibrahim, in Johannesburg, while announcing a special award to the Archbishop for his work on behalf of peace.  The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement is awarded to African heads of state who have excelled during their terms in office and aims to recognize good and responsible governance.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu – Hope in Troubling Times

Recent examples of Tutu’s continuing commitment to peace and social justice abound:

Tutu spoke out in the case of Kiobel vs. Shell which is pending before the US Supreme Court. Shell is accused of working with the Nigerian government to ensure resistance to operations in the oil-rich Niger Delta was protected by military force.  He chided the US government not to abandon the people of Nigeria who had been harmed by the company in its quest to exploit the country’s oil resources.

In a speech during the commemoration of South Sudan’s first anniversary of independence from Sudan, Tutu called on the nation’s leaders to stop fighting and conciliate with their former countrymen in the north.  He argued that such measures would bring a turnaround in the country’s dismal economic fortunes and save its citizens from continued hardship.

Every year, ten million girls are forcibly married before the age of eighteen, many as young as twelve or thirteen years old. Tutu has long decried child marriages and urged the world community to put a stop to the practice.  With a delegation of The Elders, he recently visited India to learn about the causes of child marriage there, discuss the harmful impact of child marriage on human rights and development, and to encourage local efforts to end the practice.

In August, 2012, Tutu refused to share a speaker’s platform with Tony Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain, citing his and George Bush’s role in initiating the Iraq war, destabilizing the country and causing untold suffering among its citizens.  Tutu’s controversial remarks unleashed a firestorm of debate in the international press around the murky rationale for going to war in Iraq.

Tutu continues to inspire new generations of activists.  His unrelenting determination to pursue the cause of peace and justice around the world reminds us that the spirit of activism does not fade with age.

September 25, 2012

An Unexpected Source of Innovation

Over the past six years I have collected thousands of drawings from children around the world. Each child drew a picture of their dream – several thousand dreams that came in more colors and shapes than I could ever imagine.

Last year, I was supervising a workshop at an orphanage in Tokyo. All the kids started drawing pictures of their dreams, except one 10-year-old boy who didn’t know what his dream was. When most kids finished drawing their dreams, the boy decided that it would be “really cool” to be the owner of a dog-grooming salon. On a large sheet of paper he drew a tiny picture of his salon right in the middle, leaving a lot of blank space around it. “I’m done,” he said. One of the supervisors asked the boy: “Where should this shop be? What’s around it?”

After thinking silently for a while, the boy picked up his marker and started drawing again. A few minutes later, the picture was complete: a dog-grooming salon with a Formula One racing track around it.

The boy’s dream probably wouldn’t come true in the way he pictured it. A dog-grooming salon surrounded by a Formula One racing track would find few customers. But new ideas often come from people with unrealistic dreams.

The workshop at the Tokyo orphanage is one of many We Have A Dream workshops that I have organized. We Have A Dream is a nonprofit organization that I founded in 2006, after spending three months in South Africa.

In South Africa, I worked at Nkosi’s Haven, a care center for HIV-positive mothers and their children in Johannesburg. Nkosi’s Haven was started by Gail Johnson, the adoptive mother of the late Nkosi Johnson, an extraordinary child who gave voice to a generation of HIV-positive orphans. Nkosi’s dream was to create a home for HIV-positive mothers and their children. His dream became reality because it inspired others who had the energy and resources to make it come true. By sharing his dream, he gave other kids opportunities he never had himself. Working at Nkosi’s Haven, I felt Nkosi’s presence, his legacy, everywhere. It made me wonder what the children who lived there were dreaming about, and how we could help them take the first step to make their dreams come true. In close collaboration with two social workers and a psychologist, we organized a workshop in which children drew pictures of their dreams and talked about them. At the end of the workshop I collected the drawings, which were later exhibited in Norway, my home country, alongside other drawings of dreams by Norwegian kids.

From the kids at Nkosi’s haven to the boy at the Tokyo orphanage, all the children that I met were dreamers who knew few boundaries in their imagination. Their ability to dream is a potential source of innovation that moves all of us forward. I listen to children’s voices not just because they could be the voices of tomorrow’s leaders. I believe that children’s voices and dreams can actually change the world we live in today.


September 11, 2012

September 11 – Remembering the Heroes

When many of us think of September 11 – images of falling buildings, erupting planes and countless grief-stricken faces come to mind. And of course it’s understandable that we should recount this tragic day by thinking of the fallen, the heartbreak and the devastation. Yet – the stories of heroism and sacrifice that have surfaced since that fateful day are some of the most moving and inspirational imaginable.

Take Richard “Rick” Rescorla. A 62-year-old retired and decorated U.S. Army colonel, Rick was Morgan Stanley’s director of security where he insisted on holding twice-yearly evacuation drills. Thanks to his planning and preparation, and despite being told to stay put after the 8:46 a.m. crash next door, Rick calmly encouraged Morgan Stanley staffers down the 22 floors in the south tower. Although 13 employees – including Rescorla – perished, more than 2,500 employees left the tower alive. It’s been reported that, during the mayhem, he called his wife, telling her, “If something should happen to me, I want you to know I’ve never been happier.” His story was ultimately made into an opera called, fittingly, Heart of a Soldier.

‘Heart of a Soldier’ Opera Chronicles Heroism, Love Amid Tragedy of 9/11

Reluctant Hero BookMichael Benfante is another hero who wrote a book titled Reluctant Hero about his experience. He and a co-worker carried a woman in a wheelchair down 68 floors of the north tower of the World Trade Center to safety. The media immediately called him as a hero, and rightfully so. Yet, as Michael points out in his book, there were many heroes that day.

Army Lt. Col. Marilyn WillsThere are so many other, lesser known individuals whose acts of bravery aren’t written on pages or sung about on stage. Such as subway operator Joe Irizarry who ordered that the doors of his train open as long as possible – providing refuge and escape to those trying to escape the dust and debris blanketing lower Manhattan. Or Army Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills, who helped others escape from the fire-inflamed Pentagon, receiving the Purple Heart for her injuries.

There are even non-human heroes whose courage should not be forgotten. Computer sales manager Michael Hingson was at his desk on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower on the morning of 9/11 when the plane hit. Thankfully, his guide dog Roselle was by his side. The yellow lab calmly guided her blind charge 1,463 steps out of the building and led him safely to a nearby subway.

Hero Dog Roselle – American Humane Association

We hope that a tragedy like the one that befell us on September 11, 2001 never happens again. While nothing can erase the desolation of that day, stories like these hopefully provide some comfort. These accounts demonstrate the very best of us … they not only provide inspiration – they offer a great deal of hope.