Frank Buchman’s legacy in French-speaking Africa
by Frédéric Chavanne
Frédéric Chavanne, a full time worker with Initiatives of Change in France, spent his childhood in Morocco. Today he works on relations with the Muslim populations in France and North Africa and is involved in a reconciliation programme in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
IN the mid 1950s a group of young Africans went to the Caux international conference centre in Switzerland. Frank Buchman, originator of Moral Re-Armament (later known as Initiatives of Change) felt he must set them a task which was bigger than themselves. Through them Africa could speak to the world. He proposed they write a play about the essential lessons learnt during their visit to Caux. That was how in a few days the play Freedom was born: it was to tour Europe and later become a full-length film. More than half a century later this film is still used by men and women who bring the same message. It is their hope that war, corruption and bad governance are not beyond remedy and that the solution lies in a change of motivation and behaviour, beginning with their own.
We shall confine ourselves here to the French-speaking countries of Africa, although one could cite more examples from Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, South Africa, etc, in addition to those described in the previous chapter.
The initiatives of those men and women took them to play a part in the post-colonial era in Morocco, Tunisia, Cameroon and former Belgian Congo. After a long period of inactivity, things started up again in the 1990s. In Tunisia and Cameroon, a work was done with young people to implant a new spirit of responsibility and integrity. In the Ivory Coast an association was formed to launch a campaign for hate-free, clean elections. In Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo there is a small group at the forefront of the peace struggle. They reach out to ordinary citizens as well as the leadership, who are often overcome by the scale of the problems. They proposed guidelines and key attitudes to restore hope of recovery and a way out of crisis. There is of course still a long and difficult road ahead but there is hope.
What was it in the thinking and approach of Frank Buchman that set these people on the move? What are the keys that made them act? To what extent are these factors crucial in confronting Africa’s problems today?
DURING DECOLONISATION - Each of the following stories are about someone who was deeply touched or found peace of heart over some difficult experience, was spurred into positive action or gripped by a vision of what could be done to help resolve the problems they faced.
Charles Assalé: uniting political forces in Cameroon
In 1957, Charles Assalé from the Cameroon was due to represent his country at the United Nations Trusteeship Council in New York. At the invitation of a young compatriot, Delphine Zanga, he took part in an international Initiatives of Change gathering at the United States centre in Mackinac. He left with a very different view of France and considerably less aggressive. The speech he made at the United Nations was surprisingly moderate and brought a change of attitude in the French representative, Jacques Kosciusko-Morizet. It was the start of a relationship of mutual respect which was to facilitate the process of decolonisation. On his return, Charles Assalé became reconciled with his main political opponent, Ahmadou Ahidjo, thus helping to assure the country’s political unity. He himself was appointed Prime Minister, remaining in that post for five years. He said that Moral Re-Armament was the Unknown Soldier in Cameroon’s war of independence.
Mohamed Masmoudi: facilitator in Tunisia’s independence negotiations
In 1953, Mohamed Masmoudi, representative of the Tunisian nationalist Neo-Destour party, was touched by the humility of the French he met at the Caux centre. Replying to a letter from his mother saying she was asking Allah to bless him and to curse the French, he replied that it was no longer necessary to curse the latter.
Following this, a meal was arranged in a private house in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, for Masmoudi to meet Jean Basdevant, official spokesman of the French government in charge of the Tunisian desk. The atmosphere was icy around the table until the moment when Masmoudi spoke of his change of heart towards France. Something clicked between the two men in the course of a private conversation they had after the meal. Each time negotiations between France and Tunisia reached deadlock, the two men would meet away from the official discussions, and on the basis of the new trust between them, seek ways to re-open the dialogue. “Without meeting this way,” Masmoudi was to say later, “we would be engaged in a war without mercy against France.”
Morocco: behind the scenes of the Glaoui’s volte-face
Summer 1955. The fiery young nationalist Ahmed Guessous was brought to Caux by French people who had found a new attitude to Moroccans. Like all leaders of countries fighting for independence, he had good reasons to hate the occupiers. However, it was the hatred he held against one of his compatriots which exercised his mind. “I am as far from God as from the person I hate most” was the remark which hit him. “Go towards your worst enemy and he will become a keen protector,” he also read in the Qur’an. He returned to his country determined to do something to resolve the serious crisis between his country and France. “Guessous wanted to reconcile everybody with everybody,” commented Philippe Lobstein, one of the Frenchmen who took him to Caux.
Through this Guessous not only became free of his hatred of the French but also of the Glaoui, a great Moroccan figure who went along with the occupiers and whom most Moroccans considered a traitor. The new openness in his heart and mind made him ready, unlike his political friends, to respond positively to an appeal from the Glaoui’s son, Abdessadek, who was making tentative overtures to resolve the Moroccan crisis and still save his family’s situation. The deposition of Sultan Ben Youssef – the future Mohammed V – by the French, who had exiled him to Madagascar, had been supported by the Glaoui.
Guessous helped make the contact with the Istiqlal, the main active political force in the independence struggle. He was present at the meeting between the Glaoui and representatives of that party which culminated in the statement by the Glaoui, as unexpected as it was sensational: “I ask for the Sultan to be returned from exile to his throne, since he alone is capable of bringing calm to the people.” This statement abruptly ended the Moroccan crisis.
Less has been told about another great Moroccan figure, Si Bekkaï, highly respected in Morocco. When he went to Caux in 1953, the independence struggle was at its height. At the time Ben Youssef was deposed, he had been the only pacha (a local position conferred by the sultan) to resign in protest.
After the Aix-les-Bains talks in search of a compromise to resolve the Moroccan crisis, Si Bekkaï wrote to Frank Buchman: “In these negotiations, I assure you I have never lost sight of the four standards of Moral Re-Armament.” It is interesting to read this letter alongside remarks made by Pierre July, one of the French political team who was also at Aix-les-Bains, who expressed amazement at the honest and conciliatory positions taken by Bekkaï. Bekkaï was appointed Prime Minister in the first government of independent Morocco.
At a private audience in January 1956, King Mohammed V expressed his appreciation to the Moral Re-Armament delegation: “I wish to thank you for all you have done for Morocco, Moroccans and for me through testing years. You have noble principles of virtue, love for one’s neighbour and unselfishness. They are right and they are the principles of Islam. My wish is that they become widespread in Morocco and in every corner of the world.”
Congo: easing the tensions
At the beginning of the 1960s, a Moral Re-Armament team spent several months in the Congo. The film Freedom was shown to the young leaders who had just formed their first government, as well as widely throughout the country. “Thank you for what you are doing for Africa,” said Patrice Lumumba, Prime Minister of the first government of independent Congo, after he had seen the film, “You give Africa its rightful stature in the eyes of the world.” The songs of three singer-composers from MRA, the Colwell brothers, were broadcast on radio in French, Lingala and Tshiluba. They contributed to forging a united country at the height of the Cold War when the struggle for control threatened to cause its total break-up.
During this troubled period marked by outbreaks of aggression and inter-ethnic massacres, the ideas in the film were to make their mark on several men who adopted positions or took initiatives designed to help bring calm and avoid killings. Two men in particular, Albert Kalonji and François Lwakabwanga, combined efforts to reduce tensions between their ethnic groups (Lulua and Baluba) which threatened to eliminate each other.
Two of the actors in the film Freedom had the idea to go and visit Jean Bolikango who had just been defeated in the presidential elections. According to his own testimony, this visit dissuaded him from following a course which would have led to bloodshed and gave him fresh courage to calm his own supporters down.
Being at the right place at the right time is one of Buchman’s key ideas. We cannot do everything, but we can try to see the thing we must do to make the difference. This implies a belief that we are not just acting in our own human strength but that we can be led and used beyond our imagination.
IN THE FACE OF AFRICA’S CHALLENGES TODAY
Bringing peace to the Great Lakes region
Since the year 2000, three men have been committed to a long term effort to bring an end to war in the Great Lakes region of Africa. They are Michel Kipoke and Thomas Ntambu originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bonaventure Nkeshimana from Burundi. They grasped the significance of Frank Buchman’s message. Their aim: to prepare minds and bring people together. Their method: to help people heal the wounds of the past, be freed from their fears and open about their own vulnerability. Patiently and methodically they created bonds of trust with political figures from opposing sides, chiefly in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also in Rwanda.
Between 2000 and 2004 they organised round tables with leaders of all three countries. In March and June 2003, two round tables brought together protagonists in the Burundi conflict. One of the rebel groups, the CNDD-FDD, has since rejoined the political process. Two of its leading members have said that Caux was a decisive factor in achieving this result. The 2005 elections put this party in power. The other rebels, the Palipehutu-FNL, the last rebel group still operating, signed a cease-fire agreement in September 2006. A work of living alongside the leaders of all parties continues in an effort to consolidate the still fragile peace, especially by re-establishing bonds of trust between people on opposing sides.
Cameroon: Training tomorrow’s leadership
With the creation of a local association in 1991, Initiatives of Change has taken off again in Cameroon. This is thanks to two men known for their personal integrity: Victor Anomah Ngu, oncologist, specialist in the fight against AIDS and former Minister of Health, and Pierre Oko Mengue, senior civil servant, now retired. Together they have mobilised a small team to work on strengthening the moral fibre of the country. They invite their compatriots to consider to what extent they contribute to Africa’s sickness, to step out of the victim or assistance mentality and to rediscover the hope that each person can play an essential part. Pierre Oko Mengue does not hesitate to tell his latest story of change, the repayment of debts long forgotten, honesty with his wife over marriage infidelities or the hurt pride of a father taking a new look at his authoritarian approach. “Initiatives of Change is the practical workshop of my faith,” he maintains. “The dynamics of a changed life begin with a decision, however small.”
Initiatives of Change films have been shown on national television. In 1994 a pan-African gathering took place, drawing representatives of other Initiatives of Change teams at work on the continent. And importantly, the local team organises frequent forums to train citizens and particularly youth in taking responsibility. On one occasion the subject was ‘family life’- a prime laboratory for learning about dialogue and democracy! Another of their preoccupations is to unite the English-speaking and French-speaking populations of Cameroon.
Tunisia: unity across the Mediterranean
Hatem Akkari, professor at Sfax University in Tunisia, has just opened the Centre for Dialogue and Culture in the setting of a family library he has been creating for years. His aim: to give a sense of responsibility and initiative to the youth, open their minds to different horizons and form bonds beyond the shores of the Mediterranean.
He leads a group of youth to whom he tries to give meaning in life over and above the question of career. He develops a close relationship with these youngsters, many of whom are or have been his pupils, and ends up as their confidant and counsellor. Together they learn to deal with their conflicts, debate world problems and learn from visiting foreign speakers. They also welcome in their group students from other countries who are all too often ignored by the Tunisians.
But perhaps the most important lesson they learn is to be interested in others for their own sakes. Some of these pupils go on to become teachers and bring a wholehearted commitment to their work. There is a certain enthusiasm within the group, a desire to give their best and do something useful for society. This is in contrast to many of their peers (in Tunisia) who are often disillusioned, with no vision for their future and dreaming only of leaving the country in search of a dubious Eldorado under different skies.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PERSONAL CHANGE
Transformed lives across Africa
In the context of these briefly recounted events and initiatives, many lives have been transformed: Nadine, the former rebel, who rediscovered how to laugh; Jean-Bosco, who gave up his radical opinions; the political opponents who share with each other their deepest convictions and carry their respective loads together. Time and again, we have observed that crucial moment when suddenly someone becomes aware that his attitude is part of society’s problems!
There is Nelly, for instance, who lived in Europe but had wanted to see her Banyamulengue brothers (Congolese Tutsis) eliminated. “If I had been in the country,” she admitted when she apologised to one of them, “you would not be alive today!” Then there is the officer from Chad, overcome to realise he could be free from the perpetual desire for revenge. Or yet again, the Cameroon student who gave up the lucrative business of forging diplomas, identity cards and false birth certificates.
“It is we citizens who are the main obstacle to democracy,” claims Pierre Oko Mengue. “Every ethnic group thinks it can demand what it wants from anyone in that group who has a responsible position. Let us free our ministers from being ethnic hostages!”
“National unity is not decided by decree,” confides one Rwandan. “If some subjects become taboo, the pressure mounts and we end up with an explosion. We have been the dumb society, denying the ethnic problem instead of facing up to it.”
“A wall of mistrust, scorn and hatred has grown up between us,” said Lucienne Munono from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Without realising it we slide into aggressiveness. The very violence I decry in my country is also in me. It is destroying us. When I put someone in a category with which I feel unable to work, I exert a kind of violence.”
Those who are committed to bring this change of attitude to decision-makers have developed a quality and way of life which cannot just be turned on. Sometimes it has taken years of contact with Initiatives of Change teams for them to be ready for this task.
It is through the simple acts and attitudes of individuals working on their own or in a team that they succeed in building trust and provoking a change in outlook which eventually has repercussions on the political and social life of their country. “When men change, situations change,” Buchman used to say.
“One of the first things I learned with Initiatives of Change was about listening,” admitted Michel Kipoke, one of the pioneers of the reconciliation programme in the Great Lakes region of Africa, who tragically died in June 2007 on returning from a mission to Burundi. “Before, all I thought about was preparing my argument in order to win against the other side.” This ability to listen became his chief tool and drew round him opposing elements in the conflicts affecting the whole Great Lakes region. In October 2006, he travelled to the east of the Congo where General Nkunda, a redoubtable figure who had read a memorandum on the Congolese situation written by Michel, was determined to meet him. “When I read this document,” the general told him, “I realised there were still people capable of listening to us.”
However, Michel Kipoke did not come with ready-made answers. He was convinced that every person carries within him the answers for which he is looking. “The people I talk to appear very sure of themselves and their positions at first. Quite often they end up themselves raising the subjects which worry them and sometimes even come to confess problems weighing on their conscience. I act as a kind of mirror.”
Michel liked to recall something Frank Buchman said to some young people he was training and sending out on mission. “What interests me is not what you said to the people you were talking to but what they had to say to you.”
Listening to the inner voice
The practice of taking time in quiet, as Buchman taught, remains the essential basis of the work done in his name. Thomas Ntambu, who is involved in the mission for consolidating peace in Burundi, makes it a daily discipline. “Every morning at 5 o’clock I have a quiet time,” he told us. “I read my Bible and I think about what has happened the day before in case my conscience reminds me of some thoughtless thing I said or something which might have caused hurt. I also look for key ideas to help me in the interviews planned that day.” Imagine the kind of society we would have if everyone resorted to a daily self-examination!
This sensitive availability to people and constant questioning of oneself, one’s gestures and reactions, leads to a stripping away of self, ever greater dedication and not least to clarity about people and their motives.
Honesty about motives
“The evil we were fighting in our political opponents was eating away at our own people,” Thomas Ntambu went on. A former soldier and rebel fighter, he had been chief of military operations for the Marxist group whose aim was the overthrow of the Mobutu dictatorship. He dreamed of power, villas, luxury cars and women. He was also hungry for justice. He wanted to replace one political or ideological system with another. In Initiatives of Change he found a new hope that men can change and the conviction that without this change all revolutions would end in disappointment.
This clarity about himself helps him not to set himself up as judge or censor. “When I discovered what the Burundi rebels had suffered, I felt very small,” said Thomas. This ability to make someone feel welcome and not to judge, is this part of Buchman’s message? Anyway, we recalled the vision Buchman had for every person with the infinite belief that each one could play a vital part. During the inter-Congolese talks in Addis Ababa, where I accompanied Thomas, I could see that he had that same vision which draws the best out of people.
The person who has the courage to talk about mistakes and inner struggles and yet remain faithful to what his conscience dictates, holds a power which is infectious. He appeals to consciences. In the course of the round tables with protagonists of the Burundi conflict, one former minister spoke of his personal responsibility in the tragedy which has afflicted his country for the last thirty years. “I did not take part in the 1996 coup d’etat,” he told us, “but by my attitude I gave support to the people who judged that the new president could not remain in power.” He had the courage to apologise publicly to the president who had been driven out by the coup d’etat.
In Cameroon, Victor Anomah Ngu, talking to a group of students, referred with great humility to the mistakes made by politicians like himself. A minister who admits his mistakes! Stupefaction on the part of the students and an immediate wave of sympathy. The discussion was no longer about denouncing the mistakes of the other side but about considering what everyone could do where they were. Cynicism gave way to hope.
LONG TERM ACTION FOR THE CONTINENT - The strategy worked out through the programme Reconciliation in the Great Lakes region could be a model for action across the African continent. The key concept is ‘living alongside’.
Identifying and reaching the key people
Through his experience in American universities and in China, Buchman had learnt the importance of discerning who were the key men on whom the solution to a problem might turn. In the same way, as the team at work in the Great Lakes region meet people from very different backgrounds, they too look out for those who could make the difference.
The team then works at creating bonds of trust with these people. There is one condition – to have no hidden agenda. “No man who puts his own interests first can think for the nation,” recalls Michel Kipoke in an expression he made his own from reading the biography of the South African, William Nkomo, a man strongly influenced by Buchman’s ideas.
Offering a framework and atmosphere which encourages reconciliation
The next step is to bring these people together in a framework and atmosphere which encourages honest sharing. That is what happened with Mohamed Masmoudi and Jean Basdevant, with Charles Assalé and Jacques Kosiusko-Morizet, with Albert Kalonji and François Lwakabwanga and, more recently, with key figures from the Great Lakes region.
At the last round table in April 2007 with thirty-three key figures from Burundi, the first two themes proposed for discussion were: “Talking about one’s hurts” and “Being freed from one’s fears”. It was not a question of reaching political agreements but rather of building the relationships which make peace agreements possible and above all applicable.
Longer term, as was seen in Southern Rhodesia during the seventies with the ‘Cabinet of Conscience’, the aim was to form a group of representatives from every political and social sector desirous of finding just solutions for all. Such a group can act as a catalyst in proposing approaches and points of reference acceptable to all.
Anyone can be the missing link in a chain of contacts which may change the course of history. That is the tremendous hope handed down by Frank Buchman. It offers a credible alternative to those who only believe in the balance of power or for whom violence seems the only way to settle the injustices of which they feel themselves to be victims.