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Peacemaking in a violent world: needed―a new narrative

Tuesday, 12. April 2016

Peacemaking in a violent world: needed―a new narrative

Excerpts from a speech given by John Graham, Director of Giraffe Heroes International, at the International Conference Centre in Accra Ghana, 24 March, 2016. The full speech can be read here.

As a US diplomat twice stationed on the continent, I know Africa pretty well, I have many friends here, and great affection and respect for its peoples.

I also know something of its politics.

I know, for example, that the reality or threat of violence is never that far away on this continent. I understand the fear caused by recent jihadist attacks on your neighbours. I also know that violence between and within African states is still driven by the legacy of colonial divisions, tribalism, political, religious and ideological splits and classic competitions for power and resources.

Now add, for Ghana, a hotly contested election in November.

Could there be election-year violence in a country as nominally stable as Ghana? To those who say, 'No,' I remind you of what happened in Kenya just five years ago.

So I’d like to offer some thoughts, focussed mostly on the internal threats to peace here in Ghana.

I’m not ignoring Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. The jihadists will be destroyed, not by military action alone, but by economic and psychological attacks that degrade their ability to attract, recruit and fund their operations. Meanwhile, Ghana’s security forces are competent—there’s a reason the UN keeps asking them to participate in its peacekeeping operations.

Still, we must be blunt. There’s no way to protect every soft target from suicidal attackers, whether here or in California.

Giraffe Heroes GhanaLet me say this: it would, in my opinion, be a huge mistake for Ghanaians to over-focus on the jihadist threat. That’s exactly what the jihadists want you to do. Jihadists win not by body count, but by terrorizing, demoralizing and distracting people so they lose hope and focus and so the governance fabric in their countries starts to shred; that’s when the real problems start.

Don’t let that happen here. Keep your heads on and keep your heads up.

With that in mind -

As we all know, political violence erupts whenever the forces pulling people apart are stronger than those that keep them together. Those disruptive forces can include corruption, historical grievances, ignorance, fear, economic inequalities and bad leadership…. They all lead to mistrust, the mistrust leads to stereotypes, the stereotypes ramp up fear until violence can become almost inevitable.

The groups in conflict can be tribes, political parties, haves versus have-nots, religions or regional identities. As anyone who’s been watching Donald Trump’s political rallies in America knows, I’m not just talking about Africa.

In Ghana as elsewhere, the resources to suppress violence include armies and police forces, but more importantly a stable web of institutions in government, business, media and civil society that can provide social and political glue.

But you know all this - so I want to go a little deeper today, as a tough old diplomat who’s seen and been a part of a lot of violence, someone with a lot of scar tissue on his back, someone who’s nobody’s fool.

Giraffe HeroesGiven this, my experience and conviction is that the ultimate counters to violence are not found just in security forces and stable institutions, although both are certainly important. Peace must start in individual human hearts.

That means creating a new narrative, a new way of living, for our lives and for our country’s life (in Ghana or in America), strong enough to replace the old narrative fuelled by those disruptive forces of corruption, grievances, ignorance, fear, economic inequalities and bad leadership.

The best people I know to teach us about this new narrative, this mainstay of peace, are Giraffes.

I don’t mean four-legged giraffes. I mean the two-legged heroes honoured by the NGO I now help lead, the Giraffe Heroes Project. We call them Giraffe Heroes because they stick their necks out to make the world a better place and we use the metaphor 'giraffe' for them because giraffes have the longest necks.

Giraffe Heroes are men and women, young and old, from every ethnic and economic background, from over 60 countries. They’re tackling every kind of public problem, from racism to climate change, to gang and tribal violence, to crimes against women. If there’s a public problem, there are Giraffe Heroes working to solve it. Over 34 years now we’ve honoured over 1300. Read their stories at

Our strategy at the Giraffe Heroes Project is simple:

We find these Giraffe Heroes and we tell their stories in our publications, on our website, in schools and in traditional and social media. Others see or hear these compelling stories and are inspired to solve the problems of most concern to them. We supply materials and trainings to help them succeed.

Yes, it’s that simple. And as it has for thousands of years, storytelling works. It really does change people’s attitudes and move them into action in ways more powerful than admonitions and threats. And we have the mountains of anecdotes to prove it.

As you might expect, we try to learn what makes these extraordinary people tick. Why do these Giraffe Heroes do what they do, why they take these risks and work so hard? Nobody pays them to do it. Nobody orders them to do it.

Many of them tell us, in so many words, that ours is a foolish question. The problem or conflict was right in front of them, they’ll say, and nobody else was acting—so what else were they supposed to do?

But the more you talk to them the clearer it gets that Giraffe Heroes are motivated by a strong sense that what they’re doing is meaningful to them—that is, that it satisfies a personal sense of purpose at the core of their being.

It’s this deep conviction that then drives them forward. It’s what makes them so effective in solving problems and so inspiring to people who hear their stories.

Have you experienced this? Do you know what I mean?

OK, if meaning is this important, it’s fair to ask—

Where does one find such meaning for a life?

In yearning for some apocalyptic battle against those who don’t share your religious beliefs?

Perhaps for a time.

Can you find it by collecting a lot of money and power? Yes, many seem to find meaning in that, at least for a time.

But I don’t think, and I don’t think you do either, that such sources are very stable or very satisfying over the long term.

And again, we go back to Giraffe Heroes for guidance.

Almost universally they tell us, with their actions and their words, that the most powerful, stable and satisfying source of meaning in their lives is service—

Helping solve important public problems,

Being changemakers and peace builders.

Making life better for other people.

Being of service drives them to do what they do.

Time after time we see and hear this, across all ages and ethnic groups, across continents and cultures—it’s the personal meaning they find in service that motivates and sustains Giraffe Heroes to take on difficult tasks and succeed. That’s the core of their stories, and it’s the basis of the powerful new narrative we’re seeking, a new narrative of peace, courage, responsibility and compassion.

It’s the perfect counter to the old narrative that threatens us today, the narrative based on corruption, grievances, ignorance, fear, economic injustice and bad leadership.

Do you hear this new narrative in your own heart?

Many have. Many people have found meaning in service, in bettering the lives of other people. I’ve watched them form new narratives.

Watched them use those narratives to fuel their commitment and energy to take on tough tasks and succeed—and to experience the satisfaction of living their lives to the fullest.

What’s been true for me and true for Giraffe Heroes is or will be true for you. I guarantee it.

It doesn’t matter if your service is big or small. Every one of us has and will have unique opportunities to make a difference in our communities and in our nations.

This year’s election campaign in Ghana will provide many for you. What can you do to help keep it free, fair and nonviolent?

A successful life is about spotting those opportunities and acting on them.

The only mistake you can make is to ignore the quest, to live and die without every having made a difference.

So here’s the take-away from this talk. The answers to violence can’t be limited to security forces and stable institutions although those are important. The problem is just too deep for that. We need a whole new brave and compassionate narrative to replace the narrative that now feeds on corruption, grievances, ignorance, fear, economic injustices and bad leadership. A new narrative based on individuals and nations finding a deeper meaning for their existence, one based on service.

And while this afternoon I’ve talked mostly about Ghana’s internal situation, much the same strategy, in my opinion, must be used to destroy the power of radical Islam to attract angry young men. Their old narrative must broken and replaced.

Peacemaking is hard.

Standing up to say hard truths and to do hard things when you have to is not only hard; it can be dangerous.

Taking personal responsibility for the changes you want to see in your communities in nation is hard, including fighting corruption and economic injustice wherever you see it.

Creating a compelling vision for others to follow you into a new narrative is hard.

You lead at whatever levels you are called to lead, in your community, at your place of work, in your nation.

What role is there for you, specifically you, as an agent of change? Only you can know that. You lift up that corner of the rug you can reach.

The American poet Mary Oliver asks:

'Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?'

What a question!

It may be the most important question any of us will ever ask.

Never give up the search for meaning in your life and never settle for anything less.

Ask what you can do with your talents, your experience, your resources.

Find the challenge or problem that you care about, the one with your name on it. The one where you help build a peaceful and successful nation.

Then take this challenge on.

This is your new narrative.

As you do this work, with your one wild and precious life—

Do it to help solve the problem.

Do it to help make your country and the world a better place

But also do it for you—for the joy and fulfillment of living a meaningful life.

John Graham is the author of 'Stick Your Neck Out; A Street-smart Guide to Creating Change in Your Community and Beyond' (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005) and 'Sit Down Young Stranger' (Langley: Packard Books, 2008). He is also President of the Giraffe Heroes Project and a former US diplomat.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.