A decade ago, I facilitated a dialogue in Ethiopia between two ethnic communities in conflict. In the first week, we discussed the breakdown of relationships and trust building through a joint conflict analysis exercise.
Week one ended well, with the communities developing a map of the issues and parties in the conflict and identified those that had the most power to either end or continue the violence.
The next week, we decided, we would work to identify the structural issues that kept the violence alive – such as political marginalisation or ownership of land or laws that negated people’s rights.
Feeling pleased with the week’s work, I took a trip to the nearest town and treated myself to an afternoon at the salon.
My hair was braided in an intricate pattern that had cornrows braided over other cornrows underneath. It was the most elaborate hairstyle I had ever had in my lifetime. The hairdresser said the hairstyle was in the past reserved for royalty as a symbol of stature.
On Monday morning, I walked back into the dialogue session, braided hair proudly on display, happy to continue with the discussions. We did a recap of the previous week’s activities.
I was breezing through a presentation on how ethnic identities across communities can be strengthened by identifying overlapping needs, establishing interventions that celebrate the differences between the communities and increasing exposure between the parties in conflict, when it struck me that there was something wrong.
The mood in the room was not right. Some people were looking increasingly sullen. Was it something I had said, or had there been an attack by either of the communities on each other over the weekend that had not been mentioned in the recap, I wondered?
I called for an early tea break. Cup of tea in hand, I walked up to the most sullen participant who just the week before was one of the most active, and asked him how the weekend was. “Fine,” he said curtly. “How is your family?” “Fine.”
We were quiet for a few minutes before I decided to plunge into the deep end. “Why do you and quite a number of people in this room look so unhappy?” “Nothing,” he said.
I was now beginning to panic and was wondering whether I had said something offensive when he blurted out, “Why are you wearing a [name of ethnic community] hairstyle?”
I was stunned. I told him I thought it was an Ethiopian hairstyle. He explained to me that it was a hairstyle belonging to the ethnic community his own was in conflict with. “Are you,” he asked, “as a dialogue facilitator, openly identifying with the other community by embracing their hairstyle?”
“No, no, no,” I said. I just wanted to look Ethiopian.
I decided on a compromise. I covered my hair with one of those beautiful Ethiopian scarves and went back into the session and led the participants through an exercise to identify the diverse identities a single individual has, such as a man, woman, teacher, nurse, brother, daughter, musician, Muslim, Christian or Buddhist.
We also discussed how all these identities can all co-exist in one person and how violence and ethnic tensions cause identity to become distorted. We talked about how a targeted identity, such as religion, becomes more and more important to its carrier the more it is attacked.
I then delicately introduced the subject of my beautiful “Ethiopian” hairstyle. People living in violence-affected communities tend to have a distorted view of those they are fighting. Those who belong to their community become “us” and others “them.” Pluralistic practices such as intermarriage and shared hairstyles are frowned upon and people become more and more distant from each other.
I left for home with my beautiful hairstyle intact, but in addition, a stock of Ethiopian scarves to enforce the lesson I had learnt. Since then, I have never led a dialogue session in any part of the world without a scarf covering my hair.
Alice Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]