Sunday, April 30, 2017

Making a Difference Through Peer Mediation

Manenberg Peer Mediation Training Report
April’s arrival marked our exciting launch of the Peer Mediators Program for the three secondary schools of Manenberg (Phoenix, Manenberg, and Silverstream). The program got underway, after a year of preparation, with a 4-day training held at the beautiful La Bri Olive Farm and Holiday Venue in Franschhoek.
This innovative program brings students together from the three schools for the purposes of cross-community learning, relationship-building, and support as mediation begins. They have similar issues related to gang violence that spill onto the campuses. SADRA’s program gives them a foundational understanding of the nature of conflict as well as empowering them with practical skills and confidence for resolving conflicts non-violently.

Prior to coming together, some students were nervous to meet those from other schools. Overcoming this barrier and providing them with a way to build relationships in a safe space was important. By the end of the 2nd day, attitudes were changing – crossed arms gave way to hugs and laughter; school boundaries evaporated.
Our goal was to have 15 students from each school with an even mix of genders, and students young enough to help with the continuation of the program.  We ended up with 37, having a harder time attracting boys to the program. In the end we had 30% boys, 70% girls, with 57% of the participants coming from Silverstream. Two-thirds of the students speak Afrikaans at home, and most are from a Muslim background.

Each day included many hours devoted to conflict understanding and the skills needed for non-violent conflict resolution, such as active listening, paraphrasing and negotiation. These skills were practised in numerous role play scenarios of situations familiar to them from school or family, and they practiced in every role. Group games were used for recreation, team-building and learning, and daily activities broke up the lesson times.

A big hit was the mosaic craft project led by employees of Douglas Jones Mosaics in Cape Town, who also donated all materials. The youth were shown how to make mosaic art on panels and pots using glass or ceramic tiles. Some of these projects were spectacular, and many presents for mothers and schools were made.  Sitting with a table of young women, I discovered each one had a story of losing an immediate family member to a premature death – accidents, violence – all shared while patiently gluing tiles as we sat elbow to elbow.

While this farm was only an hour from their suburb of Cape Town, the youth had never been out this far, and were at first both squirrely and uncomfortable being outside. After getting through first day squabbles about dorm beds and hidden cigarettes, we got them moving. There were daily elective activities including a 7km hike to the reservoir, a tour of the olive farm, sports (soccer and netball) and more mosaics.

“What’s that smell?” The youth I was walking with through the wooded area asked with crumpled noses. “That is the smell of decaying leaves,” I responded, “where I used to live, in Seattle, we have this smell most of the year and I know it well.” Eyes wide, they poked under rocks, admired flowers, and jumped at imaginary snakes for the first time in their lives.   

But the biggest transformations came from working with the material. Nearly half the students started our workshop saying conflict is a negative thing and trying to avoid it at all costs. Then they learned how to analyse it, how to speak to it, how to contribute positively to resolve it, and their excitement was tangible. Shy girls found their voices; bossy girls learned to give others space. In exit evaluations, a quarter of the students voluntarily mentioned having gained self-confidence; one third of the boys specifically said they learned how to communicate and listen.

On the final day it was very exciting to witness their enthusiasm and ability to implement mediation. All of them left believing they can use Peer Mediation and help others resolve conflicts.

We will continue to meet with the youth weekly until they are ready to mediate on their own, and we expect to certify them by the end of May.
These Silverstream Secondary School girls gave quote-worthy statements summing up their experience of the training.

Zanele Kolo: “It [this workshop] has put so much change in my life now I am able to solve conflicts that are happening and I’m now starting to believe in myself.”

Shenay Botman: “I will walk with the key of a problem  solver.”   

– written by Kathryn Smith Derksen, photos by Dan Smith Derksen

Friday, March 3, 2017

Dear family and friends,

We’ve had a full and difficult month in many ways – Jacob has been sick, we moved for the third time in thirteen months, and thanks to a contentious divorce between the house’s owners, our move was made quite stressful. But we are happy in our new place and both boys are settling well into their new school routines. Here is our new address:

16 Koopman St.
Strand, Western Cape 7140
South Africa
John Clair and Jacob in front of our new house!
Bunny Yang enjoying some peace in the new side yard, while the landlord's dogs watch through a fence.
Our work with SADRA has also sailed along, with the acquisition of a new office in Somerset West. Oscar’s dream of all three of us dispersing daily – Oscar to the serious community dispute east of us he is currently mediating, Dan in the office working out logistics, Kathryn in Cape Town representing SADRA at European Union funding meetings – has finally been realized.
Kathryn, outside SADRA's European Union meeting last week. 
Oscar and Dan before our European Union consultation, where Oscar explained how conflict and crises management is instrumental in curbing community problems. 
Since October, Dan and I have been taking an online course through Eastern Mennonite University, as recommended by Mission Network. It’s on Cross-Cultural Discipleship, taught by Linford Stutzman, and final papers were turned in last week. So rather than writing a long update, I thought we could share excerpts from our final reflections. These are written for a seminary course, so feel free to skip if not your cup of tea. :)


From where you are now, think about the world of the future. Describe some of your “hopes and fears” as someone with a perspective that has developed from at least two different places – at home and in a country far away from home.

Dan:  It’s easy to look at today’s societal structures and see how closely they resemble those of the past… human interactions based on positions of power, wealth and status are still much the same as they’ve always been. From the opening chapters of the Bible we read about the conflicts within one family over matters of wealth and status. These same issues plague our world and play out on the global stage with devastating consequences.

The fact that we can read accounts of the rise and fall of empires from thousands of years ago and find such similarity in our modern age, especially as Americans, means that we can and must look at the past to predict something about the future. Empires have always fallen and I expect this is already happening with the USA.  As followers of Christ, this is not something to fear, since our Kingdom is not of this world. But as Christians we have a duty to serve the “least of these” of this world. Many do not know any other kingdom, and if our faith and religion is not able to show them something better, then where does hope come from for them?

Religion, sadly, is being used again like in the days of the Holy Roman Empire crusades on Jerusalem, to defend an agenda which is antithetical to Jesus’ Kingdom and serves only to drive people further apart…. The good news that we aim to share as Jesus’ followers, is that God loves peace and justice, mercy and grace.  May we always be authentic participants in Jesus’ movement.

Kathryn:  I am not a person to project into the future – I believe there is nothing new under the sun, and while things seem chaotic now, they have been so in the past. The more I travel and see, the more I learn about myself, my context, and my faith. It was studying in Washington DC that taught me Mennonites are radicals; visiting an archeology museum in Barcelona that showed me complicated history stretches back for millennia; and living in the Ugandan bush in war-times which tested my reliance on God for me and my baby.

I have hopes that people will learn to let go of fear, and desire to bridge the divides between us. I am horrified at the things I am hearing from the States – human rights abuses and hate crimes, but also name-calling and continued polarization between sides. If I was not living in South Africa, with its recent example of Mandela, Ubuntu (traditional forgiveness based on connectedness) and peaceful democratic turnover, I would be sure Civil War was coming to the US. Linford’s prophetic chapter on Paul speaks truth – the American church needs to be delivered from the enticement of success and the fear of decline as an institution – I cannot say it better. America has become like Rome, and we have lost Jesus’ message of caring for orphans, aliens, and neighbors. I hope that we, as privileged Christians, can see and respond to the suffering around us, including the injustices of the free market and America’s foreign policies. May God’s words from the minor prophets strike us anew, and may we find wisdom and compassion for the hard days ahead.

I hope that the church will wake up and realize they are meant to be counter-cultural. As a Mennonite, I don’t need the State to be fashioned to my faith, I just need freedom like any other religion. And yet Christians of all types have been wooed into a comfortable place within the empire, and we have lost our visionary voice. I was recently in a Bible study with white South Africans and we looked at the Beatitudes. One woman voiced her relief that we are not persecuted anymore, but I know she is afraid to walk by herself outside or drive across town; she quietly puts up with colleagues telling racist jokes, and continues to benefit from Apartheid economics. It was hard to find a gentle moment to suggest perhaps we need to be persecuted a little more than we currently are…


from where you are now, describe how you know that Jesus is alive and present in the place you are serving, and how you envision the church will be…

Kathryn: God worked a miracle in South Africa twenty years ago, and the fruit of those events is still evident. There is a lot of work to do yet: a whole new generation of young folk are discouraged by broken promises, or feel entitled, and the democracy itself needs to mature through its growing pains. But as Desmond Tutu humbly says, “There, but for the grace of God go I,” even after listening to the terrible stories on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. If he can find hope and thankfulness for God’s mercy after listening to some of the worst stories in modern history, then I know Jesus is at work. And if hope is a way of life and not just a feeling, then I do have hope.

And what about the Church? The South African Church struggled the whole time with Apartheid; in fact, some instigated this legalization of racism. Denominations and families were irreparably divided by what they believed was truth and how they lived it. When it came down to it, many Christians were able to live with injustice and rationalize it biblically and from the pulpit. I fear the US is headed in this same direction. Churches and their leaders must be faithful to Jesus’ social gospel and choose to be pilgrims moving in the direction of the Kingdom of God. Some big tests are ahead for the Church, and I pray that we find light and truth.

Dan: In our work with SADRA Conflict Transformation, we talk about interconnectedness. We try to help people think about the ways in which we need each other. One of the barriers we bump up against in dialogue is the economic factor, as it’s easy to see where the disadvantaged need those with more means, but much harder to identify the need in reverse.  Helping work through this one-way thinking is a key component for us in the identity work we do which accompanies the understanding and management of conflict. For me, this is part of the calling as a follower of Jesus, who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and who also went into the areas where others feared to go and made contact or spent time with those whom many had rejected. As his followers, we must also be willing to do likewise.

South Africa has survived its past. Working with people like our director, Reverend Oscar Siwali, who is a beacon of light shining toward a better future, is what gives me hope and faith that the Church, through faithful followers of Jesus like him, will survive any war, scourge or menace the men of this country, and the world, can inflict upon one another.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Hello again. Due to poor Internet connections, we were unable to send the pictures that were to accompany the last update where we wrote about our experiences beating swords into plowshares.  Now we have some pictures to share to go with the story.

Protests started up in the fall with a march to Parliament by students and staff of the area universities - Dan and I observed along with dozens of newly trained Peace Justice Witnesses. Police showed up in riot gear, and unfortunately there were several injuries and arrested students at the end of the day.

Dan helped with night shifts at several universities that struggled with unrest and private security terrorizing the resident population. Below are pictures of one of the many damaged buildings, and just a few of the rubber bullets one could find after an evening of "containment."

PJWs were asked to "lend an eye" to events, especially when security showed up in droves. This picture of our presence at a solidarity concert at our nearest University, you can see one of the white private security trucks (looks like a tank) in the street behind Kathryn.

The Khayelitsha pastors that joined the night shifts and then took it over as part of the peace negotiations with the mediators are heroes in their own right. They prayed with students as they walked around the campuses, and offered a calming presence after the private security left. 
Dan working as a Peace Justice Witness during a protest march on Parliament.
Police in riot gear to control crowds at the Parliament protest march.
Kathryn holding rubber bullets picked up on one of the university campuses.
Church leaders from Khayelitsha who prayer-walked the campuses at night. Pastors Majambe; Moss; Tyeke; Hlobo and Woman Pastor Nonjola.
Kathryn as Peace Justice Witness during protest concert in Stellenbosch.
Front view of one of the university dormitories.
We had a beautiful visit to Kampala and then Kitgum, Uganda for Christmas. We took a lot of pictures, and just share a few here. If you would like to see more, just let us know! 
An important to-do in Kampala was to visit the hospital where John-Clair was born - here is a picture of our family in the actual birthing room.
In Kitgum we found a lot of previous co-workers, friends, and our host family. It was truly amazing. Here's a picture of me with one of my old choir students - he is now the director of the Cathedral choir! He still remembers the staff notation I taught him. 
Some members of our host family from CamCam - their ability to smile after everything they've been through is humbling, and the warm hugs we received the entire trip buoyed us for our ongoing, difficult work in South Africa. 
Bishop Ochola was same playful and yet serious at the same time self - he gave us six hours undivided attention, and never tired. He was our direct supervisor most of our time in Uganda, and we were honored to be with him all over again. He is still hard at work in ecumenical peace work, retired means nothing...
Sun and clouds over Padibe, where displaced persons campus have finally been cleared and everyone is finding their feet at farming again.
Co-workers from the Diocese brought us up to speed, sharing the joys of relative peace now that the LRA are elsewhere, but also the difficulties of reorganizing the land after a generation has been in the camps. Rev Samuel is trained as a peaceworker and mediator, and he uses his skills regularly to deal with land disputes.
Dear family and friends,

Merry Christmas and Happy New year! Our first 2017 update will not be a recap (you know so much of our year already!) but a special true-life “swords-into-ploughshares” peace story from our work here in South Africa. If you don’t know that reference – old Biblical prophets talked about future societal transformation appearing when weapons are changed into life-giving tools. As Mennonites, we don’t think too much about end-times, but instead believe the Kingdom of God is now – that the peace and love of Jesus is for this moment, that we are called to work for peace wherever we are, and even prophecies about weapons turning into ploughs can happen, today.

The Situation

Years of growing tension and regular protesting by public University students culminated in a series of University shut-downs this fall. Violence across the nation was reported – one library burnt, some buildings and equipment damaged and students arrested. Students are protesting rising school fees and a continuing curriculum of white privilege, and service staff were joining in as they have lost contracts with benefits. This is not just about unruly students. These protests are a microcosm of unrest for the country – disenfranchisement with the young democracy and underlying anger and distrust across race and class divides. Universities have vacillated in their response between pacify or punish, and as more of society has been brought into it, good leaders have realized that issues needed to finally be addressed. Our director, Oscar, has been the lead mediator, working with several mediation-skilled colleagues. Dan and I became Peace Justice Witness (PJW) observers, walking two of the four campuses in our region regularly, and helping organise the team on the ground. Getting to know student leadership and school administrators, building trust for dialogue, and monitoring demonstrations have all been integral to preparing the ground for mediation.

The Swords

As the end of term loomed and school fees for next year went up yet again, students took to the streets and organized protests to Parliament. Concerned schools hired private security companies to come patrol campuses and protect property. Our PJW observers saw what this meant in real terms – militarized men in full riot gear breaking down dorm doors, shooting out windows, and otherwise terrorising student residences. Girls were left vulnerable in rooms that couldn’t lock, and students were arrested without fair process. Student residences looked like war zones. Trash hadn’t been collected for two months; students with no money to return home were stranded feeling more than just demoralized, but traumatized. Dan had a week of night-shifts with other volunteers, and noted that these special private security forces at night were mostly white-skinned ex-military with a history of abusing blacks under Apartheid. They took to this mandate to intimidate students very readily, and we were shocked by some of the things we saw. One evening, security delayed our teams entering the campus for over an hour, and then insisted we leave by midnight. PJW observers stayed by the campus walls, and sure enough, ten minutes after we had been escorted out, the firing of rubber bullets was heard.

The Ploughshares

Our PJW teams, made up of dozens of volunteers from churches, civic organisations and concerned parents, wrote up their observations and eye-witness reports which were compiled and shared. Volunteers organized garbage pickups and clean-up activities. Universities realized they could not simultaneously be in negotiations with student leaders while paying private security who caused more grievances for the students. They agreed to drop “the big guns” and brought back regular campus security. Then our team decided to invite pastors from Khayelitsha, a nearby black township, to join PJWs patrolling the campuses at night. A group (including women) willingly were trained and took over the night shifts, walking the campuses while praying. Students welcomed this new interaction, even requesting counselling support on the spot. As exams started and the mediators continued to bring students and campus leadership together, a sense of calm prevailed. Staff returned to campus, helped with clean-up, and day-shift PJWs reported students walking around freely and at ease. As pastors continued to volunteer eight hours a night, night after night, campus administrators had such positive feedback from the students they decided to pay these pastors for ongoing “prayer walk” patrols. This was significant – most of these township pastors have very meagre incomes, and the relatively small wages they now earned from this service meant a great deal to them. The universities saved money on security while contributing to the livelihoods of these selfless neighbours, and the campuses were more secure.

In a period of less than two weeks, the entire situation had turned around, thanks to many hands working quickly to make a difference. From a coercive approach to a respectful one, from real fear to actual dialogue, from literal weapons to symbolic ploughshares, the outcome was beyond what we had all thought possible.

It’s not over. Mediators and PJWs met in December to prepare for next year’s anticipated unrest. Each of our four universities is at a different place in the process of listening and dealing with the problems on their campus. But we are more experienced now, and have renewed belief in the power of peace. SADRA has had meetings with the University closest to us, and has been invited to give conflict transformation workshops to student residence leaders. As one Student Life staff said, “Our campuses are where young South Africans learn to live together – many don’t have a chance to learn how before they end up in our residences. If we fail to support them in these four years, how will we build a nation?” His vision is insightful and progressive, and the need is real. With a renewed energy and hope, we will need to hit the new year running.

Thank you for your continued prayers and support. May you enjoy a peaceful and joyful New Year.

Kathryn, for all the Smith Derksens

Smith Derksens visiting Kampala, Uganda.
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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Year in Review

Dear Friends and Family,

Greetings after yet another month! It’s a good time to review the work we’ve been doing in South Africa, both to provide an update on projects and an overview of what our work entails. After ten months, we can better describe what “peace-work” is in this place and our role within it, although as always, it continues to evolve based on needs, resources, and how the work itself unfolds.  Our primary work is with SADRA (Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency), founded and led by Pastor Oscar Siwali.

  • Peace Education/Peer Mediation: Besides supporting Oscar with Peace trainings for school admin and the Peer Mediation programs started before we arrived, we have helped develop a new initiative in Manenberg. Three high schools besieged with gang activity and neighbourhood instability are choosing students for us to train as peer mediators. We’ve met two of the three groups of students, and are working on the logistics for a week-long intensive training, planned for January but dependent on funding.
  • Leadership training: Dan assisted a large pastor’s forum from Khayelitsha, the oldest township in Western Cape, to reorganize themselves and help their leadership function. Oscar did some work with them, but they were struggling to own healthy processes of interaction as a group. Dan spent months working on their visioning, constitution and leadership roles. His being an outsider helps – he’s allowed them to make it their own process in a fresh way. Now other forums are starting to ask for similar facilitation.
Dan and Kathryn with several local pastors.  Oscar is next to Kathryn.
  • Cross-community dialogues: Kathryn has been more involved with the relationship-building and seed planting necessary to bring different community leaders together. One area has started dialogue meetings, and Kathryn has led the last two, with Dan’s help. Oscar says, “sometimes it helps to have our white faces at the table” and we enjoy this transformative work, seeing people who would normally never talk to each other learn to respect and interact constructively together.
  • Observing/Peace Witnesses: Our original involvement with elections now includes observing the current student protests – much in the vein of Christian Peacemaker Teams – believing that both protesters and police are better behaved when neutral outsiders are witnessing their behaviour. What in fact happens comes into question in volatile situations, and monitors are needed to help with truth-telling.
    Monitoring and Evaluation materials: Speaking of reporting, M&E is integral to this kind of work, and Kathryn is developing appropriate materials for SADRA to both corroborate and develop our training materials to be more effective. Are students using mediation skills at home? Are classroom conflicts less frequent? Has gang activity and membership changed since starting our program?  
  • Networking: We attend events, such as the Restitution Conference Kathryn is presenting a paper at in November, and representing SADRA, with its unique voice as a locally-based peace initiative to a wider audience. At these forums, we learn and build relationships with those doing similar work, and these connections become potential resources for SADRA. The stakeholders’ meetings we’ve hosted in Manenberg also come under this category – many people work in this troubled spot, but they have not coordinated well, foreign grants are short-lived or have not been transparent, and local people feel unheard. Nurturing learning from each other and filling in the gaps make all our respective programs more effective.
  • Fundraising and partnering:  This has included writing/editing proposals for funding, meeting with embassies and potential funders, and networking with other non-profits for the specific purpose of partnering. SADRA is small and young, and previous funding is not available. For example, an NGO is training classroom support volunteers in one of our schools – we can add conflict management to the training, reinforcing all our programs. It’s also time to find long-term local partners, much like you are to us. Kathryn has presented to several groups about our peace work, so new groups are learning about SADRA’s mission. The long-term stability of SADRA rests on finding regular support from several sectors.
    Capacity building/Institutional support: As we update our specific job descriptions, this might become a bigger part of what we do, along with fundraising. Oscar has run SADRA programming brilliantly and now needs help with social media, documenting projects, and generally getting the name of SADRA out to the wider community for support. Dan is applying his skills to things like making business cards, a brochure, website design, etc.
  • Other partners – ANISA, Bethany Bible School, Grace Community Churches: We have had some time with these other partners – Kathryn recently attended the intensive meetings with ANISA (Anabaptist Network in South Africa, a local initiative with intentional pacifist presence) and their new coordinator. Dan is speaking at the Bible school’s commencement ceremony this weekend, and planning for peace trainings next year. Recently, we helped co-facilitate a GCC pastoral couples’ retreat.
Kathryn with some of her new friends made after a week of learning and connecting - Lydia (Burundi), Zodwa (South Africa), Kathryn, KK (Lesotho), Naomih (Uganda), Amina (Sudan), and Comfort (Nigeria) in front. May there be peace in Africa!!
For us personally, October included some good family time. During the boys’ school break, we travelled to the Cederberg Mountains and saw rock paintings which are several thousand years old. Then we visited the city of Kimberley where many of SA’s diamonds have come from over the years. We had a fascinating tour there in the mine museum before going on to meet our new colleagues in Bloemfontein.

Each of us has been active in various artistic endeavours.  We are all involved in a choral Christmas Cantata (same church as the Easter concert). Besides all singing in the choir, Kathryn has been asked to conduct, and we will sing a quartet as a family. John-Clair has a good classical guitar teacher now at Stellenbosch University, and both boys performed in a school musical as well as a youth drama club show. Jacob is exploring dance school – trying contemporary dance. These times of enjoying artistic pursuits are precious and they give us a different platform to share about our work and invite others into new relationships. We are thankful we're able to get involved in these opportunities.

Thank you for your continued love, prayers and support.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Kathryn presents at South Africa's first-ever Restitution Conference


Yesterday's opening of this inaugural conference on the subject of Restitution was a deeply meaningful and spiritual experience. The conference is being held in the Castle of Good Hope, which is the oldest remaining colonial structure in South Africa. All participants upon entering, were guided on a pilgrimage of reflection through the castle grounds. At eight stations, we were led to consider the people most deeply affected by colonialism and apartheid. Moments of silence were also augmented with collective litanies read together as prayers for the country's continued healing. For us, the messages celebrating diversity and prayers for reconciliation across divisions were like a balm soothing our heavy hearts.

Please click on the link below to learn more about this very important conference. You can scroll through the program and read about some of the topics being discussed. Kathryn shares today at 1:30 under the subject heading of, "Coming to Restitution."

RESTITUTION - Something for Everyone