Dreaming of sunflowers, and peace

This morning, I was thinking about sunflowers. We planted some of them in the back garden a few years ago, and they keep returning, in smaller numbers, even though we don’t plant them. It reminded me of a story I read more than a decade ago, about a youth reform group in Kibera, just outside Nairobi. They had decided to clear an area of rubbish, and plant a garden, and they planted sunflowers to leach chemicals out of the soil.

Their project attracted a lot of attention at the time, and I was wondering how that garden was doing, or if it still exists, a decade later. And in turn, that got me to thinking about some of the stories that never get written up – ones that are just as powerful in terms of creating change, but not ones you’d find on the internet.

I was thinking of two in particular – one from Sudan and one from South Sudan – and how I learned to hear the stories I was being told.

Being an evaluator is never very comfortable,, because you are seen as making judgements about work others have done, often in situations you’ve never been in yourself. And that is especially so when the projects are intended to create change in how people think.

In one case, the project was intended to help reduce the potential for violence ahead of the 2011 referendum on whether South Sudan would become an independent state. There had been conflict ahead of the agreement that led to the vote being held, and the project’s goal was to help show people that there were alternative ways to resolve disputes.

I was sitting in a room with three or four of the men who had been working on this project, and at first, it didn’t seem as if there was much of a meeting of minds. One was engrossed in his phone; the others looked as if they were anticipating questions that would be largely irrelevant to the work they had been doing.

So I asked them if they would draw me a picture of where they had been working. And I was delighted when, as we stood in front of the flip chart papers on the wall,  they began to sketch out where they had worked, and what they had been doing. It was a story of long days of travel, of the intricacies of community hospitality, of sitting and talking with people about their lives and their communities.

Where before, when I was asking the typical kind of questions evaluators normally ask, information had been scarce, now it poured out, and I learned so much from their drawings and their explanations. I think it may have changed their idea about what kind of information I was looking for.

Then, seated around the table again, they began to tell me the stories of how they knew their work had changed things.

For one, people had begun to return strayed cattle, and that hadn’t happened for many years. It used to be that one of the young men in a family would be sent out with the cattle to find good pasture, usually carrying the family firearm for protection.

But in the years of conflict, some young men had been encouraged to loot cattle as part of their payment for fighting. The earlier system, when people would take in stray cattle and then return them and the increase once they learned who owned the cattle, had broken down.

So the men saw it as a validation of their work when they learned that people were once again taking in the cattle that strayed into their areas, and looking after them even as they tried to find out who owned them. They didn’t have numbers or case studies to support this but they knew it mattered.

Later on, in Khartoum, I found myself talking with an agricultural expert who had made peace in his village by working with his family, friends and neighbours. And again, asking him to draw a map of his village brought out information I could not have learned any other way.

As he drew, and explained what he was drawing, he mentioned that as a result of peace, the villagers were again farming in the area outside the village, where they had feared to go earlier. And because they were growing crops once again, the price of sorghum and millet – two food staples – had decreased quite dramatically in the community. This was good news for people who didn’t farm, and it also offered possibilities to build on the peace that had been established.

He and the other villagers dreamed of being able to re-establish the kind of regional markets that used to attract traders from other areas. It was the kind of project more easily classified as a ‘livelihood’ project than a ‘peacebuilding’ project, but if they’d found a way to carry it out, it would have been both.

I was excited about the finding because it gave me ‘quantitative’ data – the lower prices of staple crops could be compared against the previous prices, and that was one way to show the ‘peace dividend’ of his work. But for him, what mattered was that his village again lived in peace.

These are not the kind of stories that lend themselves to being spread all over the internet as the Kibera garden story. But I suspect the seeds that they plant are long-lasting, helping – like those sunflowers – to draw toxins out of the ground.

My dream is that international development and aid will look for stories like these and then find ways to nurture their growth, walking with the people on the ground and helping them with the needs they identify. This would be neighbour to neighbour development, and I believe it would grow just as fast and strongly as those sunflowers.