What metaphor would you use to describe how you see yourself in the current phase of your life? What are the major disappointments that have shaped your thinking? What is the one change you need to make that will significantly increase your chances of achieving your mission?
These were a few of the questions that my fellow participants and I were encouraged to reflect on, ahead of our gathering at the April 2017 “Unyoke” Peacebuilding Retreat in South Africa.

Unyoke is organised by Chris Spies and Nomfundo Walaza, two South African peacebuilders with long decades of experience and deep wellsprings of wisdom. Their intention is to create a space in which people involved in efforts to transform violent conflict can come together to “unyoke” – to step back from our working environments, temporarily let go of the pressures and pre-occupations of our daily lives, and spend time with peers in a spirit of reflection, inquiry and community. Their conviction is that the creation of such a space can provide activists and practitioners with new energy, insight and inspiration that will enrich the quality and impact of our future work.
And so we travelled to Volmoed Retreat Centre from eight countries, and from a variety of professional settings – community work, church ministry, national and international NGOs, and UN agencies. We ranged in age from our 30s to our 60s, and spanned many racial backgrounds and life experiences. And we spent a week together listening to and learning from each other in ways that have, I think, left deep imprints on all of us.

Nomfundo and Chris created a programme which invited us to learn by sharing. As a whole group, and through one-to-one peer conversations throughout the week, we shared the joys and struggles of our personal journeys, prompted by a series of questions in advance which encouraged us to look deeply and honestly at our work and lives. These more formal parts of the process were interspersed with activities and spaces that sparked creativity, reflection and meditation; there was time for early morning walks, art classes, journaling, a hike in the mountains, and a sunset walk along the seafront in the town of Hermanus.

In our professionalised, activity-laden and outcome-oriented world of work, such an experience could be perceived as an unnecessary, and perhaps even self-indulgent, luxury. And it is true that it was an immense privilege both to travel to South Africa and to participate in a gathering of this nature. However, if I start from the perspective that personal and professional development is as relevant for peacebuilding as for any other form of work, then I would argue that we need more, not less, of the approach offered by Unyoke. We need to do more than periodically brush up on our knowledge, analysis and technical skills (as important as these are). We also need to reconnect with and strengthen what John Paul Lederach has called the “moral imagination” that underpins some of the best, most effective work our field has been doing. And experiences like Unyoke can have a valuable role part to play in this process, both for us as individuals and for peacebuilders as a community of practice.

In my case, the programme of activities taught me at least as much as any equivalent week of formal teaching or training. I benefitted greatly from hearing about the journeys of my fellow participants, and how they have grappled with the challenges of their contexts. For example, they taught me a great deal about leadership – not in terms of conceptual frameworks or idealised models – but from the stories they told of the decisions they had taken in a variety of very difficult circumstances. Despite rarely using the term ‘leadership’ to speak about their choices, their descriptions shone with just those qualities: courage, inquiry, deep understanding, vision, empowerment, collaboration, self-awareness, resilience and humility. And they will stay with me.

The process of describing and reflecting on my own personal journey also helped me to better articulate the dilemmas I face in trying to build public and political support for “rethinking security” in the UK. The experience of framing and sharing these questions was a useful step in exploring what the answers might need to look like, and what the priorities for future action should be. In addition, I realised that I need to cultivate a stronger awareness of, and focus on, identity and race issues, and, in particular, a deeper understanding of how they shape experiences of and approaches to security. I also learnt an enormous amount from the six South African participants and our two facilitators, whose life experiences anchored our conversations to the realities of the country we were staying in, and whose ongoing struggles are a reminder that the journey of transformation is never over.

I feel grateful to have come away with so much that will sustain me in the future. There are new insights, learning and questions that I intend to integrate into my ongoing work, but also new friendships, new intentions and the deep nourishment that comes from a week of living in community in a place of extraordinary natural beauty. I have new sources of hope and inspiration that refresh the deepest drivers of my work, and I feel part of a web of genuine solidarity that connects our disparate lives and situations. This truly is a gift.
Coming home, I have therefore made various commitments arising from my experience. The first commitment is to advocate for the importance of spaces like Unyoke, and to create opportunities for other peacebuilders to participate. I am particularly concerned that opportunities should be accessible not only to the peacebuilding ‘elite’, but to those who might benefit most – those who work in the most difficult and demanding situations of violent conflict, and who often access the fewest resources and sources of support. This means looking closely at barriers to participation, and in particular at financing.

The second commitment is to explore the potential to create a similar space for reflection in the European context. While there were definite benefits to participating in a South African experience, there may also be advantages in facilitating such opportunities closer to home. I am aware that others are engaged in similar experiments around the world, and I would like to see what is possible here.
Finally, I offer my gratitude to Chris Spies and Nomfundo Walaza for their vision, generosity and skill in creating this opportunity. I am indebted to my fellow participants for their openness and honesty, tears and laughter, warmth and wisdom. I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to the Social Change Initiative for the fellowship that made this experience possible for me; opportunities like this do not come along very often. And now, in the manner of a ‘talking stick’ like those we shared throughout our week together, the time has come to pass it on.

Celia McKeon,  April 2017