D is for… Dinner!
In this series of short blogs, we’re working through the alphabet to highlight the approaches – some more surprising than others – that we take at CHIPS to grassroots peacemaking!
Nothing brings people together like food. Indeed, our English word ‘companion’ actually derives from the Latin companis and suggests people who come ‘together with bread’.
Science proves it too: a few years back, a study by experts at the University of Chicago showed that eating a meal together promotes trust between strangers and makes them more likely to build a rapport.
Food for thought
At CHIPS, we’re in no doubt – not only that food brings strangers together, but that it brings enemies together too.
Perhaps that’s why the Bible tells us: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (Proverbs 25:21). Certainly, across 56 years of work in regions as diverse as Africa, Asia and the UK, we have seen this truth play out over and again.
In our Brixton project, community meals have been at the heart of our approach from the beginning. At first, we struggled to attract attendees for our weekly dinner on the estate. So, we started to eat outside in the car park, with a ‘freecycled’ table, an old broken bench and a few chairs from the flat.
We looked ridiculous, but it got us noticed and opened up a whole range of possibilities. From there, we were able to build some fantastic relationships – such as one young mum and her kids who came to eat and play games with us every week for two years, which proved to be valuable support for her during a hard time in her life.
Building new bonds of friendship
Our community meals are now very popular – and we no longer eat in the car park! Today, they continue to prove a powerful way of bringing strangers together from different estates and postcodes, who might otherwise be – or go on to become – enemies. Since 2016, we estimate that we’ve served up over 1,100 meals including at least 500 plates of jollof rice!
In fact, one of the most common questions we get when we invite people to any community event is a hopeful ‘Will there be food?’ Eating together is a key part of helping young people and their families to build new bonds of friendship – from a games and movie night with young people during the summer holidays, to our Big Community Lunch which we organise with a number of other local charities and which around 450 people have attended over the last three years.
But the peacemaking power of food is not limited to Brixton – we know that it’s something that transcends different cultures because we’ve seen it at work in all of our projects.
For example, the CHIPS Ghana team is an ethnically mixed group which lives and works together on land where some of the first people were killed in the major outbreak of violence in 1994.
Four families from both sides of the divide live at our base, and eating together is an important part of their shared lives. In this way, eating together becomes a practical example for the community of how people from opposing sides can live together in peace.
Sharing dinner also takes a central place at the end of year celebrations we hold for each of our projects in Ghana. This might include freshly roasted chickens or a goat or sheep, served up with rice or fufu (a local staple made from pounding together in a mortar cassava, yam or plantain to become sticky).
In Ghanaian culture, if someone holds a grudge with another person, they cannot share a meal with them. So, sharing meals with people from opposing tribes at our base, through community projects or during important occasions such as weddings, naming ceremonies or funerals, goes a long way to demonstrating the forgiveness that’s so important in building peace!
Over time, we’ve also been encouraged to see people from our mixed-tribe self-help groups begin to make the journey to ‘enemy’ villages to spend time with the families and associates of their new friends on the other side for meals and refreshments.
In Ghana, eating together is a more intimate experience than we are used to in Western culture. It typically involves taking food with your hands from the same common pot. For people from opposing sides, that can mean taking a big risk (you might be worried poisoning, for example) – but it also means that lasting trust can be successfully built.
Perhaps most significantly of all, we’ve even seen how eating together can save lives. Several years ago in Uganda, a violent raid was under way when one of the invaders recognised a villager on the opposing side who we had eaten with on a CHIPS project. He gave the villager a warning to escape with his family, and helped save his enemy’s life.
All good reasons why Dinner deserves a place in the CHIPS A-Z of practical peacemaking!