F is for… Friendship!

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In this series of blogs, we’re working through the alphabet to highlight the approaches – some more surprising than others – that we take at CHIPS to grassroots peacemaking!

As Christian peacemakers who believe in the healing power of relationships, helping people to build friendships across divides has always been one of our primary aims. From Cyprus to the Philippines in past years and from Brixton to Ghana today, all of our projects are carefully designed to help people come together and get to know one another. Indeed, our teams say that seeing former enemies become friends is one of the real highlights of their job, and evidence that our approach is working!

Saving together

In Ghana, our susu self-help groups bring women together from the two main tribes to save money together and make loans to each other so they can expand their microbusinesses. As Andrew, our Director, says “Bringing together former enemies to trust each other with their money is quite an achievement in itself. However, it’s even more remarkable to see them become lasting friends!”

Our Ghana Team Leader, Desmond, gives the example of two Dagomba women from Nakpayili who now have new friends from the Konkomba tribe in Lungni. Having got to know each other through the susu group meetings, they now enjoy spending time with each other, sharing stories with each other and visiting each other’s communities – something they would never have dreamed of doing before!

Desmond says that when people from the two sides get to know each other properly, their attitudes and behaviours change. “They get to understand one another better and more clearly, and start to lose the prejudice and stereotypes they have been brought up with.”

Trading together

Helping people to do business together is also one of the most effective ways of building relationships, in our experience. For example, in our veterinary project, our Community Animal Health Workers often find themselves interacting across the divide and making friends from the opposing tribes – but they would be unlikely to take this step without the financial benefit they get by way of payment for treating their animals first.

The people we work with attest to the importance of trading together themselves. Rahinatu Felix is a widow with four children who used to struggle to pay for their education. But through joining a CHIPS self-help group, she now buys cassava from both Dagomba and Konkomba farmers which she processes into gari to sell at the market. Through getting to know them, her perceptions about conflict and peace have changed. She says she now has a new attitude towards the ‘other side’ and would recommend the work of CHIPS to any community willing to change and develop.

Our team leader Desmond says he has also made great new friends from the ‘other’ side – citing the example of someone he met last year through his work. They now like to watch European football matches together – and Desmond is currently advising him how to dig and build a toilet for his household, sharing his expertise from our sanitation and hygiene project!

Beating lockdown blues

Meanwhile in Brixton, our work is bringing young people together to form new friendships and strengthen existing ones.

Over the past year, the various states of lockdown have created particular challenges for young people in the area. Many live in overcrowded homes and have suffered from feeling stifled at home while at the same time isolated from their friends. This has often come at a cost to mental health and personal development.

While meeting virtually can never replace face-to-face contact, they say that our programme of online activities has helped them to stay connected.  From blog challenges to online street dance sessions, the programme has also given them opportunities to get creative and find mutual support.

Last summer between lockdowns, our group of budding young actors were also able to meet in person for our film-making project, which made a real difference. Tavia, who plays Louise in the film, was 13 years old and told us that when her school closed, she was “worried about not seeing my friends – and kind of scared because the news every day was all about the pandemic.” But as a result of the project, she says “I’m proud that me and my group have become a lot closer.”

This spring, building on last year’s work, the young people are learning about song composition from a professional musician and vocal coach. When the restrictions lift in the summer, they will then record a song based on their experiences in lockdown, which we hope will prove to be another great success in bringing young people together to forge new friendships after a difficult year.

Growing together

An important aim of our Brixton work is to help forge relationships between teenagers from different neighbourhoods, who often don’t have an opportunity to meet, and may mistrust each other or have preconceptions of each other.

By helping them to build friendships across the different postcodes and estates, we can break down the barriers which gangs are only too willing to exploit to the full and which encourage young people to become caught up in violence. Once the teenagers start to work together on a shared passion, however, they quickly realise that their ‘rivals’ are just like them, facing the same issues and concerns and with the same hopes and dreams.

Our two after-school youth groups follow the same principles, and have been able to meet together in person under the latest restrictions. It has been heart-warming to see young people bond together during the challenges of lockdown, with existing friendships strengthened and new ones formed across the different estates. CHIPS team member Kamika says that the groups have a lovely, family feel to them. “They just love to talk!”, she says, “and catching up over chicken and chips and playing games, it feels like a family sitting at the dinner table together.”

But of course, friendship isn’t just about having a good time together – it’s about supporting each other to move forward together in positive ways too. So we also use our youth groups to bring role models in from the community to share their stories and encourage and empower the teenagers to reach their full potential.

Simon Ghartey who runs the charity Progress which promotes sustainability through food for communities, recently visited us, for example. He shared his story about how he was a wayward teen who ended up on the wrong side of law one too many times, but then changed his life and set to up the charity to help other young people stay out of trouble. This inspired our young people to think about their futures too, and to share their hopes and dreams with each other.

As restrictions lift and we begin to plan our activities for the summer, that’s the type of friendship we hope to replicate across all of our activities!