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The Oman/Zanzibar tour began with a visit to the Al Amana Center in Muscat, Oman. Muslim and Christian leaders from Zanzibar, Kenya, and Denmark briefly toured some of Oman’s most noteworthy spots, while we shared presentations on our work and ministries. After a couple days we loaded our eclectic selves onto a plane to conference in the interfaith center named ZANZIC (Zanizibar Inter-faith Center) located in Stonetown, Zanzibar.
Zanzibar has an interesting historical connection with our dear Oman…and the deeper discovery of this connection in our past began to unfold over the trip, while the potential for more collaboration together in our future was explored.
ZANZIC’s home, Stone Town, is a world heritage site, and Zanzibar is neighbor and semi autonomous to Tanzania and the Indian Ocean. It’s a place where seaweed and tourism, spices and raffia palms make up the economic thrust. It is small, yet vast in cultural diversity and beauty. Walking through the streets you are exposed to the plenteous aroma of spices, safari paintings, handmade products of all kinds from clothing to cooking utensils, wood carvings, even our familiar Omani designed doors- intricately carved patterns on wood meant to be a sign of hospitality and welcome. Waters always have great potential for conflict as well as diversity and cultural integration, and Oman found its way to Zanzibar thru its oceanic borders. The Sultanate of Oman was established in 1698, eventually cultivating a unique mutually beneficial relationship as opposed to classic colonization. The Omani Sultan’s presence in the 19th century is marked most obviously by the Sultan’s Palace museum and the museum of the Arabian Princess Selma.
We trickled into our assigned hotels all day Wednesday, Thursday we were sprinkled with the presence of more Zanzibari, Tanzanian and Kenyan religious leaders that added more crucial insight and experience to our discussions. We learned about each ministry these leaders represented, how it works within their contexts, the political, cultural and religious factors that contribute to peace or undermine it, and shared our strategies for building peace. We covered such an incredibly wide range and diversity of topics that we committed to narrowing down the content from all of our contexts to a single theme at the next conference we would have together.
Thursday and Friday we opened up with a short message from a religious leader, had morning session, lunch together, and an afternoon session. We enjoyed traditional Zanzibari seafood Thursday evening at a local restaurant where we were serenaded by young male Sufi musicians who bravely, shyly, and generously shared their culture with us.
That night monsoon season seemed to greet us, or rather, smother us, on all sides, as we traversed back and forth through the flooded streets of the historic Stonetown to our hotels, hanging all our drenched clothing out to dry. The next day was our last full conference day, and the evening was to be finished off with a dinner hosted by our friends, Danish leaders of ZANZIC in their home. Through these casual dinners we enjoyed each other’s company through food and fun, practicing the essential community building that strengthens collaboration and peace.
As for conference discussions, one of the main themes often guiding interfaith conversation is how to ensure that our religious freedoms, practices and passions do not violate human rights. Human rights must be the lowest common denominator between two or more religious clashes in a country. Ensuring each group gets equal human rights is a good way to compromise and protect society from conflict and violence that harms individuals or restrains communities. Therefore one of the broader ideas that streamed through the specificity of our contexts were the difference between human rights and religious freedom.
We also did an interesting exercise that illuminated and named the societal, ethnic, religious, and cultural identities to increase the awareness of ourselves, and the meanings that our appearances and social identities may possibly communicate to the world.
Zanzibar Interfaith Center’s headline on its website states, “Because religion is part of the problem it also needs to be part of the solution.” Peacebuilding requires the awareness of the actions our own religious identifications have made in the past and its impact on society. ZANZIC’s headline stated above shows awareness of the reality that religion can impact society negatively, while also claiming its even greater healing power and redemptive capacities.
ZANZIC offers a variety of opportunities for peace building in the community such as teaching conflict transformation, youth work, even a diploma course in intercultural relations. One of the programs we had direct contact with was Upendo.
Upendo means “love” and was developed in 2009. It supports the interfaith center on the top floor literally, and arguably, figuratively. It is a sewing school that has opened up for both Christian and Muslim local women with the goal of building peace while creating trendy or classic clothing and other handmade products. These women live out the daily ordinariness that peace building sometimes requires. Just like the products are made, peace is built. Quality peace and products take more time, growth in skill and attention to detail. Peace is created, it is learned – it is not always easy, you will make mistakes that you sometimes have to scrap and attempt to fix, yet the results show the struggle has been worthwhile, whether you begrudgingly surrender your project that disappoints you to the “utilitarian” or “functional” category, or whether you end up with a surprisingly beautiful treasure. Results don’t always show quickly, sometimes they move incrementally, because the commitment to the end product of peace requires long term vision. Patience, concentration, imagination, hope. These women working side by side may not be ending war or winning a Nobel Peace prize, but they play an essential role in the fabric of their societal wellbeing by engaging in trust and relationship with the “Other” around them, rather than allowing distance and prejudice to take over. They not only pass this over to their husbands, families and friends, but pass it down to their children. This work is generational, communal, and it can be taught and learned.
Saturday morning, we debriefed together at the top of the popular Swahili house that arguably offers one of the best views of Stonetown. We discussed what we learned, what was successful, assessed whose voices we needed to hear more of, and potential collaborations between our organizations. We tried creating more attempts to collaborate, however awkward it seemed, knowing that sometimes visions and designs don’t always come out like they were intended but not letting go of hope. In these conversations and beautiful moments of learning about and exploring one another’s worlds and homes, we cling to a vision that our relationships with one another pass and multiply peace in our contexts and beyond.
Ms. Laurel Pals is seminary student in Western Theological Seminary. She was a volunteer with Al Amana Centre during Spring 2018 and attended the seminar in Zanzibar representing Al Amana Centre.
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