When Women Lead
Despina Namwembe and Grassroots Interfaith in Africa
A TIO Interview
Despina Namwembe is a force of hope to be reckoned with when it comes to grassroots interfaith work in Africa. A social scientist with a masters in peace and conflict studies, she coordinates the work of more than 30 grassroots interfaith organizations doing different social action projects in the Great Lakes countries of Africa (Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda). Additionally, as a community organizer, she mentors new leaders in organizational development. Growing up on a continent that often joins strong traditional customs with religious authority to deter full women's participation, Despina has a passion for addressing issues that support women and girls to achieve their full life potential. TIO met with her to find out more about her work and what inspires her.
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TIO: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Despina: I am called Despina Namwembe. I have a background in social work, especially in peace work. Starting at a young age, I’ve been involved with religious, ecumenical, and interfaith organizations and haven’t stopped since. The work has shaped every aspect of my life. I am married and have three children. The combination of raising a family and my interfaith work makes things a bit hectic sometimes, but both bring me incredible joy.
TIO: What tradition do you identify with and how does that fit into Uganda's religious profile?
Despina: I am an Orthodox Christian (Greek). This is one of the minority faith traditions in my country. However, because of its history the world over, it is given due recognition by the state and other religious groups here. As a faith group we know each other by our commitment to uphold the Church, based on the early teachings of our forefathers.
TIO: What led you into the role of being an interfaith leader in your country?
Despina: It started with my role as a youth leader in the church, then as a young women’s leader, and finally as a leader among adults. This deep involvement in the church, combined with my passion for building relationships, led me to working ecumenically. In addition, I worked on the side for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This work as a young woman led me to different events and, eventually, to responsibilities with the World Council of Churches.
Moving on to the United Religions Initiative (URI), a global organization, made me explore interfaith relationships much more carefully. I learned to appreciate other faiths as they present themselves. As a believer this helped me reduce the judgmental tendencies that sometimes resulted from the deep commitment to the teachings of my own faith.
TIO: During Interfaith Harmony Week this past January, the city of Adjumani in Uganda centered their celebration around welcoming refugees. Can you tell us about this event?
Despina: Uganda has many refugees, primarily coming from our neighboring countries but also from as far as Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Adjumani district has the biggest refugee camps in the country. They mostly harbor South Sudanese refugees, primarily women, youth, and children. Interfaith Harmony week is based on “the love of God and love of one’s neighbor, or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbor.” We felt that this faith statement resonates with welcoming refugees and taking care of them.
However, caring for one’s neighbor involves more than simply taking care of their physical needs. Taking care of their spiritual needs is also necessary because spirituality promotes hope and peace of mind. Driven by this conviction, we set out as people from different religious backgrounds, indigenous traditions, and spiritual expressions to have a full day of interaction with the refugees in Adjumani. On the ground, we found out that the refugees had carried their ethnic anger and hate into exile. They were having separate worship centers based on their ethnicity, which was widening the hate. This was especially so between the Dinka and the Nuer tribes. Like most African conflicts, ethnic differences are greatly at play in South Sudan.
Each religious leader who spoke used the his or her faith’s holy book, turning to quotations that promote unity, love irrespective of diversity, and forgiveness. Men and women gave testimony detailing their stories of escape. Some were so gruesome and heart breaking that religious leaders brought the refugees aside for personal counseling. Prayers were said by each faith leader, and many thanked URI for teaching them about embracing diversity. Personally I saw how the way religion and spirituality are shared has a great influence on how people either associate or hate each other. If the emphasis is about “them against us,” then human beings will continue to hate each other, even when they are facing the same problems. [Go here for Despina's report of this event.]
TIO: Since the event, have you witnessed any signs that the event has had a long-lasting impact on the community?
Despina: According to our member organizations in the area and individuals we linked with, some refugees are now worshiping together. The sermons are also about harmony and promoting hope for a better future. There is also a greater understanding around facing the common challenge of war as South Sudanese people instead of focusing on ethnic differences. However, not all the refugee camps in Uganda have adopted these new approaches; many were not visited during the event.
TIO: You are in charge of overseeing 30 grassroots interfaith organizations. This is a lot to manage for one person! How do you do it?
Despina: The great thing about our organizations is that they are self-organized. My role is to ensure networking and cross-learning. I also try to have a personal relationship with the head contact for each group, thereby making our relationship more brotherly and sisterly in nature. This means greater understanding when we are challenged one way or the other and promotes open sharing of resources to build skills and stronger connections.
TIO: What do you believe grassroots interfaith initiatives (in contrast to larger interfaith organizations) uniquely bring to the interfaith table – in general and in the African context in particular?
Despina: Interfaith promotes communal living, interconnection, love, and care. These are key African values. As grassroots organizations in Africa struggle to ensure that each individual attains their potential in a setting of connectedness and love and care, we do the same with interfaith initiatives. The interconnectedness of interfaith initiatives creates a ripple-effect, where each member of the community feels the challenges faced by every other member in the community.
In interfaith settings, learning is never ending and fear of the unknown is reduced as diverse faith groups grow together, working to pursue the common good. Fear is eroded. This leads to trust and hence minimizes the hate that can easily lead to conflict. Interfaith initiatives in Africa are especially important because most Africans are spiritual believers in one way or another. Using interfaith strategies to address conflict is of paramount importance because most people uphold faith as their guiding factor and, in so many ways, do not question their religious teachings.
TIO: What have been the biggest impediments to your work?
Despina: Gender stereotypes are prevalent in most African settings. The voice of a woman is less appreciated, sometimes even by other women. When a woman stands to speak, she is less respected compared to a man. Actually, many people look down on the woman for taking the male space.
Additionally, Africa has many unpredictable situations of conflict, mainly because of bad governance and the presence of natural resources. The forces at play are many and often dangerous, some being local while others are international. All these make my work challenging at both the political and grassroots levels.
TIO: What do you consider your greatest successes?
Despina: It is hard to pick out one, but I think it would be giving women and girls the power to believe in themselves as having the same potential as men. To further encourage them. To achieve what they want in life in an African setting – be it in education, economic, social, or political realms. Another success is working alongside men in the male-dominated domain of religious and faith-based work.
TIO: What is the vision that empowers your interfaith work in Uganda?
Despina: I believe that one day we shall have a peaceful country that respects dissenting voices, where we have a peaceful transfer of power from one leader to another, and where both men and women have the potential to hold these positions.
TIO: What advice do you have for other interfaith peacebuilders?
Despina: Interfaith peacebuilding is unique, but needs to be sensitive at the same time. Respect for diversity is important, not always favoring those with a higher statistical strength. A common mistake made by many interfaith peacebuilders is going with the flow of bigger faith traditions as opposed to the smaller ones. As much as this may generate a higher mileage of public appreciation, a person is not walking faster if one toe is hurt.
In addition, interfaith peacebuilders need to appreciate women and girls. Many faith traditions are dominated by men at the leadership level, and this usually makes women invisible and less important at the decision-making table. In most religious settings, women are the majority, and therefore leaving them behind is a disservice to any development agenda, be it within a faith-based setting or not.
TIO: Thank you Despina for your work and taking the time for this interview!
Header Photo: URI Global Council 2014 – Photo: COG Interfaith Reports