While preparing to leave the Kootenays after four months of study at Selkirk College, Issa Sadi Ebombolo had a moment that helped illustrate the difference between Canada and the work he does as a peace advocate in Zambia. It happened while he was standing in a bank line in downtown Nelson.
Issa Sadi Ebombolo spent four months in the West Kootenay studying at Selkirk College.
“In the most conflicted countries in Africa, you cannot have a bank without a security guard standing up with a gun,” Ebombolo says. “The gap is just too big, there is no second class. There is just the higher class and poor. The poor have no other option other than use violence in order to have access to the resources. Any business places in these most conflicted countries will need a gun for protection. When I didn’t see a person standing with a gun at the bank in Nelson, this was an important determinant of peace.”
It’s one of many observations Ebombolo is packing home after four months enrolled in Peace and Justice Studies on the Castlegar Campus.
A Journey for Understanding
Ebombolo arrived to Canada in August after being selected to take part in the Selkirk’s Mir Centre for Peace exchange program with the African Peacebuilding Institute. The institute offers an annual intense and experiential education opportunity to Africans who are working at the community level across the continent. The Mir Centre has built a relationship with the institute so that Selkirk’s Peace and Justice Studies students can take part in this annual program.
Ebombolo works with an organization called Peace Club in Lusaka, Zambia where he is one of the directors. Trained as a mathematics/science high school teacher, Ebombolo switched gears in 2003 when he dedicated himself to peace building and conflict transformation on the African continent.
Zambia is located in the southern half of the African continent (marked here by orange).
“I have learned a lot at Selkirk College,” says the 44-year-old. “From the basic training in my peace education in Africa, it’s all about peace at a community level. The four months I have spent at Selkirk, I have had an opportunity to learn peace at a global level and this is very important to me. The knowledge I have acquired at Selkirk College, I will use it in my organization and beyond Zambia.”
Zambia is located in the southern half of the continent. It is a stable and powerful African nation, with the World Bank naming it one of the world’s fastest economically reformed countries. Since independence in 1964, there has never been an armed conflict in Zambia.
This is not the case north west of Zambia where the Democratic Republic of Congo has been devastated by a lengthy and bitter civil war. Ebombolo grew up in Congo and the country remains one of the places he focuses peace efforts on.
The Western Perception
While taking part in his studies at Selkirk College and during his discussion in the community, Ebombolo found those he interacted with were very interested in his work and the current situation in the most war-torn countries in Africa. He also discovered many times, those he spoke with had a clouded vision of the reality in Africa today.
“It’s not about Congo alone, but all about the whole continent,” Ebombolo says. “The media has painted the whole continent with a black picture and this black picture has remained in the brain of the people. You can see from the questions I received over the last few months that the picture people have about the whole continent is war, diseases, HIV and AIDS, corruption, the killings, forests, animals… this is what is in the mind of the people.”
Even in Congo—where the Second Congo War is one of the world’s most deadly conflicts of all time—there is hope.
“The most strategic and dramatic war we have experienced started in 1996 and went up to 2000,” Ebombolo says of the darkest period of the war. “But as I am talking now, the situation is at least conducive. People are going to work, children are studying, schools are there, hospitals are functioning, and we have political structures. But when a country has experienced war for so many years, you don’t expect everything to be okay all at once. Peace is a process, but the situation is not bad. It’s not as horrific as it is portrayed in the media.”
A Comfortable Clash of Cultures
This is the second time Ebombolo has traveled to Canada. In 2011 he came on a Mennonite Central Committee sponsored trip to Saskatchewan and Manitoba. While studying peace, Ebombolo has also had the opportunity to become more intimate with the only western nation he has spent time in. He says Canada has its own problems with poverty and inequality that Ebombolo sees as the root of conflicts in Africa. He has been particularly struck by the struggles Canada’s Aboriginal population continues to endure.
In Ebombolo’s first week in Nelson, he was struck by the number of people on the street begging for money and sitting with signs that read: “I have no place to sleep, I have no food and I need help.” He even took pictures of some of this poverty to show people back in Zambia.
“What I’ve come to learn is that we have issues that are global,” he says. “Before I came to Canada and was exposed to the western world, I had a different picture about the west. That was because the media portray the developing world as a horrible world, a hell, a jungle. It portrays the western world as heaven on earth, where all is fine.
“This idea has gone into the brain of the people and the result is that people living in the developing world, their prayers day and night are to have the opportunity to come the developed world because that is where they can have bread and water, that’s where they can have honey and milk. People in developed worlds are fearful to go to other places in the developing world because nobody is ready to go to hell. But the reality I have seen is that we have almost similar problems, the level of these problems just differs.”
Narrowing the Gap
There are massive hurdles in many of the African nations where Ebombolo works. Though his message is one of hope and optimism, there is still much work to be done. The gap between the west and the developing African countries is huge and the legacy of colonialism continues to cast a huge shadow. Many of the nations are rich in resources—both human and natural—but lack money and skills to properly develop. Ebombolo says African leaders do not want the west to take a maternal stance, but rather a true partnership approach.
Zambia is one of the leading African nations, but just north in Congo peace is a challenge.
“What has been happening for almost 100 years is that the west has provided fish to Africa and hasn’t been willing to teach Africa how to catch fish,” he says. “It is a designed and deliberate approach which promotes colonialism in a different way. We need to be empowered and use our own resources to create a fair market where we can sell our resources, then we don’t need any dollars from the west.”
Ebombolo adds that it may also require a shift in mindset to get Africa moving even further in the right direction.
“You don’t have the time in Canada, you have the money but you don’t have the time. In Africa, we don’t have the money but we have the time,” he says. “We need to utilize the time in Africa because we are given the same 24 hours in the developing world and the developed world. In the developed world you use the 24 hours wisely, you use it in production. In Africa we use the 24 hours in unproductive activities. This is one lesson I have learned and am going to teach my community when I return.”
After leaving Castlegar just before Christmas, Ebombolo was scheduled to speak in Toronto, Kingston, Montreal and Quebec City. He will arrive back to Zambia on January 9 where he will be reunited with his wife and nine-year-old daughter. Though anxious to return home, Ebombolo said he will miss the Kootenays.
“Selkirk College is a college so full of diversity,” he says. “In my last few weeks I was calling it United Nations College because there are so many people from different corners of the world at Selkirk. And everybody was very respectful. I did not hear of any intercultural shock or any conflict related to cultural issues.”