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Dinah Lawan on Advancing Projects for Peace in Nigeria

I-House Resident Interview Series

Projects for Peace: The Vision of Kathryn W. Davis "My challenge to you is to bring about a mind-set of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war."

Hello everyone! I’m Carina Samson and I’m the Global Community Ambassador here at International House this summer. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dinah Lawan, Martin Ssemulugo, and Eric Assan, the three I-House resident winners of the 2023 Davis Projects for Peace. The interviews took place over Zoom as the students were elsewhere conducting their peace projects. 

Zoom interview screenshot, from left: Dinah Lawan in Nigeria and Carina Samson at I-House Berkeley

The first interview features Dinah Lawan (pictured left) from Nigeria, an incoming second year Ph.D. student in Political Science at UC Berkeley. Dinah specifically studies Comparative Politics and International Relations, with Africa as her region of focus. Below are some highlights of our discussion:

Dinah, what is your Peace Project about?

My Peace Project will pilot a local women’s voter education and peace-building initiative in six of the many Nigerian villages most impacted by the Boko Haram insurgency. This project is inspired by the Liberian Women’s Mass Movement for Peace in 2003 and it will build on cultural practices by holding tri-weekly women’s education workshops in public areas.

Wow, that’s amazing! I do want to learn more about the cultural background and history behind your project, and I know you mentioned the Boko Haram insurgency. Could you explain a little more about it?

Yes, of course. The Chibok region has battled one of the most brutal insurgencies, Boko Haram, since 2009. So women in particular have been majorly targeted. In 2014, for example, over 275 school girls were kidnapped. Women lack the opportunity to know why votes matter, what the Nigerian history of conflict has been, and what other places have done to achieve peace. In my community, for example, few if any women participate in political activity. There’s no indigenous women’s peace movement and no understanding of the power of citizenship, so of course, no demand for action from our leaders. So there’s extremely low representation of women in politics in my region of Nigeria, particularly local women from where I’m conducting this project. And this is most important for those who have less knowledge about how politics work, how to participate in peace-building programs and initiatives, and why their votes matter.

Map of Nigeria showing the Chibok region in the Northeast Borno region
Map source: BBC “Nigeria Chibok abductions: What we know

In my community, Chibok in particular, we have this native language that is one of Nigeria’s endangered languages. It’s not a written language—I remember going to high school and the teachers would write something in English and then translate, just verbally explaining to us what it would mean in our language. So these women don’t understand that even those who speak an unwritten language like ours can still write letters to which the government must respond.

And one of the major reasons I’m conducting this project is that women hold a key to peace in society. Because we have seen so many examples across the world where women actively participate in building peace and ending bloody violence in their communities. But only if the women in these communities know how to exercise their rights and exert their voice voices through voting and peaceful movements. So through this project, the women will learn about the importance and impact of their vote and how it can be used to achieve their goals for peace. The women will better understand their voices and rights as citizens, beyond mere voting, to include advocacy and how to make their voices heard. And at the end of this project, I hope to help the women initiate letter-writing campaigns to political and media leaders where they can write their own stories about the consequences of war to their families and communities, as well as what they think the government should do in order to remedy these deadly conflicts that has been going on since 2009.

Thank you so much for sharing all of this and for tackling such a challenging issue for the sake of empowering the women in your community. And I know you talked a little bit about it already, but what inspired you to take on this project?

Yeah, that’s a good question. So I think last year, during the first semester of my Ph.D., I took this class, “Theories of International Relations,” and the final project for that class was to choose a topic of your choice and then write about it. It was challenging for me as I’ve always wanted to study women, peace, and to how women express themselves in their community, especially in some communities in Africa, where women, in general, are less valued or acknowledged and not participating in the political room. So this project was inspired by the Women’s Peace Movement in Liberia that I mentioned earlier. I wrote about them and how they mobilized and surprisingly ended the bloody deadly violence from the civil war in their community—that was inspiring. Just to elaborate on that, the Liberian Women’s Peace Movement launched a non-violent campaign that led to the end of the second civil war in Liberia in 2003. And I admire the Liberian Women’s Peace Movement as a good example where women from modest backgrounds, once they become aware of their power, play a determining role in ending deadly violence. So these women are very different from the Nigerian women I’m conducting this project with. However, some tools and strategies, such as mobilizing through religion, used by the Liberian women, can be useful in the community I’m conducting this project in. And this is what has been going on. 

That is so powerful! It’s amazing to see that you’re following their footsteps and trying to inspire a movement like theirs in your community! On that note, where are you with your project currently, and how has your I-House experience so far impacted your project? And what do you hope that it ends up looking like in the future?

I started thinking about this project in Fall 2022 and it is rainy season now, and one of the things I was so nervous about before I started the project was whether or not I will get enough women to participate in this unique project, since in my community, most people are farmers and I expected people to be busy with their farm work. But fortunately—and actually it was unexpected—I got more than 85 women and an additional 8 leaders participating in this project. I was so surprised by the turnout and excited to see that the women are hungry to learn and ready to bring their perspectives to the table to make a better society, and create a safe space for themselves and also for their fellow women in their communities.

So, where do I see myself in the future? First of all, if I was not a resident of the International House, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to conduct this project and create unique changes in my community. I was born and raised in the community and even though I know the culture very well, the International House experience has really helped me create a safe space for the participants, where they can voice their opinions without being judged. That’s definitely one of the things I learned from International House—creating space for everyone, where everyone is welcome.

And of course, the participants have different educational backgrounds and they are not used to participating in political or peace-building discussions. Right? This is really new, which can be challenging for them to open up. But the International House experience has helped me to create a respectful environment for each and every one of the women participating in this project who are part of these workshops, so that each of them, no matter if they went through school or not, to feel a sense of belonging—to freely express their perspectives and fruitfully contribute to the discussion of creating peace and change for themselves, as well as their fellow women in the community.

Thank you so much for your answer. I do also appreciate how I-House has given us a safe space to have conversations about our cultures, and it’s so great to see that you’re bringing this to your community through this project.

And one more thing, I would be happy to elaborate more on how I see I-House and the Davis Projects for Peace program impacting my project in the future. So right now, I think we have conducted 12 workshops in 3 different villages and one of the major things that the women in some of the Chibok communities who are participating in this project have said is to never let this project die. So that’s really inspiring to hear that coming from them. I think these women have been extremely happy and excited to see such a unique project being conducted in their communities, and for that reason, the woman actually promised to keep this project alive for years to come and create an organization out of it. That really touches me deeply.

And at the end of this project, the woman promised to create an organization, and they even promised to name the project in their native language. So even though the native language is unwritten, it’s possible to still write something out of it because parents name their kids in the language and of course, they come up with an appropriate spelling for that. And they also proposed that they will take the organization beyond their communities by spreading to all parts of the Chibok local government communities and Nigeria as a whole.

So one thing I promised them—I don’t know if this will happen, but this is also my dream. And seeing this project being something beyond what I have imagined, I think it’s inspiring. So I promise them that I will support them in the journey of creating this organization and keeping it alive. But I cannot do this without the support of International House.

When I get back to Berkeley this fall, I will work with a few leaders at the International House to start thinking about how we will financially support the organization. These women intend to create ways in which we can more effectively mobilize more woman participants and contribute to the journey of making a difference in their communities. And I hope that the Peace Project program can further fund this unique opportunity and unique organization that these women will create in the future so that the woman of the Chibok communities can finally have a safe space for expressing their voices and rights as citizens in their communities. So I’m absolutely looking forward to seeing how this ends in the future.

I love how there are people in your community that are willing to keep this project alive and even turn it into an organization! I really hope that you and the women of your community can get the support and funding that you all need to keep this alive because this is so important. So on the topic of the Davis Peace Project itself, what advice would you give current I-House residents who are thinking about doing their own project at some point for their communities?

Yeah, that’s really a good question. If you had asked me that question last year before applying to this project, I wouldn’t have anything to say about it. What I think is that you shouldn’t wait until you have it all figured out before you can make a difference. That’s what I always tell myself. I mean, everyone is different—we all have different ideas on how you perceive things around you, in your community, neighboring communities, and all over the world. But I believe that we are all surrounded by so many issues that need our attention. But in addition to having issues around you, we are also surrounded by so many opportunities and bright people to help address those issues. And I just want people to know that they should never forget that each and every one of us has the ability to really embark on a journey to tackle these issues. So just let the ideas come from your heart and everything else will eventually follow.

And so many people out there—in our little communities, neighboring communities, and somewhere around the world—are looking up to us to create a door of change and opportunities for them. And we should all know that a small change can make a huge difference to so many lives. So why wait? Just don’t wait. Do crazy things, like create a crazy idea. And of course, just wake up and start with that little, but brilliant idea. And maybe you may imagine that it’s not a serious idea, but it’s a brilliant idea that can make a huge difference. So just don’t wait, just do it.

That’s what I did. I was extremely nervous when I was thinking about this project, thinking, “Oh my gosh. How will I implement this project?” I have never done such a thing and this is a really new experience. But what I told myself was to just do it. Don’t wait until someone wakes you up. Just embark on that journey, and I promise you you will not regret it.

Thank you so much for that amazing advice. I think a lot of people really stop before they even start because they’re worried that they don’t have everything figured out just yet. And so that really hits home, thank you. Before we go, I was wondering if you have any platform where we can support your project or learn more about it?

Yeah, so as I said, this is the first major project for my women in my community, so it’s still new. As of now, there’s no website or social media platform for this project. But moving forward, I hope to create a website to help spread this project beyond the Chibok communities. … If these women decide to move forward with it, I would definitely find a way to create a website or social media platform, so that other people can have access to it and see how amazing this project has been.

We can always add links to this post later on! I’m looking forward to seeing it online and being able to follow it with everybody else as well! And, finally, is there anything else that you’d like to share that you didn’t get the chance to?

Yes, thank you so much for your time, and I love sharing this story and all the amazing work that these women have been doing. And I’m really looking forward to seeing how things end over this summer.

Thank you so much for sharing your story and taking the time to talk to me about your project and inspiring me and the rest of the International House community. Good luck with the rest of your project!

Thank you!

For more information about Davis Projects for Peace, visit our website!