By Sellah Nasimiyu King’oro
Diversity is beautiful but it can present challenges sometimes. Brown (1983) coins the word diversity conflict to refer to the exchanges of incompatible behavior among interdependent individuals or groups resulting from identity based differences. With increasing local and global migration, our societies have become more and more diverse. As such, diversity conflict can occur in societies whose members are drawn from various backgrounds. The key question therefore is, how can a society rise above diversity conflict? In this article, I argue that common ideals widen the platform on which entry points can be made in seeking cohesion. As such, a society should focus more on what connects it than on what divides the members within it.
Currently, I head a Department in a national Government agency in Kenya. The 34 staff I supervise are from the following diverse religions; African Traditional Independence Churches (e.g. Dini ya Roho Mafuta Pole Africa), Islam (Both Sunni and Shia), Judaism, Catholic, older Protestant churches (e.g. Quaker, AIC, and ACK), recent Protestant churches (e.g. Deliverance church, Jubilee Christian Centre, Ministry of Repentance and Holiness), Seventh Day Adventist and church of Christ Scientist. This is our colored little world with diversity of thought. However, I am usually amazed at the way in which all of us work seamlessly towards achieving one product. Looking at my colleagues in the field, you can never tell that they may have points of divergence in their faith. They all seem to focus on what they all want to achieve for the moment, and that has built our team.
In 2007/8, Kenya experienced severe civil conflict emanating from an election crisis. One morning, we woke up to horrendous scenes of neighbors torching the houses next door, cutting animals and even killing their own neighbors based on the political and ethnic divisions that had watered down our society. Amidst this crisis, one woman in a small town in the North Rift, which was worst hit by this election violence, decided to offer her home as a hide-out to her fellow women and their children belonging to the ‘other’ ethnic community. When she was later asked why she risked her life to do this, she recounted how they all belonged to the same women support group where they built each other up during peace times. They shared their growth journey as women.
Another lesson on how shared ideals can tackle diversity conflict is reflected in the course of the First World War that pitted nations of Europe, Russia, the United States, and the Middle East among others. When the war started in 1914, Pope Benedict XV advocated for cessation of hostilities to celebrate Christmas but the warring countries rejected this proposal. In the battlefields of northern France, about 100,000 soldiers had fought for five months but the sound of firing and shelling faded during Christmas eve. Walter Kirchhoff, a member of the 107th German Saxon Regiment and a tenor with the Berlin Opera led the troop in singing Silent Night in German, and then in English. Graham Williams of the 5th London Rifle Brigade narrated that when the German soldiers finished singing, the British soldiers quipped in with another carol led by Edgar Aplin. This repeated itself through the better part of the night. When British soldiers started singing ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’ the Germans joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles.
At the first light of dawn, German soldiers crossed their battle line towards the allied lines while shouting ‘Merry Christmas’ in the native language of their ‘opponents’ and saying ‘don’t shoot’. Gradually, the troops from both sides trickled into no man’s land and exchanged cigarettes and plum puddings. They took advantage of this climate to retrieve the bodies of their fellow combatants for a decent burial (Bajekal Naina, 2014). Today, this has been known as the Christmas Truce, which was made by the soldiers themselves. The shared spirit of Christmas could not be broken by the war of diverse nations.
Societies can thrive when they put an emphasis on what binds them together rather than what divides them. This may include embracing a national vision, which helps express a shared sense of purpose and articulates what the members of a society hold common.