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Amani!

August 27, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Matthew De Galan  </span>
    Yearning for peace. Photo: Matthew De Galan

We do focus groups to supplement the survey work. We are looking for richer detail, more context, rather than data that can be entered, tabulated, analyzed. I like both processes. Either way, you get stories.

One methodology we use in the focus groups is to pit one expressed need against the other. We ask the community to name a few of its most urgent needs. In Muja, for example, a small town just north of Goma, the group named these needs:

  • Water
  • Maternal health care (i.e., a better place to give birth)
  • Seeds
  • Medicine
  • Jobs/income
  • Livestock/poultry raising
  • Peace
  • Education

Then, we ask them to choose between Water and Maternal health. Then between Water and seeds. Then between Water and Medicine. And so on, until, in the end, they have pitted every named need against every other. It's like the NCAA tournament if they used a round-robin format.

The order in which they state their needs has no bearing on how, in the end, they prioritize them. Indeed, the methodology is designed to make them think hard about what is really the most important. Instead of a laundry list, you get a collective analysis, born of hard head-to-head choices. Sometimes groups would pick five needs, sometimes six; one picked 8. If the group splits, then each need gets half a point — essentially a tie. But it didn't happen often. I did six focus groups, and only saw two ties. People know what they want, what they need. And, overwhelmingly, what they want, what they need is peace. Indeed, in six focus groups, peace never lost a single head-to-head contest. Peace finished 29-0. And from my observation, most were blow outs. No hesitation, no debate.

In Muja, for example, three men and six women crowded in a house at midday. It was hot outside, but, cool and damp in the windowless home. A few bottle caps were pressed into the dirt floor, perhaps for decoration, perhaps just absently. The bright noon sun shone through the gap between the tin roof and the walls. We all sat, half illuminated in the deep shadows. After 45 minutes of discussion, we launched into the exercise.

Water starts out strong, beating maternal health, seeds, medicine, and jobs, though the later took some debate. I wonder if it might challenge Peace. The question is posed. And the answer is clear and immediate.

"Amani!" the group said. Peace, in Swahili.

Again and again in Muja, and later in Monigi, Ndosho, Mugunga and Lac Vert, the word rang out. "Amani!"

In Muja, the room felt like a church — that same dampness you feel in a dark place on a hot day. The congregants sang out the refrain, as in mass. Peace be with you. And also with you. Each time we asked the question, "Amani" rang out a bit louder, the chorus growing bolder, more determined, finding its voice.

Peace or Maternal health care? "Amani."

Peace or seeds? "Amani!"

Peace or medicine? "Amani!"

Peace or Jobs? "AMANI!"

I don't think I'll ever forget the sound of their voices. If we could harness this yearning, what might we unleash? What beautiful thing might take shape?

* * *

The final standings in Muja that day:

Peace 7-0
Water 6-1
Jobs 5-2
Jobs 5-2
Education 4-3
Seeds 3-4
Medicine 1-5-1
Maternal Health 1-5-1
Livestock 0-7

Sorry, livestock. Now you know how Vanderbilt feels.