Straddling Lao PDR and Zimbabwe

Vientiane, Lao PDR -- Godswill Muzarabani grew up straddling two cultures in Zimbabwe. His father was from the majority ethnic group, Shona, and his mother was Ndebele, the minority ethnic group – classifications that have led to violence between the groups at worst and a recognized distinction at best.

"I became a person who can relate to everyone," he said. He could fit in with the language and culture regardless which group he was relating to.

That ability served him well when he went to the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao) with YAMEN! in 2011 and 2012. There he learned to respect different religions and different understandings of peace and still value and relate to the person.

Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN!) is a joint program of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite World Conference (MWC). It places young adults from MWC-member churches in the Global South in other countries of the Global South for cross-cultural learning and service.

Muzarabani's biggest concern about going to Lao was how he would adjust to living among Buddhists and Hindus, after growing up in a country where people predominantly identify themselves as Christian.

"I thought it was going to be impossible," Muzarabani said. "I thought, 'Imagine living with someone who doesn't believe the same as me.' When I came, it was even worse because we even work with Buddhists.

" It didn't take very long in Lao for Muzarabani to respect Buddhists for their peaceful way of living. From the kind way they respond to a mistake to the way they perceive conflict, Buddhists are even more peaceful than Christians, he concluded.

In Zimbabwe, physically fighting is a common way to resolve a conflict, political or personal, he said, but in Laos PDR, conflict is about the heart. The belief is: "If you say something bad about someone, be careful because you might hurt their heart." This belief, however, means that Laotians tend to allow people to take advantage of them and rich people to exploit them, he said.

"If I could take the two societies and mesh them together: Laotians wouldn't go out and fight, but they would still know how to protest and do it nonviolently," he said. "If people in my country would think about the heart as much as these people do, they wouldn't be fighting, but they would probably go and protest. Soldiers wouldn't beat up people because they know it will hurt them inside."

Muzarabani's assignment through YAMEN! was to teach English in a secondary school and to teach peacebuilding through Mittapab, a peacebuilding club for secondary students. He graduated from Solusi University in Zimbabwe with a bachelor's degree in peace and conflict studies.

As students grew to respect him and as his Lao improved, they started looking for opportunities to talk with him. Laotians asked him many questions about his culture and beliefs, and he asked about theirs.

They discussed differences, like skin color, but they've also found many similarities: poverty, music and value of extended family. They also discussed religion.

"Here some are Muslim; some believe in spirits. They can sit down and discuss their religion and share. In some cases, people change to become Christians because of the example of the next person. I've learned how to give someone space to change instead of pointing and judging and trying to convert them."

Because he was willing to listen, learn and share, Laotians treated him like he belonged. "Oh you are not foreign; you are one of us," he's been told.

Next year, Muzarabani will be an MWC intern in MCC's United Nations Office if his visa is approved. The position is offered through MCC's International Volunteer Exchange Program.

Eventually he wants to return to Zimbabwe and stay there for a long time, he said. As the eldest son, he is responsible to care for his immediate family and contribute to his extended family – an obligation he wants to fulfill.

He's also eager to bring together what he has learned in Lao and will learn in the U.S. with his own Ndebele and Shona cultures, working to build peace among youth and in his church.

Joint release: Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference. By Linda Espenshade, News Coordinator for MCC U.S.

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