Issue 10 - Article 2

Conflict resolution training in another culture: lessons from Angola

February 1, 1998
David Brubaker of Conflict Management Services, and Tara Verdonk, programme coordinator for the Michigan Supreme Court.

The November 1994 signing of the Lusaka Protocol began a long and tortuous peace process that continues today. Significant progress was made in April of 1997 when a government of national reconciliation and unity was formed after months of delay. Thousands of UNITA troops have now been quartered and weapons turned in. The national armed forces now include over 10,000 former UNITA troops. Peace, however, still remains elusive. Large-scale fighting has stopped, but fear, mistrust, and the spread of rumours prevent the free movement of goods and people. Physically and emotionally, Angola remains a deeply divided nation.

In January 1997, the Centre for Common Ground (CCG), the Angola office of Search for Common Ground, began to organise two consecutive week-long introductory conflict resolution training sessions to take place in June. The goal of these sessions was to initiate the development of a network of Angolan mediators and trainers, that would eventually implement their own reconciliation projects.

Getting political agreement

One seminar was to be held in the capital, Luanda, and one in the relatively stable province of Kwanza Sul, where CCG had made some exploratory visits. In March 1997, CCG held a planning meeting for potential Luanda participants. Sixteen people attended, fourteen of whom went on to participate in the training. During the meeting, CCG discussed topics to be included in the sessions, gathered feedback from the participants on their expectations, and collected ideas for role plays and other exercises. CCG also showed a video it had co-produced about building bridges. [1] One of the participants associated with UNITA made some statements about UNITA’s portrayal in parts of the video and a few days later CCG received a visit from two participants from the Communications Department of Luanda’s provincial government.

Enthusiastic about the training, they were concerned about its ‘political nature’ because of the inclusion of ‘vocal’ participants from UNITA. CCG staff explained that in order to conduct meaningful training about conflict and reconciliation, several viewpoints would have to be included. Organisers highlighted the opportunity to discuss sensitive issues in a diverse group, allowing participants to use the skills they were learning and the government officials seemed satisfied, returning in June to participate in the training.

There were two significant difficulties with the recruitment of participants in Kwanza Sul; the first involved recruitment of female participants and the second was in obtaining permission from UNITA for participants from areas under their control to travel to the government-held provincial capital of Sumbe to attend the training. Most of the organisations sent male representatives and in the end only three females participated. In contrast, the gender breakdown was almost even in Luanda, where women are more active in NGOs and public life than in the provinces. Although in Luanda several members of UNITA live and work in the national government or with the peace process and permission to travel was not an issue, several meetings with UNITA officials in Luanda had to occur in order to convince them of the value of the training in Sumbe and the value of them attending. Despite last minute efforts to convince the UNITA leadership in Quibala to attend, the Sumbe training went ahead without UNITA representation.

The sensitive nature of relations between the two sides in Angola dictated that CCG be in constant contact with officials from both sides and the UN about its actions. There could be no suspicion that we were undertaking anything subversive or we would risk ruining our chances of holding the training and carrying out other activities. CCG carefully explained training plans and other project ideas to appropriate officials before taking action. CCG also informed UN officials in the province to alert them to the possibility of travel by UNITA participants, and to ask them for possible assistance with security.

Learning in and from the training course

The Luanda session attracted 35 participants and the one in Sumbe 26 participants. One of the themes addressed was the difference between conflict and violence and, given the 30-year history of violence in the area, understandably some participants did not immediately make a distinction between the two. The participants were asked to design two scenes, one representing conflict and the second violence, which then became the object of group discussion. This led to a consensus about the importance of dealing with conflict before it escalates into violence.

A more difficult discussion for both groups, but especially for the Kwanza Sul participants who were closer to the fighting, was that of forgiveness and reconciliation. One participant asked pointedly if the trainers’ agenda was to force forgiveness on Angolans. The trainers responded that their aim was to seek clarification of what the terms meant to the participants before using them during the week. After discussion, the participants seemed to agree that to forgive does not mean to forget, and that reconciliation is a process requiring at least two willing parties.

Participants were also asked to practise cooperative communication through a group discussion of ‘the role of women in Angolan society’. Before giving their opinion on the subject, each speaker had to summarise the opinion of the previous one. Participants performed well in the paraphrasing exercise, particularly given the impressive diversity of views.

A prejudice reduction exercise was conducted by identifying the four major ethnic groups represented by participants, and asking those not of a given ethnic group to identify ‘preconceitos’ (prejudices) they had (or had heard expressed) about a group. For the sake of equity the trainers added ‘Americans’ as a group to the exercise. Each list of prejudices for the five groups filled a large flipchart (newsprint sheet), and were predominantly negative. The concluding suggestions for ‘reducing prejudices’ were excellent in both sessions.

One of the most interesting discussions was around Angolan models of conflict resolution. Despite their urban status, the Luanda group included many participants who clearly remember traditional models and shared them eagerly, resulting in an outline of steps in the traditional dispute-handling mechanism and of specific components of a decision-making process. Two important components identified were ritual and the significance of elders. The first emerged from a mediation demonstration in Luanda, where participants added the ‘porta-voz do sobra’ (chief’s spokesperson) who basically cared for protocol during the process, while the second arose spontaneously in Sumbe, as the mediators decided to consult with the village elders after reaching an impasse in the role play mediation session. Such a ‘mediation/fact-finding’ process would be unorthodox in western models (at least for the mediators to fill both roles) but was deemed appropriate and necessary by participants in Sumbe.

The Angolan model had fascinating parallels with the classic five-step western mediation model – the introduction, story-telling, issue-identification, problem-solving and agreement stages. Various outlines were presented by the Angolan participants, but the basic five-step process to resolve interpersonal conflict in a rural community consisted of dialogue, mediation by the parents, mediation/arbitration by e.g. maternal uncles or the village chief, fines, forgiveness and reconciliation or punishment. The village chief would be the first to intervene as decision-maker where informal and neutral mediation had failed. Where one party had wronged another, a fine could be imposed by the chief and only if the offending party refused to pay the fine would punishment be imposed. Eliciting knowledge around conflict resolution practices and processes released greater energy and creativity from participants than many other learning exercises.


The sessions were followed up with a number of activities, while gradually also being extended to new participants. The training was quickly succeeded by two-day seminars on consensus-building and participants were later interviewed about how they had been able to apply their new skills. The report summarising these interviews contains ideas for future projects and training seminars, such as advanced mediation training, training of trainers and a seminar on developing peace education projects. One specific outcome is an Angolan manual on conflict resolution which is now being drafted under the leadership of a UNICEF staffer who participated in the Luanda training.

The manual will gather proverbs, stories, songs, and ceremonies, that include themes of reconciliation and cooperation, as well as describing the traditional mechanisms to resolve conflict. Revealingly, many books on Angolan folklore and traditional culture were found in museums and university libraries in the USA, and sent to the group in Angola.

Lessons learned

  • there is no substitute for relationships – relationship-building takes time – trust and enthusiasm must be created as a basis for successful training
  • follow-up is as important as preparation – someone must be responsible for the continuation of the group.
  • of the many models available for such training, the most effective seemed to be a modified elicitive model – a presentation of basic Western concepts of negotiation, with structured opportunities to identify and apply conflict resolution models from local culture.

A longer report of the Angolan experience can be obtained from:
Dave Brubaker
Conflict Management Services
916 N. Cameron Ave.
Case Grande, Arizona
fax: 00 1 520 421 2134

For information on Search for Common Ground in Angola contact:
1601 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 200
Washington D.C. 20009


[1] Co-produced with Ubuntu Productions of Capetown, and funded by USAID.


Comments are available for logged in members only.