When I thought that after seven years of experience in peace work in Mindanao I have encountered most of existing tools to build peace and forge friendships, I discovered a new one which does not require strategic plans, logframes, or theories of change. It can be immediately used and implemented, easily accessed at home, and conveniently carried wherever we go.
This tool is no other than a nail cutter.
Also known as a nail trimmer or a nail clipper, it is a hand tool used to clean dirt out from under fingernails, toenails, or hangnails to maintain hygiene.
But how does this tool connect to peace, more so to friendship? This was an unexpected but sweet revelation.
My discovery of the potentials of a nail cutter is meant to be a simple story drawn from my recent experience filled with realizations and lessons.
This revelation happened during the time I spent with children in Uganda, a landlocked country located in the eastern side of Africa.
I was placed in Uganda by my university to undergo a six-month internship mission, as part of my masteral program, with a local peacebuilding organization to learn about its transitional justice and reconciliation initiatives.
I arrived in this country two weeks earlier than the commencement of my internship. While waiting for my internship to begin, I braved the streets, the markets, and other public places of Kampala to discover more about its country, not as a plain tourist, but as a curious student of its culture, traditions, politics, and way of life.
One Monday morning, a fellow intern invited me to participate in a service program for street children in a slum area called Kivulu.
This program is held thrice a week and organized by concerned individuals who raise at least $20 per visit in order to provide food, water, medicines and soap for the children. When they are able to raise more funds, they also manage to provide extra material support such as sleeping mats, slippers, clothes, notebooks, and pens.
At least fifty children come to Kivulu during service programs to benefit from their support. These children are either abandoned by their families in their villages or orphaned due to outbreaks of devastating war. They sleep rough on the streets at night and scavenge for food in dustbins and rubbish tips during days where there are no service programs.
Their classrooms are the streets and slums that teach them survival skills.
Participating in the service program for the first time, I came to the program area without exactly understanding what meaningful efforts I could contribute. This confusion silently overwhelmed me. The last thing I would want to happen to myself in this side of the world is to appear as a “redeemer” who could rescue them from their plight based on the color of my skin and texture of my hair because this is how their society constructs my role as a foreigner.
Nevertheless, I met these children, who despite their harrowing experience, managed to display happy faces and friendly dispositions. In an open field covered with red dusts and green grasses, I I quietly stood to scan the area and observe the children playing, running, laughing, teasing each other, or sleeping, while waiting for the service program to start.
Feeling isolated despite being in a crowd, I conversed with my inner self to figure out ways to reach out to these children in sincere and meaningful ways.
Still not knowing what to do, I leisurely opened my sling bag, to search for a solution, until I accidentally found in its pocket my nailcutter!
For whatever purpose I brought it with me that day, which I usually don’t do in regular days, I felt that energies surrounding me conspired to make it happen. It gave me a perfect idea to use this as a tool to connect with the children around me. I thought that if I sit down with them to trim their nails, I would be able to break the silence between us and they would start opening up to me.
Having two younger brothers in the family, I remembered trimming their nails as a strategy to make amends with them when we engage into simple sibling rivalries and quarrels.
With that refreshing my childhood memories, I started approaching a young sad-looking boy whom I found sitting on the grass close to where I was standing. I asked him if I could clean his nails, and to my surprise, he excitedly said yes and exuded happiness in his face.
I noticed how dirty his nails were. Living in slums, he must have accumulated dirts and dusts under his nails from these places. I saw how he appreciated and enjoyed the process of nail trimming, as if he had not experienced it for a long time. Due to poverty, a nail cutter is something that these kids could not even afford to buy or own. While my joy to clean their nails seemed so simple, they considered it very special. Because that extension of care is something they do not always experience in life and that feeling of comfort is something that they always long for after being separated from their families for the longest time.
After finishing cleaning his nails, another young boy wearing old torn clothes approached me. This time, I did not have to offer. He was the one who happily extended his hands to me, saying “me next please!”.
More kids gradually stormed into my corner to wait in line in order to get their nails trimmed. If I could count the number of kids whose nails I trimmed that Monday morning in the span of three hours, it would reach up to at least 30.
I spent wonderful time with every kid I bonded with. I got to talk to each one of them, ask questions about their lives, and learn about their stories.
They became my language teachers. No longer that the language became a barrier to our friendship. They taught me Luganda phrases such as “Wazozotya” (Good morning!), “amanya aganggi Christine” (my name is Christine), and many more. If I reach the point where I run out of phrases and could no longer respond to conversations, they taught me that the best way out is to say “Sichtegede! Yogela o Luzunggu?” (I no longer understand. Can you now speak in English please?).
They enjoyed hearing my stories about my country Philippines, which they pronounce as “Pili-payns”. Some of them may not have ever heard about Philippines, and so I explained to them that my country is an archipelago consisting of 7,107 islands blessed with gorgeous beaches and covered by tropical forests. I got them amused whenever I jokingly tell them I am a wife of Manny Pacquiao, world’s famous boxer from our country whom I later discovered is also very popular in Uganda. They laughed at my antics. I captured their hearts and minds.
I was amazed myself how such simple gestures could bring happiness and comfort to these beautiful children. But I realized it is not just about the tool. It is really about our heart and intentionality to share hopes and positive energies to those who need them.
Among the interventions we implement for vulnerable and marginalized sectors of our society, we can not create real social change, no matter how strategic we aim in reaching our goals, if we do not create meaningful and safe spaces to interact with people we are working with and advocating for to fully understand their views and aspirations.
With little interactions such as this, we can truly build base for relationships. I was happy I immediately made them feel comfortable with the simple gesture of cutting nails, which may also be a concrete way of serving the children, who are so often not recognized.
While I am happy to spark energies of hope, I do not, of course, claim to have solved the problem. At the end of the day, they go back to their social realities where communities consider them a nuisance, where government legalizes mob justice at their expense, and where widespread corruption and poverty continue to deprive them of opportunity to live life in dignity.
I left the program that day receiving hugs and smiles from my new friends, with them wishing for my return. More than the happiness I shared with them, it is them who gave me more inspiration to strengthen my commitment to fight against social injustices and structural violence.
Like how the Peacebuilders Community (an organization in Philippines that I support) envision transformation in the communities, this would not stop me from walking with them as they move from their crises to their desired change, whether they are street children from my homeland Mindanao or from Uganda where I currently temporarily reside.
You are such a nice, loving and creative peace advocate to be able to use a simple tool to connect to the hearts and minds of the children of Uganda. This is a very inspiring story of your peace work in Africa. You such a genius to be able to write this piece that really paint pictures of social needs, simple methods of creating hope and an interpersonal peace process.
We miss you in Mindanao at his point of our journey to attain the political instrument to make happen a peace accord and peace road map. But the thought of you doing peace work in a region also wanting peace-consoles us. Plus the thought that, soon, you will join us, more equipped with the skills and knowledge we all need here, when you come back, to push forward our advocacy for the Bangsamoro.