To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Babu Ayindo gives Arts and Peacebuilding presentation

Dr. Babu Ayindo, a Kenyan expert in conflict transformation and peacebuilding, is visiting Brandeis for a week, speaking at several events and classroom open sessions. In his first presentation on campus, Ayindo joined a session of “Documenting the Immigrant Experience,” a course taught by Prof. Azlin Perdomo (CAST/HIST), on Tuesday, March 6. The class is an experiential learning course in the Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation (CAST) department.

Ayindo received a B.Ed. from Kenyatta University in Kenya, and an MA in Conflict Transformation from Eastern Mennonite University in the United States. His doctoral thesis, “Arts, Peacebuilding and Decolonization: A Comparative Study of Parihaka, Mindanao and Nairobi” was successfully defended in 2017 at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He has published on peacebuilding and taught various courses on an arts-based approach.

Cynthia Cohen, Director of the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts, introduced Ayindo and said his visit was in part thanks to the CAST Program. Ayindo is “one of the leading voices in the world in the field of arts and social transformation,” Cohen said.

To start, Ayindo wrote his name on the board, explaining “We have a slightly different naming system amongst the Luhya people of western Kenya.”

He is Babu at home; Ayindo was his father’s name. “I’m explaining this because sometimes people refer to me as Ayindo or Dr. Ayindo, and it feels rather strange,” he said. “Because the name, usually, you are given has some real and symbolic significance. It shapes substantially who you become.”

The name Babu, he explained, had roots in the British colonization of Kenya and the importation of an Indian labor force to build railroads. His father had friends in the predominantly Indian communities, and Babu was a nickname of Ayindo’s childhood, becoming his official name when he began school in Nairobi.

Later, as he began to pursue peacebuilding work, Ayindo’s name gained new significance. Mahatma Gandhi was called Babu. In Tagalog it means elder, in Swahili, grandfather.

Ayindo’s grandparents raised him in a rural area of Kenya. As a result, Ayindo said, “I was educated, first and foremost, through stories,” told and retold by his relatives.

“People would get different meanings of the same story,” he said, “so you get a little meaning if your mind cannot carry the weight of the metaphors … It’s actually when you grow up that you realize, ‘Oh! Actually this story had a totally different meaning!’”

He adapted some of these stories, told by his grandmother, to use in his peacebuilding work. “My grandmother had no issue with copyright,” he joked.

Writing letters dictated by his grandparents also had an impact on both the creative and peace-building aspects of Ayindo’s future career.

His grandmother was an animated speaker and had Ayindo to read letters back to her with similar emotion. “I had to learn to perform to my grandmother,” Ayindo said. “These were the roots of my interest in the Arts.”

Ayindo sometimes wrote letters containing confidential information, and his grandfather would remind him to keep the secrets, that “you can only reveal them if by doing so it will bring peace to the clan,” Ayindo said.

Ayindo spent much time on the importance of documenting people’s lives and sharing their stories. When you tell someone’s story, Ayindo said, “you are honoring people’s story. They are trusting you.”

Discussing his doctoral research in New Zealand with the Maori, Ayindo explained that due to their history with colonialism, many felt unable to imagine a different future. “When you listen with honor to people telling their stories, we are able to recapture, to revitalize that belief, that energy, that we can imagine an alternative reality,” Ayindo said. “You are telling people, ‘Your story matters.’”

In his closing remarks, Ayindo referenced Johan Galtung’s theory of three things needed to build peace: peaceful means, empathy and creativity. Ayindo said, “You cannot be a peacebuilder if you are not an artist, and you cannot be an artist if you are not a peacebuilder.”

After Ayindo’s presentation, the students continued to discuss their work for the “Documenting the Immigrant Experience” course, making use of Ayindo’s experience and insight. The class explores the genre of documentary filmmaking and uses the medium to document the stories of immigrant communities in the Waltham area. By the end of the course, students will create their own documentaries focusing on one immigrant’s story.

“It will all depend on the relationship you’re going to build, the dynamics, and then something beautiful will come out of it, and that for me is a nice way of telling a story,” Ayindo said. “You’ve got to listen a lot, and listen well.”

Ayindo will speak at two more open session classes during his week at Brandeis, on March 9 and March 12. There will also be a conversation with Ayindo in the afternoon of March 12 on the Arts, Peacebuilding, and Decolonization at the Altman Amphitheater, as well as a storytelling performance that evening in the Mandel Atrium called A Powerful Fire: Performances to to Energize Our Next Twenty Years.

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