The Desire to Create Peace Around Oneself
An Interview with Yvette Rabemila. Questions by Brigitte Rabarijaona
After more than forty years of pastoral ministry, Yvette Rabemila, former vice-president of the Reformed Church of Madagascar, is still very involved in a variety of activities. At present, she directs the association “Women’s Caravan for Peace in Madagascar”. In this interview, conducted by Brigitte Rabarijaona, she describes her desire to see women create peace around them.
Après plus de quarante ans de ministère pastoral, Yvette Rabemila, ancienne vice-présidente de l’Eglise réformée malgache, est encore très engagée dans diverses activités. Elle dirige actuellement l’association “Caravane des Femmes pour la Paix” à Madagascar. Elle nous livre dans cette interview, qui a été faite par Brigitte Rabarijaona, son désir de voir des femmes créer la paix autour d’elles.
You are very involved in movements and activities in the service of peace. Why?
We live day and night in a world of all kinds of violence. The printed and spoken media daily mention repeated cases of murder, aggression, armed theft, crime, rape, incest, organised robbery, pickpockets, insecurities of all sorts… in short, in the city where I live, everybody lives in fear and loathing of being victim of one or the other of those acts of violence: the relation between the people has sadly become marked by mistrust because there is so much search of personal gain, of exploitation of the others, that any means to acquire personal benefit becomes acceptable for many. Sadly, some people don’t hesitate to make the world an almost uninhabitable place.
Today’s world is so full of conflicts, of open or cold wars, of terrorist acts. Hasn’t it become “normal” to hear about it every day? If we continue in this direction, what world will the future generations live in? This reminds me of a song by Mireille Matthieu that has called out to me before:
“May peace be in this world for the hundred thousand years to come
Give us a thousand doves for each sunrise
Give us a thousand doves and a million swallows
Let one day all humans become children again”
Will it still be possible to live together like children who fight for nothing but become friends again quickly and continue to play together after forgetting their previous fight? Personally, I think that it’s possible, it precisely for this that I have involved myself in these movements at the service of peace.
But for you, what is Peace?
In my native language, the term that is translated to “peace” expresses also a familial bond very dear to the Malagasy people. The term used is fihavanana. It means biological kinship but is also extended to friends and acquaintances that become members of the extended family and can benefit from reciprocal privileged relationships. Fihavanana has great influence on relationships. It enables processes that otherwise would be very difficult: for example, if one has to settle a matter in an administrative office, it is better to have someone from the family or an acquaintance, even through a mediating person, because they will take care of it for certain and you can almost be sure that you will pull through more easily and quickly. Fihavanana also makes you a person who is respectful and worthy of respect. In the name of fihavanana, one helps one’s neighbour, one joins in their grief when they are in mourning, and one expresses one’s sympathy with a symbolic gift of money, one shares their joy when they are promoted at work and when their daughter or son gets married. It prevents you from committing certain malicious deeds towards your neighbours.
Reconciliation is an important aspect of peace. With far and near relatives and with acquaintances, the reconciliation process is easier when the relationships to others are marked by fihavanana. To be able to reconcile, to be able to return to a harmonious relationship between two or more persons who were separated before through discord and conflict of whatever reason, that is the fruit of fihavanana.
Peace indeed has a very important communitarian dimension. It is not only absence of violence, of conflict, of dispute, of quarrel, of trouble, of agitation, of worry and of fear: it is also and above all “wellbeing and good living” with others. And it’s something that is acquired through mutual effort. It is everybody’s concern, but one also needs to be in peace with oneself to be able to contribute to the instauration of peace around oneself and to attain different aspects of peace that are: calm, serenity, happiness, bliss, security.
In terms of the communitarian dimension of peace, I’d say that it is not only a matter between humans, God is also implicated: He gives and promises peace (Numbers 6,26), he has projects of peace for us (Jeremiah 29,11). Jesus himself wants to give us his peace (John 14,27).
This peace is a lived happiness that shines through the presence of him/her who lives it and is shared when one accepts to be an instrument and maker of peace. With their diversity, the peacemakers will be able to change the world when they persevere in this mission.
The idea contained in fihavanana is very interesting. If you had to represent it in an image, what would you think about?
For me, the flowers in a well-tended garden can symbolise peace. Indeed, they aren’t there by coincidence. Someone has taken it upon himself to make the decision to prepare the field, to plant the grains, to water them, to take care of them, to rip out bad herbs, to see how they are every day. It is even said that good gardeners talk to the flowers with a lot of love and tenderness. A beautiful garden with beautiful flowers, different colours and sorts makes the happiness and pleasure of everybody. Just by admiring these wonders of nature that remind the riches, the kindness and the mercy of God, you can be happy, you feel better if there is something that isn’t working. Flowers can express many things and are present at every event in life: a bouquet of flowers for a birthday, for engagement and marriage, at the visit of a sick person, when there is mourning…
Still, the grain of peace has to begin to germinate somewhere. Once somebody is convinced of its importance and wants to contribute to the instauration of this peace in the world, he or she decides to let the grain germinate in him or herself first. Once planted, one has to take care of it so that it grows well and is beneficial to all those who are in contact with it. When one loves peace and wants to transmit it, one needs to apply oneself to it with all one’s heart to be able to obtain the result: a lived peace.
In your opinion, who should be gardeners of peace?
Since peace has a communitarian dimension, everybody is concerned. But we know that in our society, women and children are the most vulnerable. They are very often the first victims of any act of violence, starting with domestic violence. Very often, this violence is perpetrated by men, even if it has to be acknowledged that many women are directly or indirectly involved in those acts. In Madagascar, for example, one often hears stories of stepmothers who mistreat the children of their second husband. But luckily, there are also others that are exemplary in their kindness.
The challenge that needs to be met is to prove that the victims themselves can become instruments of peace if they choose to: women are capable of cultivating peace around them. There are people who still think that women are always the source of the problems of mankind (they refer to the incident at the Garden of Eden), but luckily there are also many men and women who believe that women can contribute to solutions and I am proud to be part of this group. When a woman wants to, she can.
You’ve spoken about the situation of the woman in general, but what is her place in Malagasy society?
Malagasy society is generally male-dominated; the status of women is rather low. According to some Malagasy expressions, the wife should follow her husband who is the “head of the family” or like “a string on a needle”. It is the men who take the big decisions and who speak in public, the women are often silent and effaced. In rural areas, the schooling and education of boys comes before that of the girls, since they are destined to be wives and mothers.
And this despite the fact that in the past, during the monarchic era (1610–1897) we also had queens who were more well known than our kings! Perhaps this is the exception that confirms the rule! Especially three queens with the name of Ranavalona I, II, III were distinguished for their personality.
In her enthronement speech, Ranavalona the Ist (1828–1861) declared:
“I will not change what Radama (her predecessor) and my ancestors have done, but I will add to what they have done. Do not think me incapable to govern the kingdom because I am a woman. Never say: this is a feeble and ignorant woman; she is incapable to govern us. My greatest solicitude will be to promote your well being and to make you happy…”
Against the invasion of the French, Ranavalona III (1883-1897) who had kept her stand with all her might, said:
“It is to us, the Malagasy people, that this earth has been bequeathed as heritage, and the French want to take it from us by force. Also, I assure you, I will not fail in my duties that oblige me as a queen to defend this kingdom; I will continue to fulfil them as I have done until now…”
Unfortunately, the war with the French finally ended with the defeat and the abolition of the Malagasy royalty in 1897: Ranavalona III was exiled to la Réunion from where she was later transferred to Algeria.
In Malagasy society today, women can play a very important role, even at a very high level, but the majority of them remain “behind the scene”. They play a great role, but “unspoken”: caring for the family and educating the children. They also exert a non-negligible influence on their husbands, their brothers, and their fathers. This is why I am convinced that they can be involved fully in the instauration of peace around them.
Statistically, there are more women than men. If they can be an active majority when it comes to peace-building, they can surely change the situation in this world of violence. Indeed, they have specific assets to act in this way if they want to: maternal strength, flexibility, courage, patience, perseverance, obstinacy, listening skills, sense of harmony, and a will to improve their living conditions. The smile, tenderness, and benevolent gestures of a woman are a cure for many things. All these qualities enable them to accept diversity like multicoloured flowers in a garden. Women can also be very emotional and shed tears at the least expected moments, but it is their way to express lots of things: joy, pain, sorrow, physical or moral suffering, disappointment, disillusionment. The nonviolent approach seems to be more feminine than masculine.
You direct the association “Women’s Caravan for Peace in Madagascar”. Can you tell us what it is?
Initiated in 2007 by CEVAA (Community of Churches in Mission), the Women’s Caravan for Peace began with the experience of the Women of the Protestant Church in New Caledonia who, thanks to their initiative, achieved little by little the reestablishment of peace between the two parties of the fratricidal war in their society. Thus, these women acted toward their husbands, their fathers, their sons, their brothers, and other women who helped them. Their action resulted in a change of behaviour in both antagonised groups: a more or less effective reconciliation began to see the light of day because of these women’s courage. It was a lengthy process, but it was the fruit of a firm will to eradicate the vicious circle of many years of violence.
My Church, with the women’s group, was contacted to take part in and join this movement. Officially, the organisation with CEVAA ended in 2009. But we, the Malagasy women who have joined in this adventure, decided to continue on the road towards peace. We have opened our association to new members from different confessions. We are indeed convinced that we all are in need for peace. Every one of us, wherever she is, is called to play a role that can be minimal at first in the construction of a less violent society where the respect of the rights of all members is the starting point of a long way.
And what do you do concretely in the association?
Beside our theological reflexions and with the help of UNICEF, which has trained us for peace education, we have been able to organise discussions and offer training to different women’s groups in churches and theological institutions. The training modules are: conflict management, dialogue, listening skills, and unity in diversity. This is done in different places according to the demands of the groups. The aim is that after the training sessions, the participants can educate their environment about peace.
Every participant has been able to see a progressive personal development in her approach to being a peacemaker, starting with family relationships, then with peers. The behavioural change in very diverse situations encouraged everyone to move even further despite the difficulties encountered here and there. The school of peace requires continual effort, acceptation of unity in diversity, courage to try to manage all sorts of conflicts, serenity to start anew when there is a failure, and the will never to give up, whatever happens. Realities such as poverty, unemployment, generalised corruption, degradation of the people’s mentality, are discouraging factors at times, but we don’t want to throw in the towel. There is always something that can be done.
Can you give us a successful example of this approach?
One participant shared this experience during an evaluation meeting: she used to scold her children severely whenever they did something bad. She always thought it right to act in this way, and never gave the children a chance to explain. The atmosphere at home was almost unliveable: the children were frustrated and the parents thought they had the right of the strongest. Our friend quickly realised that something had to change: she told her children what she had discovered with the Women’s Caravan for Peace and made a huge effort to achieve a change in her behaviour. Thus, she began to take time to listen to the complaints of the children. She decided to share what was desirable for their parent-child-relationship. They discussed it together. Little by little, she accepted that she wasn’t always in the right. The children dared to say things that they couldn’t have said before. They always took the time to listen. The father of the family also began to appreciate these moments together. The familial ambience become so that everybody is now happy to meet for the family reunion and free sharing between parents and children. This woman was able to create a more peaceful home.
You’ve just told us about the contribution of a woman for peace. In your opinion, what could the contribution of women theologians be for world peace?
The world needs to know and remember that Peace is an inseparable element of God’s presence. Women theologians could help people to see the important place of this peace in the Holy Scriptures. In the Bible, there are many texts to explain and exploit concerning this peace. How can we see and study world events in the light of Scripture? This is the great service that theologians of both sexes can provide us. Peace must not remain a discourse; it has to be lived.
In one word, what is your desire in regard to peace?
My profound desire as a theologian in today’s world is to be able to contribute to the development of the practice of peace at all levels of society. I wish for women to be the first to want to create peace around them. They are able to do it. The final objective, however, is that everybody, men and women, be involved, because peace is indeed everyone’s business.
 Translation : Evelyne Zinsstag; original text: « Que la paix soit sur le monde pour les cent mille ans qui viennent / Donnez nous mille colombes à tous les soleils levants / Donnez nous mille colombes et des millions d’hirondelles / Faites un jour que tous les hommes redeviennent des enfants »
 Cf. P. Malzac, Histoire du Royaume Hova depuis ses origines jusqu’à sa fin, Tananarive, Imprimerie Catholique, 1930.
 Ibid. p. 237