RCAH Peace Games makes connections between Mali, Peckham and Refugee Development Center

What do high school students in Mali, Crossroads participants at Peckham, refugee kids in Lansing, and arts and humanities students at Michigan State University all have in common?

They are all interested in building peace.

The RCAH first got involved with the World Peace Games in 2013 when award-winning teacher John Hunter came to speak at the first Wednesday Night Live.

Hunter’s World Peace Game gives students of all ages the chance to explore the interconnectedness of political, social, economic and environmental systems. Players are divided into “nations,” each with varying resources – population, capital and natural resources like coal, water and oil. The students are then presented with “crises,” things like water shortages, poverty and hunger, war – big problems often deemed “too complicated” to solve. The nations are then challenged to come up with solutions that solve the problems without any one nation bearing too much of the burden. 

RCAH Dean Stephen Esquith was inspired by the World Peace Games and saw potential for the program to be implemented in Mali, where he has been working for more than ten years. At the time of Hunter’s visit to the RCAH, the West African nation was recovering from the effects of a military coup d’etat and occupation by violent extremists in 2012.

“We (Hunter and I) just got brainstorming about the ways in which the game might be adapted to those circumstances,” Esquith said.

Esquith led a group of RCAH students on a study abroad program to Mali during the summer of 2014. The students worked at the Ciwara school in Kati, just outside the capital city of Bamako.

“Our goal was to see how we could use performance and visual art to create a space that a community dialogue could take place,” former RCAH student Andrew Jason said.

Using painting, drawing, theatre, photography, poetry and other creative forms of expression, the MSU students helped to facilitate community dialogues where Malians could discuss their ideas and feelings about the coup and the future of democracy in Mali freely.

The program was a success, and with the help of Esquith, Ciwara teachers started to develop a “peace curriculum.” Their Mali Peace Game is part of that curriculum. Students use it to discuss all sorts of things – from gender and racial inequality to weapons trading.

As Laya Ouologuem, a 28-year-old teacher at Ciwara, wrote in an email, “The important (thing) is not to solve problems, but the way to solve (them), the different issues that they use to solve. It brings (the students) critical thinking.”

Ouologuem also sent along some of his students’ reactions to the game. They seem to love it.

Habibatou Koïta, a 9th grader, said, “Before I start playing in this game, I couldn’t speak in front of people. But the more I play it the better I am at public speaking. It gives me the opportunity to solve this problem.”

And Mamadou Traore, an 8th grader, said the game has helped him to think about his future career. “I always wonder what I could do after my studies?  (The) Peace Game brings me critical thinking to understand easily what I want. Of course, through the game we talk together about Mali situation. During plenary step we discuss about our experiences about problems in our community, our rights and our responsibilities in Malian problems.”

And so the peace curriculum continued.

The following summer, Andrew Jason and another RCAH student and study abroad participant, Sean Fitzpatrick, returned to Mali with an MSU Honors College grant to help Ciwara teachers with a new initiative: they wanted to distill the crises from the Peace Games into storybooks for younger students, to prepare them to think about the complex issues brought up in the games.

Together, the Ciwara teachers, Jason and Fitzpatrick worked to develop narrative stories out of complex social problems.

The books tell complicated stories in simple, accessible ways. For example, Le Defi (The Challenge) addresses women’s rights through the eyes of a girl who is not allowed to go to school, and another story, Les Culottes Bleus (The Blue Shorts), talks about the aftereffects of war through a child whose father is dealing with PTSD.

“The challenge for the teachers and for us was to think about how to express the same theme on a level that would be appropriate and through, not a political simulation, but a narrative aimed at younger kids,” Fitzpatrick said.

The teachers were also concerned about the craft of writing. They wanted to leave room for the students to come to their own conclusions about the stories.

“How do we tell it in a way that gets out the themes that we want it to, but also gives the kids enough ambiguity to have their own interpretations and their own take on it? How do we avoid having it be a really obvious moral of the story?” Fitzpatrick said.

The books are an extension of the peace curriculum. Published in French, bamanakan, and English, the stories can also be used to teach languages and social studies.

“The books are about their lives and immediate conflicts that they face,” Esquith said.

A few weeks later, the Ciwara teachers traveled to the U.S. to participate in the World Peace Games Foundation’s master class. They met John Hunter and other teachers who were creating their own versions of the Peace Games all over the world.

During their trip to the United States, the Ciwara teachers worked with Lansing-based fabric artist Chris Worland to create physical copies of the books made from traditional Malian cottons.

Just last week, MSU launched a crowd funding initiative to allow for the photocopying, publication and distribution of the books to schools across Mali. Ouologuem said he hopes to see the game spread even further, maybe even to the rest of Africa. Donate to the project here.

But the story doesn’t end there. The Peace Game is still being played in Mali, and Esquith has begun adapting the games to fit other locales, namely two of the RCAH’s community partners, Peckham, Inc. and the Lansing Refugee Development Center.

Students in one of Esquith’s fall 2015 classes worked with participants in Peckham’s Crossroads program to play the games last year. Those scenarios were also culture-specific. One crisis was based on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Esquith and RCAH Assistant Dean for Civic Engagement Vincent Delgado are now laying down the foundation to start playing the games at Lansing’s Refugee Development Center. The RDC participants are using clay to create physical representations of the challenges they’ve faced as refugees. They’re also exploring complicated issues in other mediums, including books and theatre.

No matter where the game is played – in Mali, Lansing or elsewhere – it encourages youth to be involved in their communities.

“Populations are getting younger and we depend on young people to be responsible citizens,” Esquith said. “It’s part of their civic education and they’re part of an important demographic. Their presence matters, so you want them well informed and you want them confident in their ability to engage people in discussion and be active listeners.”

Story by RCAH student Kelsey Block.