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September 17, 2013

The “Old Lady” Model of Dispute Resolution

by Admin

The Venerable Paul Shaibu Katampu of St. Nicholas Seminary, Cape Coast describes his dream for the Anglican Communion and offers some advice from the Ghanaian old lady principle.


Like Martin Luther King, I also have a dream.  A dream that the Anglican Communion will stand more united than it has ever been.  I have a dream that unity in diversity will become more of a reality than a catch word in the vocabulary of members of the Communion.  I have a dream that the philosophy of the ant that “together we shall build” shall become a reality in the Anglican Communion.  I have a dream that the Anglican Communion will become increasingly aware that all the fingers are not the same and that no single finger can do it all.  We are all unique in what we are able or unable to do, in what we have or have not, and only we can fill our gap in the universe.

There is hope.  The Book of Proverbs says that a true friend is one who may hurt you at a time for your good (Pro. 27:6).  And if this is true and anything to go by, then, I believe that in the midst of all the hurts, chaos, trials and temptations currently running through the church, there is still hope.

Let us reflect soberly on the following questions;

  1. Can we live with and love those who draw different conclusions from scripture?
  2. Can we get on with the important imperatives of faith and put aside things we do not clearly understand?
  3. Does gender always have to match anatomy or is there room for variation in God’s plan, perhaps to test us?
  4. Does Jesus’ imperative to love even our enemies, forgive and seek forgiveness and manifest humility answer these questions and best advance the gospel?
  5. Is God pleased when infighting trumps the desperate needs of our brothers and sisters around us?
  6. Would the Good Samaritan have checked the robbery victim for his gender identity and colour?
  7. What does Jesus choosing a Samaritan as the hero of his parable tell us about how he values and promotes inclusiveness?
  8. Remember the text of his story was the question: what shall I do to inherit eternal life? (Luke 10:25).  Most clearly, the answer was not doctrinal unanimity but ethical compassion.

A Community: In My View

Every society needs identity, survival and continuity.  Despite this quest, no society is devoid of challenges and difficulties that make the attainment of such aspirations difficult to come by.  But, in the midst of all these challenges are also opportunities.  What is necessary is for every society to use the avenues of talking and listening to strengthen their relationships as they continue to do God’s work.  It is for this reason that I cherish and honour the Continuing Indaba process.

Talking and listening is not an end in itself (not the solution).  It is a process towards achieving appreciable solutions that enhance good relationships.  In every relationship everyone wants to be seen, wants to be heard, and wants to know whether what he/she is contributing towards the debate is valued.  When this privilege is undermined, many things can happen.  For instance, some people eat when they are angry.  Others fight when they are hungry, while others go into solitude.  Hunger for recognition, hunger for value, hunger for the need to be seen and heard will necessarily lead to one form of action or another.  Different reactions occur in a society, but how to manage these reactions is what names the community.

A Pastoral Reflection

When Hagar was angry and disappointed at the treatment meted out to her by her mistress Sarah, she resorted to flight.  When the prophet Elijah realized that all the odds were against him, he resorted to flight also.  In each of these flights, some useful lessons can be explored to console those of us in the Anglican Communion who have either taken to flight or are considering flight as the next option.  There is hope that everything is not as bad as we perceive it to be.  There remain more opportunities to explore before the final flight (if there will be any need at all for flight).  I will explore the flight of Elijah to bring home my point.

First, why was Elijah fleeing?  He had just come out victorious in the contest between him and the prophets of Baal.  King Ahab, who was an eye witness and husband to the queen Jezebel, reported to his wife how Elijah had tormented and humiliated the prophets on their side.  Jezebel swore by the gods that she would treat Elijah the same way that he (Elijah) treated the prophets.  Elijah knew that the treatment he meted out to the prophets was such that he would not want to go through a similar treatment.  To avoid such a treatment, Elijah decided to run for his life (1 Kings 19:1-4).  What is interesting to note about Elijah here is that in his zealousness for the work of God, he did to others what he would not have others do to him.  If the community must stay together, if we must stay united, then, we must learn that what you deserve for yourself others deserve for themselves also.  We must respect and value each other, feel for each other and understand that our actions are being observed; that people will react in equal proportions to what we do.  In fact, heightened dictatorship is matched with equal resistance and opposition.  In a warring situation there is neither victor nor vanquished. Just as Jesus advises us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), we must also learn to dialogue without getting tired.

Second, one would expect that because Elijah was running for his life (survival) he would do everything possible to preserve it (his life).  But, flight generally leads to frustration, self dejection, self disillusionment and sadness.  In 1 Kings 19:4, Elijah throws in the towel when he declares It is enough; now Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.  Indeed, flight does not necessarily lead one to the desired destination.  Many a time, the frustration in the course of the flight reminds us that it would have been better to stay and solve the problem from which we are fleeing.  Elijah realizes the flight will not solve the problem.  Many of us are also aware and know that fleeing will not solve the problem, but we are still prepared to flee.  We would flee because the options available for resolving the issue seem limited.  They are limited to the conservative traditional fights that demoralize us both physically and spiritually. Elijah would run away because Jezebel was not seeking him to ask why he behaved in a certain manner.  It was not a meeting to discuss but to condemn.  In the same vein, when we find fault in the Communion do we convene conferences to discuss and inform or to rebuke what we consider unacceptable?

Third, sometimes we claim to be more zealous than even the God from whom we derive our zealousness.  We seek to condemn because we feel God is too slow to anger. When in our opinion others are violating the tenets of God, we speak and command down fire from heaven to consume them.  In the course of doing so, we behave like those who speak without willing to listen.  We claim to have all the answers to the solution of the perceived violation.  And anybody who speaks for what we condemn is considered as belonging to the other camp.  This is usually the beginning of naming the “other” and separating “them” from “us”.  The Prophet Elijah was a victim of unrealistic zealousness who had to be reminded by God.  Elijah claimed

I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. (1 Kings 19:14)

But God said to him, Go, return…I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him. (1Kings 19:17-18)

The point I am making here is that God reminded Elijah that there are still “good” people in the midst of all those he is condemning.  We might be weak in one aspect but strong in another that can advance the work of God.  We need all, both “good” and “bad”, for the survival of the Anglican Communion.  I am not an advocate for “sin”, I am an advocate for genuine humility.

I will now spend a little bit of this discussion focusing on an African model of problem solving that might be helpful.  This model is called the “Old Lady” model.  It has succeeded in bringing many warring factions together again to enjoy and experience the love and peace of God.

The Old Lady Model for Dispute Resolution

Why an Old Lady?  The old lady principle resonates with the biblical feminine use of the term Sophia.  It is generally a Ghanaian myth, but my reference is made specifically to the Northern Region of Ghana understanding and interpretation.  In the African conflict and arbitration process, when all the tools, including the bows and arrows, the javelins and knives, the elders, the soothsayers and diviners, the witches and wizards have all been used without any one party claiming victory, the final resort is to contact the “old lady”.  Let’s examine some of the qualities and characteristics of the old lady that make her a final resort for peace building.

  1. The old lady is assumed to be available always and makes time for all to sit with, talk with, listen to and feel her presence.
  2. The old lady is quite assuring, caring, empathetic and sympathetic, loving, gentle and approachable.
  3. The old lady is a woman of substance who has come to her current age accumulating experiences of both pain and joy, victories and disappointments, love and heart-break.
  4. The old lady considers all as her grandchildren. She does not discriminate. Her goal is to keep the family together as a single unit.

When warring factions, therefore, finally decide to go before the old lady, who through the period of their differences has concentrated on calling upon the ancestors and the gods to visit her grandchildren with favour, the case is always that they have exhausted all other avenues.

How has the old lady consistently succeeded in reconciling everyone?  What is the secret that makes her the final and ever successful arbitrator?  The qualities of the old lady have already been expressed above and we will just follow from there.  This is the secret.

First, the old lady makes herself available to all warring factions.  She makes time to listen to them and is careful in selecting words of consolation to reassure her grandchildren that all is not lost.

Second, she does not go to any one party with a stick for them and to the other a stock. She is neutral and her neutrality is obvious to both or all parties by word and deed.

Third, she approaches the factions with one goal: the goal of uniting them and not that of finding out who is wrong and who is right.

In sum, the old lady succeeds in all her arbitrations because she is aware that each party’s claim to be right cannot be disputed.  She is also aware that each party is hopeful that when the old lady comes they will have the opportunity to tell her how much the other party has hurt them, and why they are not prepared to forgive them.  At best they will say that they will forgive but will not forget.  The conscious desire to forgive and not forget in itself presupposes that the story of the cause and course of the conflict will be handed down from one generation to the other.  The old lady disappoints these parties in all these expectations and this is how she does it.  She begins arbitration, not from finding out who is wrong and who is right.  She does not move into the arbitration hoping to find solutions to the conflict.  She begins the arbitration process with a strong desire of uniting the parties.  She, therefore, has “no judgment” as one of her tools of arbitration.  She reminds all parties that irrespective of their differences, they are still one people with a common destiny.  And indeed all the parties agree that they have a common ancestor and the old lady cannot be wrong here.  As the old lady begins to discuss the things that unite them instead of the things that divide them, the tempo of the discussion becomes productive, much more acceptable and admirable.  Very often, by the time they are half way through discussing the issues that unite them as a people, the process of healing, reconciliation and integration begins to develop.  The principle of reminding all factions to think more of the issues that unite them than those that separate them is a good recipe for sustained peace and development.

The Church has a lot to learn from the old lady’s arbitration model.

  1. We should learn to make time for all to participate in our debates.  Debates should not be left in the hands of only big conferences and church leaders.
  2. The church should learn to share both human and spiritual resources without boundaries.  This will enhance trust and credibility and thus prepare the grounds for moments of need.
  3. Our councils of arbitrators should be made up of those who are well versed at uniting people, and not those who are simply well versed with the churches tradition.
  4. We must begin from peace building and not from fault-finding and solution seeking.
  5. Like the fingers which are varied in length but work more effectively when they are used together, we must learn to appreciate and celebrate our differences.

The “old ladies” in our church would be the elders/leaders of the church who are ready to discuss issues with the ordinary church members before taking decisions at the highest level.  They should be identified at every level of the church.  The old ladies of our contemporary church could follow the good example of Local NGOs in the following scenario.

The Northern Scenario

Northern Ghana is considered as one of the most unstable places in Ghana in terms of tribal and ethnic, as well as chieftaincy, disputes.  In one such dispute, mediation for peace centered on either meeting leaders and representatives of each faction alone or both factions together at a meeting to discuss the conflict.  These strategies never brought reconciliation because there were always those who would not talk at such conferences.  They reserved their questions and answers until the group was back home.  For this reason, the committees never got the right answers that would be useful in resolving the conflict.  Therefore, the conflict continued as if it was not the same people who shook hands at the end of the conference.  Local NGOs involved in the peace process decided to approach the peace building process in a more community-based approach.  They met influential elders and youth at the community level to deliberate on the need for peace and unity for development.  They avoided the temptation of asking about and apportioning blame or guilt.  After a series of meetings and workshops with such elders and youth, they were encouraged to become agents of change and advocates for peace in their various communities.  This process ignited an in-house debate, this time obviously without an “outsider”.  Those who would not talk at conferences were now ready to talk, and those at home, who had influence and opposed what was agreed upon at conferences, were available to participate in the debate.  Consequently, each faction began to call upon its members to seek and maintain peace with the other faction.  Radio stations took up the peace messages that came from both factions.  Calm naturally resumed, not because the one or other faction was right or wrong, but because both factions focused on unity and peace.  Presumably, the process that started by calling for peace and not asking to know who is right or wrong, may lead to a sense of genuine forgiveness and become the solution to our conflicts.


Making all levels of the Communion part of the discussion, and being there to listen to them complain, weep and share their grief is a significant step towards unity and peace-building in the Anglican Communion.  It is my hope that the Continuing Indaba process will influence the conflict resolution strategies of our Communion to change from the top-down approach to the down-up model, by using people at the grassroots who are conversant with the culture of the people, are available for the people and are willing to preach peace and unity tirelessly rather than tradition and doctrines.  We could learn much from “the old lady.”

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