Samuel Mahaffy’s recent article for the Peace and Collaborative Development Network, Georgetown University, presents host ideas in a contemporary and frighteningly relevant perspective. In ‘The Co-Construction of “The Enemy”‘. Mahaffy examines how in the current situation and in history, the discourse we have and accept about our enemies may be an important part of sustaining them.
Mahaffy start from the African proverb above – a key step in resolving conflict is to meet people as people, rather than as ‘the Enemy’. This is a controversial area, of course. Nobody wants to see violence and intolerance triumph. And yet time and again, history shows that in the end, we end up talking to ‘the enemy’, as part of a step to building a better future. Mahaffy writes:
An African proverb provides a germinating seed for an alternative narrative about the enemy: “When we eat from a common dish, we have no enemies.” It is the wisdom of Africa that the world is never clearly black or white. There may be the friend ontologically nestled and residing within our construct of the enemy. In the presence of the enemy is the potential for the friend with whom we can break bread. The work of Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey (2014) in Host Leadership suggests that the notion of hosting or breaking bread together has historically served to disrupt the construct of the enemy. The one we share a meal with is no longer faceless.
Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff in the late 1990s and spent a lot of time in clandestine discussions with the factions in Northern Ireland. In his subsequent books Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, Powell shows again and again the inestimable value of getting people around a social situation like a dinner table, as opposed to across a negotiating table. Both these books are well worth reading for practicalities of getting people around a ‘common dish’.
And yes – the person who brings the people together and provides both the dish and the setting where it’s all possible is the host. That’s why we think Host Leadership matters today.