A Discussion with Sean Callaghan, Operations Manager, 28 Too Many

With: Sean Callaghan

December 3, 2018

Background: Sean Callaghan is a versatile and committed activist who focuses on the challenges around conflict, gender, and livelihoods, primarily in Africa. During a visit to the Berkley Center in Washington DC, he discussed his path and various forks along the way, from growing up in Apartheid South Africa to his current diverse portfolio and focus on mentoring activists working for social justice. His work with networks of activists across different African countries has given him insights into the challenges of working for different causes, including forming and benefiting from networks and the tough task of funding the work. Sean discussed his religious path, from a Catholic upbringing to work with evangelical networks at school and in university to theological studies and reflections that included work as a pastor. This gave him access to evangelical networks across eastern and central Africa. The discussion turned to his intensive work on issues linked to gender-based violence, including female genital cutting and sexual violence.

Your current work is extraordinarily diverse and demanding. How did you come to this point?How would you describe your background?

I was born in Port Elizabeth (South Africa), in the 1960s. Thus I grew up in South Africa under Apartheid. That was the context, and it was grounded in separation, of everything. It was not that I never met a person of color, but never in situations that were not power differentiated.

I grew up Catholic. My mother was involved in charity work, from a Catholic space. That meant clothing collections, feeding schemes, soup kitchens, etc. She worked in the South African context, during the1970s.

I have a distinct memory of an incident that must have been in 1976 or 1977. My mother and a group of friends were providing school lunches to kids from a township school. She took me along to deliver sandwiches to the school. I was about 13 years old. As we drove into the township, there was an absolute meltdown. We had no idea at the time what was happening, but looking back it is clear there was a forced removal happening. When we got to the school, my mother asked the head teacher what was going on? She was concerned by what would happen, including to all the supplies and books, which were likely simply to be dumped somewhere. So we loaded the car full to the roof, with stationary, easers, etc. There was no going back to the school, which closed forever. My mother ended up delivering it all to another school the next day. I can still vividly see that image, from 40 years ago.

It helped me to realize that many in South Africa saw through a one -way mirror, me and my family and colleagues from a place of privilege. I saw my neighborhood reflected back. Black South Africans saw the mirror from both sides as they moved from place to place. That was the first time that I saw the other side of the mirror. And in a sense, I went back to my normal life, with the memory packaged away.

What did you do after this “one way mirror” period?

At age 16, like all South African males, I had to complete draft papers. I filled out an answer that I wanted to be in the medical corps, and that I “wanted to help, not to hurt.” So as a 17 year old, a year later, I was sent off to basic training, and two years of conscription.

I have a very vivid image from January 1982, traveling on the train from Port Elizabeth to the place where I was inducted. As I looked around, I realized that no-one knew who I was; thus I could be anyone. And I made a choice to be Rambo. That was a shift as I had always been a nerd, albeit one who struggled with academics for a time. And when I was in the service I lived the part, volunteering consistently for anything dangerous. I began with operational medical training, then went on, and was deployed in northern Namibia, and with the 32nd battalion that operated inside Angola. I was with the special forces, effectively the paramilitary: I was a medic but also a fighting soldier. I spent 18 months in the operational area. A large chunk of that was with Koevoet [a counter insurgency branch of the South West African police]. It was involved with bounty hunting and dealing with were captured enemy soldiers. It was a precursor of Vlakplaas, a unit that was set up basically as a hit squad in South Africa. It was incredibly brutal; everything had a price. We went into battle every week and would come back with bodies strapped to the mudguards. I stayed at a place where there were two bases next to each other, a white base and a black base. I stayed in the black base.

The experience, of course, opened my eyes to the horrible world of conflict. I came home with a lot of post-traumatic stress and suffered with it for 15 years.

How was religion a part of your life at this period?

When I was in high school, I was involved in Youth for Christ, an evangelical youth movement. In the South African context, it was one of the few places where black and white teenagers were meeting as peers.

I came back after my military service to university (the University of Port Elizabeth), and got involved with them; I was running youth clubs. There, I began to meet other leaders. I joined an evangelical charismatic church at university I was first in my class (studying IT). After I graduated I took a gap year that ended up being a three-year gap, with the Youth for Christ team. By the third year, I was leading teams that were to do evangelization in high schools in the townships. That was, in fact, the whole stated aim, almost a hit, and run, campus crusade type approach. In that third year, it was 1990, the year of unbanning of organizations. It was also when an internal civil war was heating up between the ANC and IFP [African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party]. I was living in Soweto and there was a growing civil war there and in other townships. Kids were trying to go to school, and meanwhile, the teachers were boycotting. I made a fundamental decision that we simply could not go to these schools and ask kids to go to Jesus. So we would go to the head teacher in the morning, say that we had training and degrees. So I deployed the team each day to teach a class. That led to many conversations, during break times.

As I look back, that was a time when I was starting to understand that integral mission was something holistic. It was not about what happens after you go to heaven, but how to impact society in the here and now.

After YFC, I joined an Anglican Church NGO, the National Initiative for Reconciliation in 1991. It was founded by David Bosch. He wrote a seminal book on the integral mission, but at that time he was just my boss. I became their national coordinator through the end of Apartheid in 1994. Starting at that point, I was going to meetings of the South African Council of churches, IDASA [The Institute for Democratic Alternatives in South Africa], etc. and meeting black activists.

This was a point (1990) where my path diverged: a major fork in the road, towards the life I have lived since.

Where did this new fork in the road take you?

Some years later it took me to the Truth Commission.

The church that I went to back in university days had a leader who was behind the Lion Life Resource Program, that was working with a township. They were involved with leadership equipping. But it later came out that the organization was a front for an Apartheid government effort to identify young leaders, who would then be incarcerated, etc. My pastor knew that; he was working with the Apartheid regime. The theme of faith and justice and how it was intertwined with the state in collusion was a complex thing. Coming to appreciate that started me on a journey of engaging, and realizing that I was on the wrong side.

I was one of the few conscripts who went to Truth Commission and gave testimony. I was thus quoted quite extensively in the final Truth commission report. The only way to be part of the process, to get in, was to apply for amnesty, which I did. I was a perpetrator. My requests, most of them, were denied, as I was seen as an unreliable witness. Most academic books present me in a negative light because I was one of the few voices telling a harsh story. That was the point; I was determined that this was a story that has to be known, and if that makes me a fool, so be it. Years later a colleague took me aside, in Burundi, saying he needed to ask me how, as a perpetrator, I changed.

But you were almost a child soldier, 17 at the time.


What happened then along the path?

Somewhere in this process I got married, and that forced me to find healing. There was no real support then for post- traumatic stress. I found one small NGO, out of Witwatersrand. I engaged with them, and for a period, 10 days, ended up in a military hospital in the psychology ward. What I had experienced till then fitted me only to be a soldier, not a father. But I continued down the healing path. I did a stint in the corporate sector, in strategic communications and advocacy, but came to realize that I could never have a life around selling widgets. I took to work with NGOs then and set up my own consultancy, which effectively I have been doing for some 20-25 years. Doing my own things. I got involved for a bit with the Peace Secretariat.

What was that?

It was a South African UN type entity that grew to address the 1990s conflicts. The effort involved front line monitors and trying to mediate through the transition period. I was working on the ground during the elections, for the Secretariat, and worked on peace education. I then worked for an architectural practice, rebuilding the commuter rail structure, which had been a focal point of so much of the killings that were associated with the violent end of Apartheid. Judge Goldstein (now with the ICC) highlighted that role in his 1994 report. I was living at the time in Johannesburg, where I had moved after university.

I worked with ACCORD (The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes), an NGO working on mediation and negotiation across Africa. That took me into Intercongolese issues and the Burundi peace process. In 1996 I moved to Durban (the work with ACCORD was with their Durban group). I also was doing freelance work with various NGOs.

Thus NGO relationships became the focus of my experience. I found myself focusing on their endgames: as a basic question, what is the organization trying to achieve, and when would it have achieved it?

I remember, though, the ambivalence about NGO roles in South Africa during that period, as many who had been civil society activists moved into government roles and doubted any continuing need for NGOs.

Yes. For some, the need for NGO work was over in 1994, and many lost jobs. Organizations and actors had to reimagine their basic functions, to see things from another side of the coin. So much of the movement (as is too often the case) had been framed in the negative: what we are trying to end, not what we are trying to build. The framing was anti-Apartheid. Organizations were all over the map on what came afterward, and they were splintered. This happens with many movements, the most classic case being the Arab Spring. It was about ending dictatorship, but with no real sense of what would come after. And so often what came after was worse than before.

You mentioned that you were now a father. When were your children born?

My first child was both in 1995, the second in 1999 and the third in 2001.

And how were you involved with religion at this point?

In the midst of all that I became the pastor of a church, back in Johannesburg, when I had been involved in church planting. My church was in one of the melting pot communities, reasonably urban, with a post-Apartheid spirit. We were working to build a faith community that was multi-class, multi-racial, and multi-lingual. That was challenging, and the multi-class was the most challenging. I had to be incredibly intentional about how you gather everyone, where everyone has a place and can contribute. I had to work out: what does social justice look like? What does it mean to be evangelical in that space? How do you engage with neighbors who include those who are homeless, LGBT, orphans, drug users, etc.? We had to live outward into that space.

I really had little theology at that stage. I had my Catholic upbringing and the evangelical “head in the sand” ethos. So I did a masters degree in applied theology, part time, at Pretoria University. That helped me to think about the topic. At the same time, I started to read Brian McLaran’s stuff. He tends to be seen either as the Messiah or the Devil: either a pariah or venerated. His work gave a language to what I was experiencing. And I concluded that I needed to find out whether he was going to be helpful to my path forward.

So I came here to the United States, to Washington, to a retreat for young pastors. I booked a flight home from DC for three days after the event, with no stated plan. What I hoped, however, was that I could simply to stay with him and that is the way it worked out. I spent the days with him and established a friendship. That helped me understand in new ways, with a theological frame and language. There were not many South Africans and other Africans in that conversation. He suggested that I should meet a Burundian that he knew, so when I was back in South Africa, I flew up to East Africa (where I had traveled a bit before) and met Claude Nikondeha. I also stayed with an Anglican priest who was working on reconciliation (that was in 2005). That was the beginning of the emergence of a network.

How did that network develop?

In these conversations, we spoke about combining out networks and expanding them. We began to ask various Christians whether there was anyone they knew who was a bit crazy, doing weird stuff: Jane working in brothels in Rwanda, for example. We were looking for evangelicals who were interested in social justice. We found about 300 people through our networking, and we decided to gather and have a meeting, for a week. We had no money. However, we invited some friends from the North, Americans, and Europeans, including Brian McLaren. They paid a significant amount to be part of it, which helped to cover the cost. And we gave them the task of coming as listeners. And thus we created a space. The first gathering in 2006 was in Uganda. We gave the network the name Amahoro, a word for Shalom in Burundi and Rwanda: it is a greeting, meaning “peace be with you.” Thus exchanging the hope for peace is in the very greeting.

We realized that the American friends who came to our gatherings had an articulation of social justice and theology, but not much practice. The Africans were doing it but did not have clear ways to articulate what they were doing. This was just after the civil war in Burundi. Claude was asking questions about what his faith had to say about conflict and reconciliation. Burundi was close to the bottom of the HDI rankings [Human Development Index]. That was part of the unfinished discussion, and what came out was that we would meet again the next year. The network met pretty consistently for ten years, with cohorts coming from different countries. Some have spun off new networks, starting on new journeys. Pretty much everyone I work with today goes back to the people in that initial gathering in Kampala. But the original network no longer meets as such.

What was the next fork in your path?

The Amahoro experience took me far deeper into a global engagement, with a wider range of partners.

Around that time, the church I had pastored had been going for five years or so. And I am much more an entrepreneur than a manager. I had undertaken a quite massive theological journey, through the Master’s program and Amahoro. I realized that being a pastor of a church was not what I wanted to be. It was time for a change. Further, I was becoming somewhat stale, even bored. I had worked to raise up other leadership (that church is now in the third generation of leadership, truly home-grown leadership that is deeply engaged in social justice work in the community). I had met and engaged with some strange bedfellows (I include McLaran and his group). I was also talking to the Anglicans, the South African Council of Churches, and others, and was involved in discussions about the state of contextual theology in my denomination, which had been a very reformed evangelical, charismatic white church before the end of Apartheid.

I had met the church planting team of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church, in New York City and agreed to move there. I handed over my church and other work and was applying for a Green Card. I did not want a want religious worker visa, as I wanted and needed to do consultancy work alongside the church role. But my Green Card application came in the period just post 911, and I was caught in the Homeland Security realities. My history of activism made me a “person of interest”, a security threat, and it became clear that there would be no Green Card. So I was in a crisis. In a leap of faith, I had handed over the church and sold my house. We were basically homeless for six months, sleeping on friends’ couches, with a wife and three children, still in South Africa.

I had ancestral rights to the UK. We processed and got residence cards, within a 48 hour period, and ten days later moved to London, albeit with no real plan. For a time I did a bit of consultancy. I then met some people at Tearfund. They wanted to start something called Inspired Individuals. The CEO at the time, Matthew Frost, was inspired by Ashoka and the work of Bill Drayton (he had worked at McKinsey). I had consulted with Ashoka in South Africa so had experience in the area. Tearfund gave me a contract to build the new program, and I did that for the next eight years. The aim was to build a mentoring program for faith-based activists. I was able to piggyback it from the Amahoro networks; many of those activists were selected into the program. Then, three years ago, my team got pink slips as Tearfund moved towards programs seen as more aligned with Tearfund’s core mission.

My two oldest children had taken like ducks to water to the UK, but not my youngest. He found the UK schools brutal and unkind, and we were home schooling him for 18 months. The American style approach was far more helpful to him, and we went through a process of elimination to find a school like that. We ended up with a school in southern Germany, where English was spoken, and the system was American; it served mostly missionary types and NGOs. We applied, and my son was accepted, though not as a boarder. (He has done very well there).

So four years ago we relocated to Germany. I have done consultancy work around the world, from there, building on various networks including Inspired Individuals, African Road, etc. There were many NGOs that I knew, coming out of the original Amahoro gathering and others who had joined. The network was a social capital that I continue to mine.

How would you describe the network?

Probably some one thousand organizations and people have been involved for over ten years in some way. Of those, between 100 and 300 are significantly connected to each other. That means sharing resources and working together on projects: projects like addressing sexual violence and responses to it in Kenya, domestic servitude in Tanzania, human trafficking in Uganda, peace and conflict youth clubs in the DRC, and political advocacy in Burundi. Some take work on healing memories from South Africa and roll it out elsewhere. Some members are pastors, NGO leaders, business leaders, teachers, and health workers.  

What has become of it? Is it still alive?

It was really part of a phase. The network itself does not meet annually anymore. Why? In some sense, it ran out of steam, and it also ran out of funding. The two are linked.  Work that is pan-national in Africa, expecting people to come on their own dime, is difficult. But the network pops up still. In Uganda, for example, the same group of people gathers for a leadership summit. Rene August in Cape Town keeps alive networks formed for post-Apartheid reconciliation in South Africa.

Part of what the network did was to connect with other movements around the world. An example is La Red del Camino in Latin America. Links were built around Integral mission and social justice. We connected with Rene Padilla, the father of integral mission as a theological framework, There were connections around First Nations in Canada, with Sami Awad in Palestine, church activists in West Papua, that sort of network. We were linked to Emergent and Sojourners in the US and various splinterings of those groups. In a sense, there is a gathering of the clan.

Have you been connected to the Fellowship group?

No. We have met some of the members and networks, however.

What kind of mentoring do you do now?

My basic questions are how to meet the need for a unifying, viable vision. How do you build a movement? How do you win the peace even if one does not win the election? I find myself in funny space, often posing or answering questions like the common one: “what are you prepared to sacrifice?”

So where do you see yourself now?

Two things summarize where I have got to. And there is a big question at the end.

I see my life essentially in three phases, all centered around visionaries. At first, I was working for visionaries, to make something happen, in line with a vision. That included things like national reconciliation. The second was very much being a visionary: establishing a church, a network. And the third is mentoring other visionaries. All are framed within a social justice frame. The inspired individuals I was selecting were building social capital.

Then there is the question of which issues? What am I doing? There I see three things, focused on the patch of the world around East Africa and the Middle East. The issues are conflict reconciliation, gender, and livelihoods. Climate change does not come near the radar as such. The way that climate change shows up is in conflict and livelihoods, and, most dramatically, it affects women.

And the big question at the end? I am 55, thus with perhaps 15-20 years of useful life left. I need to work out the best vehicle to make the best legacy impact on those three issues, within the context and the people I work with. I am looking for opportunities to bring about change and to invest in quite significant strategic things, trying to figure out how to support that change.

What about the organization 28 Too Many? The focus is very specific, on female genital cutting/circumcision (FGC).

Dr. Anne Marie Wilson started the organization about five or six years ago. It is a research institute, looking at FGM in the 28 African countries that practice it the most. The aim is to find ways to have an impact for change, developing research and making it available to policymakers and activists to shape programs. We do that through two primary streams: first, country profiles that review FGM and its dynamics at the country level, and second, thematic, cross-cutting reports. As examples, we have looked at medicalization, law, anthropology, religion, and diasporas.

How did you get involved?

Anne Marie was a mentee, and became ill and was unable to give the organization the focus it needed. So I agreed to step in for a season, with the idea of taking it up a notch. We have an incredibly small team, with not a single full-time staff. The work is completely virtual. Many work part time in different places. We meet as a core management a couple of times a year. We have a large volunteer base and a good network of people in Africa.

How do you see the agenda today? How much progress do you see in ending the practice?

It is significant that FGM is on the agenda. It was not ten years ago. SDG 5.3 is clear, and there is a target that is measurable. There are shapers, programs, funding, and interventions. There is almost universal legislation, so FGM is illegal in almost all countries. But, almost equally universally laws are ineffective. The most effective stuff is at the grassroots, with efforts to shift culture and thus shift levels. Communities locally are coming up with ways to change the practice.

There is still a massive amount of misperception, particularly in the West and among donors and the development community. For example, there is a belief that FGM happens around puberty and primarily in the Muslim context. Those assumptions are almost knee-jerk. What helps to bring change is data and visualization. Then you can show the different groups, and help to dispel the mythology. There are vast differences in the ages when it occurs, the meaning for local communities, and different religious spectrums. This is important because the interventions have to be vastly different. They need to reflect age, religion, and what drives those who are making the decisions.

Another thing that is vitally important is that the practice is clearly tied to gender empowerment more broadly. You simply cannot get to an end solution without thinking about gender dynamics. The practice of FGC is intimately tied to belonging, identity, and marriageability.  The western donors make a massive mistake in this area, notably in misdiagnosing collective identity and its importance. It is all very well to say, give agency to the girl so that she refuses FGM, but then she loses her identity, her community, and her life. It is a false choice. I sat with an activist from Somalia. Her mother had protected her, but she went and sought it out herself, because she was so ostracized, and felt so much peer pressure.

How do you see the best ways to approach gender based sexual violence?

We are working in Kenya, in particular, on that issue. There is an activist network of, mostly, survivors. They are trying to do two things: to support survivors, through psychosocial and medical support, and to build the knowledge base as a way to create advocacy for the government (national and local). The phenomenon is completely systemic in Kenya, a complete failure of the system. The rough numbers that an academic department came up with are stunning: 200,000 sexual assaults a year, half on children. 2000 of those cases get as far as being reported or investigated by the state medical examiner; 200 provide DNA samples, 20 cases go to court, and there are two convictions. The government ordered rape kits for the last election. They never got sent to hospitals, and they had ordered 200 for the whole country. The groups are trying to close the gap on evidence collecting, to make DNA accessible with intimate swab collection.

There is much more scope for grassroots, non-medical, self-examination. Psychology departments can work on issues of memory: memory loss and capture. There are mobile apps to train grassroots activists, for initial interviewing, for example, in psychologically sound ways. That can help to cement the memory imprint for the many years it takes to move a case through the system. They are trying to use similar technology to collect GIS data: what are the patterns for the time of day, place, etc.? If you see a recurrence, for example, of events on Friday afternoons at 4 pm, you can do something. The idea is to make big data work.

Another initiative and idea is to build a DNA data base, and start to profile perpetrators: this kind of person, by ethnicity, tribal group, professions, etc.  This is now a reality. The UK has
the biggest DNA data base by percentage of the population in the world: there are 60 percent hits on crime scene samples, crime scene to crime scene matches. It is expensive, so what is possible in low resource contexts? Swabs of DNA last 100 years; they do not degrade. So as long as you can get samples, you can extrapolate. How is that possible in conflict zones like East Congo, South Sudan, for marauding militia groups. Ideally, you could trace individuals and groups and provide the kind of data you would need for an ICC mass atrocity trial. The
Wangu Kanja Foundation in Kenya is working to build a national network of survivors, looking at every county, thus a network of 47 counties.

Another big issue is trafficking and sex work. A conversation with Women at Risk (an Ethiopian NGO) in Addis Ababa highlighted two pieces of the puzzle. They have one of the most effective rescue and rehab programs in the world, with a 98 percent success rate in terms of sustainable lives after sex work. They have worked with 1,000 women over 20 years. But in that same period, the number of sex workers in Addis has risen from 80,000 to 120,000. So what they are able to do is really spitting into the wind. When you consider that each of those sex workers sees 10 clients a week, there may be 1.2 million transactions in a city of four 4 million, half women, half children. That basically means almost everybody, every week. The problem is systemic, and it needs to be addressed that way.

How does this link to the #MeToo and related issues?

I see that virtually every woman and family member I know notes their own stories on their Facebook feeds. It is not a question of a few bad apples. Systemic change needs to happen, in a preventive way. Helping survivors, however important, is not enough. There are consortiums of different activists, working in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mexico City, Rwanda, etc. What is needed is an idea of what a prevention strategy would look like, especially in the in faith space. Most that are engaged focus on rescue. It would help to map that out, and then look to prevention: map that out. How much money, person time, etc? What is the size of the market? Then look to prevention. It would help to have a clearer idea of how much is really spitting in the wind, and try to imagine moving upstream into prevention.

I see three strands. First, a focus on at risk communities, to reduce the push. Second, working on law enforcement and legal frameworks (which are best placed to reduce sexual exploitation). What might be the effect of decriminalizing? And third, working around demand, the broader #MeToo challenge. What would it look like? That means working on masculinities.

Then we could identify and pilot some stuff, and start to scale it. There is a good global network, notably the ICAP brand (International Christian Alliance Against Prostitution). There is a platform. It needs funding, research, and pilots.

How do you see the gender dynamics in work on reconciliation?

The Anglican priest I worked with in Rwanda works with perpetrators and survivors for reconciliation. He highlights that the genocide was a gender-based process, and so reconciliation must be also. The perpetrators were mostly men, and the violence was, to a large extent, men on women. Much of it was sexual. Men are asking women survivors for forgiveness. So there are important gender dynamics in the process. In Rwanda, 60 percent of the members of Parliament are women, but the levels of domestic violence are reported at 44 percent.

Galatians 3.28 needs to come into the conversation: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He has written a curriculum and piloted it in Rwanda. He draws on it for a three-day event where he unpacks gender dynamics, with some rudimentary theology, at the village level. When he did that in Rwanda and posted pictures on social media, he immediately had requests for information from South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Ghana. There are a need and an appetite. What he does is less complex than a lot of stuff for example World Vision’s Channels of Hope. And it is not purely secular, like Plan International. There is much scope for example for the training of trainers along these lines.