Nothing could have kept Walda Blow away from Switzerland this July. It wasn't just the event -'Creators of peace: a women's initiative' - nor the prospect of beautiful mountain scenery that drew her from Melbourne, Australia. It was the fact that the conference had been launched by an African woman, Anna Abdallah, Minister for Agriculture of Tanzania.
'It seems to me that all black people born into the world have suffered,' says Mrs Blow. As an Australian Aborigine, she should know. 'It was incredible to me that this peace movement should come from a black woman. I nearly cried when I got the invitation.'
This isn't just one more women's peace conference. Anna Abdallah had enough of those during the UN Women's Decade. 'At those conferences, we forgot we were women,' she says. 'We didn't talk much about peace, we expressed our countries' political views.' The idea this time is to meet on a different level, 'talking to each other closely and understanding one another'
Anna Abdallah's choice of venue the Moral Re-Armament centre in Caux, Switzerland - fits her aims. Since it was bought by MRA, in a derelict state after World War II, the centre above Lake Geneva has offered people from crisis areas the chance to lay aside their masks and meet as human beings. At the root of every political and social problem, Caux's organizers maintain, there is a human element, which must also be addressed.
So, says Anna Abdallah, any peace initiative has to begin on the personal level. 'You have to take peace as a thing that is part of you, and start out with yourself, with your children, family, husband, at work. As a politician, I know what this means.' The aim of the conference, she tells the opening meeting, is to create the awareness 'that peace is dependent not only upon the important work of disarmament; but also, and perhaps more so, upon the attitudes and decisions of individuals'.
When she talks of peace, she means peace in all its dimensions. 'What peace can exist in an environment of abject poverty?' she asks. The 680 women - and men - who pack the hall, vivid in costumes of 62 lands, have brought with them their experiences of the struggle to create peace, in their countries, in their homes and in themselves. The conference, in the words of a Kenyan delegate, is an 'ideas bank'.
If so, the variety of ideas, worldviews and personalities on offer is mindboggling: the Mohawk clan-mother and the Russian contralto, the QueenMother of Lesotho and the Cypriot TV actress turned politician, the First Lady of Botswana and the American conflict-resolver. The expert on mother-son relationships bounces her theories off the motherin-the-street; Westerners struggling against mental stereotypes talk to Asians concerned about wife-beating; the Nigerian gossip columnist finds herself face-to-face with one of her victims. Yao Hui Xin, from Tangshan, China, describes the struggle to rebuild her city after it was levelled by an earthquake; a widowed mother with cancer speaks of relinquishing the question 'why?' for the question 'what for?'; a young Iranian exile asks how she can forgive those who have hurt her family. And somewhere among the array of seminars on offer, is one 'for men only' on 'Understanding ourselves, and perhaps women'.
The contrasts are startling. For Paula Snellman from Finland the birth of her son Oliver has been the symbol of a new beginning, after 12 years when her determination to control her own life threatened the happiness of her husband, step-children and herself. For the African women I meet immediately afterwards, the issue is not whether to have children, but how to withstand family pressure to have seven or eight.
In this whirlpool of opinions, angles and experiences, it is futile to try and work out who's got it right. Each person's choices have their own validity. Caux's mission is to help people to deepen the basis on which they make these choices, to open their eyes to a spiritual dimension. And who is to say that the God who created this kaleidoscope of peoples is any less inventive in the variety of his designs for their lives?
Take the South Africans, for example. Some of those present are celebrating the birth of the new South Africa, others feel it is still a long way off. Some believe that if you change attitudes, structures will follow; others that injustice must be confronted head on.
'Peace begins with me, but it must not end with me,' asserts Marjory Nkomo, the President of Atteridgeville ANC Women's League. During the troubles of the Eighties, her doctor husband treated people injured by the police. His clinic and their home were bombed and eventually he and their 20-year-old daughter were detained. 'At those prisons I saw a picture of hell.' On behalf of the black mothers of South Africa, she thanks the women of Africa for having looked after their children in exile. Among her concerns today are the needs of former exiles and detainees, who have little reason or inclination to trust the authorities.
Her older compatriot, Marjory Mohlala, has also suffered. When she was six, she tells the conference, she asked why her great-grandmother walked with such difficulty. She was told that her white farmer boss had found her suckling her baby during working hours and, in punishing her, had broken her back. 'When my greatgrandmother died, I wrote on her wreath, "Go well and tell them how you suffered",' says Mrs Mohlala.
She first visited Caux in 1965. 'You find inner peace and forgiveness here,' she says. She returned home determined to 'mobilize black women to uplift the dignity of our people'. Today her Ikageng - 'build yourselves' - movement has 10,800 members. 'For the first time whites recognized that black women would stand up and do things for their own people.' Among their projects is the feeding of thousands of primary-school children who suffer from active tuberculosis. One person dies of TB in South Africa every day, she says. Diet is an important factor in treatment.
Ikageng is represented at Caux by a delegation of 24, including a white woman, Helen Harris. She describes herself as coming from a 'normal Afrikaans home' where she knew nothing of black South Africa. Reality only struck home when she took on the job of chief matron at the largest tuberculosis hospital in the world, in South Africa's East Rand, and saw the extent of malnutrition and poverty in the black community. 'Our statute books have been altered,' she says. 'But it remains for the people of South Africa to change within themselves.'
Amanda Botha, a journalist from Cape Town, describes how a small group of women of different races have been meeting in each other's homes to pray and tell their experiences. 'We lived in a country where we did not know each other,' she says. 'It was so painful, to be quiet and listen to a story you don't want to hear, of the suffering of people about which you feel guilty. Only when we could accept one another's stories unconditionally were we able to ask one another for forgiveness and accept the forgiveness that was offered to us.'
Amidst the diversity, certain themes emerge. One is the question of how to restore democratic values in countries where years of civil war or totalitarianism of right or left have sapped initiative and trust. Jaraslava Moserova - politician, medical consultant, writer and sculptor from Czechoslovakia - speaks of the 'no hope, no risk' mindset.
As a child psychologist, Teresa Palacios de Chavez of El Salvador has watched a generation grow up 'with violence as an everyday issue'. The result, she says, has been 'a basic lack of trust, a defensive reaction towards peers and authority'.
El Salvador has only had seven years of democracy, and faith in the political process is low, particularly among women. So Dr de Chavez - a Christian Democrat - is working with women of different political parties to urge women to use their votes. She is also involved in introducing 15-year-olds to communication skills and democratic values.
The violence has affected her personally. Her husband - now President of the country's Christian Democrats - was Minister of Foreign Affairs during the transition from military to democratic rule. They sent their two teenage daughters out of the country for their safety. Moral values are difficult in a political environment where corruption is accepted, she says. 'This is why many people lack faith in politicians. The struggle is to move towards these values. Your real force is your example and your attitude.'
Elena Nemirovskaya, a Russian art philosopher, is addressing similar issues. Her goal is to open an independent school for political studies for young politicians. 'A lot of Russians today understand democracy only as freedom without responsibility,' she says. The legacy of totalitarianism has been a fear which people in the West find it hard to appreciate. 'You become a two-thinking person - first for your inside life and then for your life in society.' Evil is everywhere, she says - but democratic institutions limit the field in which it can operate.
Like all Caux delegates, Elena Nemirovskaya has been doing her share of the catering work of the conference, as part of an international cookshift. She was moved when her shift prayed together before embarking on making hamburgers for 600. 'I think we cooked a good supper!'
The ethereal setting of Caux, perched between the Alpine peaks and the mirrorlike lake, also speaks to her soul. 'In Russia we think beauty saves the world. If you see this beautiful place, you would like to be better.'
Amidst the beauty, we face the ugliness too. The Australian Aborigines are the most 'institutionalized' people on Earth, Mrs Blow tells us. One hundred young Aboriginal men die in jail every year - reportedly as suicides. 'If young men are suiciding in jail,' she asks, 'why can't Australians sit down and think what is wrong? If only the government would listen to us, rather than thinking they know best.'
Karonhiahente and Konwaitanonha are here to represent a Mohawk Indian community in Canada, which has been involved in a bitter conflict with the government of Quebec. 'We are so small,' says Karonhiahente, 'but we have everything to justify being a distinct people.' Their community is less than 7,000-strong but, given the history of white aggression, this is hardly their fault.
Gladys Gwashure, from Zimbabwe, works with battered women and rape victims. 'How does a woman with a broken arm or rib create peace in a home?' she demands. Catherine Mboya, from Kenya, speaks up for the plight of young unmarried mothers: 'If a girl drops out of school at 13 to have a baby, where is equality then? Governments are so overstretched that they have no time to help failures and only a little time for successes.'
These people don't sit back complaining, but do what they can. Mrs Blow works for reconciliation through her church; Mrs Mboya is involved in primary health care and income generation programmes. Abitimo Odongkara fled into exile with her husband and seven children when Idi Amin came to power in Uganda. She returned to northern Uganda after his fall to open a primary school for children orphaned or displaced by the continuing fighting. She started with eight children, now she has 516. Sixteen of the orphans live in her home.
Small beginnings are powerful agents of peace, maintains Madeleine Barot of France, the Vice-president of the World Conference of Religions for Peace and founder of the French refugee organization CIMAD. She cites the French mothers who, when the Gulf War shattered relations between different communities in France, invited the mothers of their children's Muslim classmates to their homes. The initiative prompted the heads of the different religions in France to set up a council of religions, which will become permanent.
Just when we might be getting complacent, Janet Museveni, wife of the President of Uganda, takes the floor. She has no time for the view 'that women are more peace-loving than men, and that if they were in power the world would be a more peaceful place'. There are too many Lady Macbeths today, she says, rearing their children to hate and avenge. 'What we are is what we impart to our offspring.'
Women must be empowered to take a full part in decision-making, she goes on. But equality isn't only a question of external circumstances. Over the centuries women's self-esteem had been destroyed. 'Nothing short of a miracle will heal the damage. The miracle must be experienced in the heart of every individual woman, where the spirit is healed and set free. Each one must turn inward, to find the Source, to receive her own vision.'
As the women pack their bags and squads of volunteers make up the beds for Caux's next influx - of young people, shortly to be followed by industrialists - who knows how many are carrying away the seeds of that miracle? Or what fruit it is likely to bear?
There are plans to meet again in 1994, and to work on a regional basis in the meantime. Anna Abdallah would like to see teams of women visiting problem areas. 'In African tradition, if a house is on fire, everyone goes to help.' But the place where the initiative will begin, she says, is the address on each delegate's luggage label. 'We should start by converting our homes into peace centres.'