Tanzania native Tito Kilale grew up with the belief that when visiting South Africa, it would be dangerous for him, a black man, to stay in the home of someone who is white. When he arrived in Cape Town in 2006 he was nervous about how he would be treated, but when his hosts welcomed him with open arms, Kilale found he and his hosts were more alike than he thought.
“We are told things (about each other) that are not true,” Kilale said. “It’s good to come together.”
Kilale’s visit to Cape Town was made possible through Friendship Force International, a nonprofit organization with a mission “to explore new countries and cultures from the inside by bringing people together at the personal level.”
This week, the organization is bringing people together at the University of Colorado Boulder. Friendship Force’s 41st World Conference kicked off on Wednesday with about 400 members from 20 countries, Kilale included. Yoshiko Koizumi, left, Kumiko Hashimoto and Nobuko Shimada, all from Japan, take out their fans as they are introduced Wednesday at Friendship Force International’s World Conference at the University of Colorado at Boulder.[/caption]
Kilale had made the 9,000 mile trip from his home country to Boulder for the organizations 41st World Conference on Wednesday.
The conference started Wednesday morning at the Williams Village Dining and Community Center with a welcome from Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones. She said Friendship Force’s mission of building diplomacy through relationships aligns with the city’s vision, adding the need for friendship has never been more important.
“We want to open our arms to (Friendship Force) and what it symbolizes,” Jones said. “When the tone of national politics is divisive, it’s up to all of us to build the connections that bring us all back together.”
The conference was partially sponsored by CU Boulder’s Peace, Conflict and Security Program. The program’s associate director Michael D. English said the world is in a “period of polarization.”
“Relationships matter, it matters that you invite people into your home,” English said. “Violence destroys relationships and once violence gets unleashed, the situation is changed forever.”
That is why Friendship Force invites people to step outside of their comfort zone by visiting other countries and staying with host families. Peace is attained, English said, through close contact with others.
Many conference attendees had been host families and guests around the world.
Toko Yomura, who made the more than 5,000-mile trip from Tokyo to Boulder, has been a Friendship Force member for more than 40 years. She has hosted many members in the past, but one of her favorite memories is having breakfast at the U.S. embassy in Japan.
“That was a first for me,” Yomura said. “Everybody was so impressed.”
Being a host family is about showing others her culture, Yomura said. For her, culture is about everyday things, from home cooking to how one sleeps. She also has three children who she said love to introduce visitors to their way of life.
“They are very pleased to show their origami,” Yomura said. “My daughter and I will show people our music and people are very pleased to hear it.”
Terry Gichuiya, who made the 8,000-mile trip from Kenya to Boulder, said the mission of Friendship Force is to break barriers between people.
“It’s all about peace, friendship and feeling comfortable when we are together,” Gichuiya said.
She said that when people come to stay with her in Kenya, the experience is something they never expected.
“The warmth of Kenyans, our hospitality, our humility … because of that our friendship grows and becomes a family,” Gichuiya said.
Friendship Force’s ideology has made its way to the national stage, with speakers and attendees reminding that former President Jimmy Carter championed a National Peace Academy. More recently, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson has called for a department of peace to be formed in the United States.
But in what many see as a divisive political time, friendships can be tested. Iowa resident Robert Strahan, who fiercely opposes President Donald Trump, knows many of his neighbors support the president. Still, he believes if people took more time to know others on a personal level, more conflicts would be avoided.
“People need to come together and see what is similar even in a radically different political situation,” Strahan said. “I don’t see the hurt in that at all.
As Friendship Force President and CEO Jeremi Snook put it, the organization is about making connections.
“There are so many things that are superficial,” Snook said. “Friendship Force is about finding a way to establish real, lasting connections.”
The conference continues with workshops and tours of Boulder through until Friday. The next conference in 2021 will be held in Taiwan.