8/31 – What can we learn from tradition and conflict?*

Notes from the Field / August-November 2016

Alain Volz

Alain Volz  conflict

Alain Volz

This article is an English translation of an article previously published in Dutch on July 2nd 2016. With special thanks to Michiel Doorn who helped with the translation.

Those that know me are aware that, already for five years, I have been traveling between Ghana and the Netherlands. In Ghana, I work with the Dagomba tribe in the North. The Dagomba are generally traditional people and religion is important in their lives, as it is in many other areas of Africa. Most Dagomba are practicing Muslims. However, the type of Islam and the way of practicing it is totally different from what we know in the West.

The images about Islam in Europe and the United States are mainly based on the Arabic/North African Islam. The Arabic type of Islam is influential in global economy because of the dominant position that part of the world has as a supplier of oil. The global economy is based on oil and the largest suppliers are in countries that are Arab Muslim. As such the influence in OPEC (and thus, in the global economy) is large.

Most immigrants in Europe come from North Africa. For example, in the Netherlands many immigrants are from Morocco and also from Turkey. In Germany, there is a large community with Turkish roots. In France, many immigrants are from Algeria and Lebanon. The first immigrants came two, even three generations ago and their children have grown up as Dutch, Germans or French. And they are Muslim, although not always practicing their religion. However, a Turk is not a Moroccan, just as a Belgian is not a Dutchman.

In this article I refer to Spiral Dynamics, a model for social development, which acknowledges that there are different realities (worldviews or vMemes) that can exist at the same time and next to each other. Spiral Dynamics brings a sharp view on the complexity and nuances of reality. The great value of Spiral Dynamics, to me, is that it brings a refreshing perspective on societal issues and, by doing so,it shows new possibilities to resolve tensions and conflict. It gives access to alternative solutions for familiar and new issues.


Religion in general – both Islam and Christianity – are according to Spiral Dynamics an expression that primarily manifests in the Blue value system (Authoritarian vMeme). A commonly used synonym for the word ‘value system’ is worldview. Holy writings and rules for the way one should live add structure and form to the manifestation of a belief in a higher truth.

The content of the books and rules differ between religions, but to me the essence isn’t so much different at all. What they have in common is the conviction that we are part of something that is larger and more intelligent than us, human beings, and that we have to submit to, and relate with that higher intelligence. Rules and agreements help us in doing this.

The origin of religion, however, has its roots in another value system. The consciousness that we are part of a larger whole, even if it is only the planet Earth we are living on, has its origin in the Purple value system. This value system also is called “the tribal order” (Tribal mythic vMeme). Essence of the tribal order is – according to me – that we are all connected with another and that we can achieve much more together than as individuals. Family and group are important, often more important than the individual. There is a certain unity and connection; within the group and as a group with the Earth. The most commonly known example of the purple value system are the Aboriginals in Australia. Also with the Dagomba tribe from Northern Ghana this value system is predominantly present, especially in rural areas. More on this further in the article.

Where the Blue value system brings structure and language to an experience of belief, has the Purple value system much more a mystical relationship with that of which we are part of and related in. Both are oriented on the group as a collective. However, some questions remain unanswered; “Where is the individual in the group?” and “Who am I as an individual within the group?” These questions have their origin in another value system, more oriented on the individual.

The tribal value system (Purple) and the structure oriented value system (Blue) are related with another through a value system that answers the two questions in the previous paragraph. This connecting value system is Red, “Power Gods”. The Red value system emphasizes self-expression and manifestation of self (the individual). Decisiveness is the word that I find most summarizing for the Red value system. One could say that the collective consciousness of connection from the tribal order (Purple) manifests through expression of the individual (Red). The authoritarian (Blue) value system brings a framework for ‘healthy’ manifestation by the individual and in the group. Healthy manifestation means here that it serves the larger whole; in this case the group.

There is a certain hierarchy, but not a linear hierarchy. When one lives in a collective (family, group, company, community, society) the question “What is my position in the group?” automatically arises. This is not a question that will be resolved with a definite answer. Because there is constant movement and dynamics in the group, the ‘I-question’ will also constantly return. And, because there is constant change/movement in the group and as a group, does the answer to the I-question also change over time. That is why it is important to ask the question again and again as if it was a new question.DNA spiraal vMemesAt the same time there are certain things that seem to be less influenced by this continuous dynamics of change or does there seem to be a great consent on certain specific matters. In that case it is very valuable to make certain agreements to prevent us from spending our time and energy on something that is stable and commonly accepted. It makes life more easy, decreases the level of tensions/conflict within the group and creates space for other topics that are equally important. The Red value system finds peace in structure and, at the same time, it looks for the boundaries and sometimes stretches/crosses those boundaries. This is a natural (evolutionary) process and part of the individual human need to develop and manifest.

As a source of self-manifestation and individual creativity, the Red value system is very powerful. In the Netherlands there is also fear of this value system. That is understandable, because too much force and self-expression can lead to “unhealthy” forms of expression and even (extreme) force or violence.

The image in Europe of Islam is strongly influenced by violent organizations such as Daesh (often referred to as ISIS) and Boko Haram in northern Africa, as well as by the assault of Al Qaida on the World Trade Center in New York. These are forms of unhealthy Red (Power Gods). However, the expression of George Bush, Jr. “Either you are with us or you are against us” and the declarations by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands area also forms of unhealthy Red.

From the perspective of Spiral Dynamics the clash between the West and groups such as Daesh, Al Qaida and Boko Haram is not so much a clash between Islam and the “free” West. It is a conflict between unhealthy Red against unhealthy Red.  I may write more on this topic in another paper. Now, I want to emphasize and clear up that the picture of Islam as a violent religion is not entirely wrong but definitely very limited.

Islam has a rich history in arts, science and literature. The modern astronomy has its origins in the work by the Moghul in India. The Moghul are Muslims that have lived and ruled over large parts of India for many years. Their knowledge of the stars has been far more advanced than in the Western world. At a time where people in Europe still believed that the Sun was turning around the Earth there were star watchtowers all over India and one could find very detailed and accurate maps of the universe and of the dynamics in our solar system.

The most traditional scientists in Islam were Sufi. Great writers and poets as Hazrad Imrad Khan were Sufi, as were many mathematicians, astrologists and other scientists. The essence of Sufism is – according to me – that science and mysticism are combined. From the deep understanding that reality is far more complex and larger than we humans can comprehend the Sufi aims for connection with reality by research, arts, conversation and meditation. The asking of questions is much more important than the answer and by repetitive asking the same question, again and again, our understanding of reality evolves. At the same time our understanding always is limited to a concept that only comes close to reality; it is not reality, but our understanding of it. This deep consciousness is a characteristic of a Sufi.

Sufi experience a different worldview than the other forms of Islam I described above. In Spiral Dynamics I would describe Sufism as Yellow (FlexFlow) and Turquoise (Wholeview) value systems. These value systems contain a very high level of complexity, and are in general far positioned from the purple, red and blue value systems of Spiral Dynamics. Sufi, in general, have more in common with the carriers of the Rose Cross from Christianity and the Kabbalists in Judaism than with the other forms of Islam. In Sufi temples one can find holy writings of all world religions, such as the Bible, the Kabbalah and Hindu writings, next to the Koran.

Wereld religies

Although I was born as a Jew and predominantly am trained in Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, Muslims that are familiar with Sufism consider me to be a Sufi. I even got married in the Sufi temple in Katwijk (with a self-designed ceremony based on my own spiritual practice) because the regents of the temple considered my view on life and spirituality as that of a Sufi.

As I mentioned before, a large majority of the Dagomba are Muslim. However, the form of Islam practiced by the Dagomba is different from all forms that I know of. Instead of local traditions having been replaced by Islam, Islam was integrated into the local traditions. As with many African tribes, community comes first in traditional Dagomba life: the Purple value system still is dominant with the traditional Dagomba with whom I work and live.

Dagomba key belief is that we are all family and, thus, connected. This is within the tribe, but extends beyond the boundaries of the own community.  In many cases, people are actually related to each other. A man may have a maximum of four wives, as long as he can offer them a good existence. Large families are the norm. What I find especially fascinating is the mixed marriages where one parent is Muslim and the other Christian. In these unions, the children have a fair amount of freedom to make their own choice as far as belief and religion. Even the choice of the individual church or mosque is pretty much up to the children. Consequently, it can occur that within one family, parents and children may visit more than ten different churches or mosques.

During my first visits to the community that had invited me to come to Ghana, I had taken the time to talk with my hosts about my own spiritual practice, which is mainly grounded in Buddhism/Hinduism/Taoism. During these dialogues we found remarkably many similarities in regard to unity and connection. And we also agreed on the need for self-reflection as part of personal and spiritual growth. I also addressed that I am a born Jew and that that identity is important to me as well. I asked if that would or could be a problem for collaboration. The reaction was genuine surprise.

It was explained to me that according to Dagomba belief, Jews and Muslims are brothers, because we have the same forefather Abraham. To them, my being a Jew was more of an advantage than a disadvantage. Today, five years after these initial conversations, I can only confirm that the Dagomba practice what they preach. They have treated me as an equal, in spite of the differences which remains evident. This is new to me, as I live in an area of Amsterdam where I can be scolded or even spat upon when people (immigrants) find out I’m Jewish. I am always astonished how someone who doesn’t know me can hate me, just because of my race or origin. I prefer to focus on my Moroccan baker who always gives me a cookie or an extra croissant and my Turkish green grocer who remains friendly at all times and works around the clock.

So, for the Dagomba we are all brothers and sisters, even if we have another skin color and different ideas about religion. What is much more important to the people I interact with is that one maintains his/her practice seriously and actively works on remaining in contact with the Divine. The people I work with pray five times per day (starting at four am) if Muslim; if Christian they go to an “all night mass” at least twice a week. They are intensively involved with their practice but not dogmatic towards other religious forms.

The dogmatism of Islam that we are familiar in the West comes from the Red value system. The violence that we directly associate with it is an unhealthy manifestation of the Red value system. Holy scriptures (Blue) such as Bible, Quran or Torah are intended to help people develop a healthy expression of Red. Prayer, contemplation, discourse, and self-reflection are ways to achieve that. They help Red to find meaning and sets boundaries for healthy expression. But if one is stuck in Red, for whatever reason, it breeds dogmatism and destruction. We see this with Daesh, even so Christianity also has an intense comparable history all the way up to the present.

Dagomba tradition, rooted in Purple, has a strong sense of hospitality and kindness. In addition, the idea around individual property is rather ambiguous. This is in part because the group is considered more important than the individual, and also the sense of individuality — what we would call Ego — is much less pronounced than in the West. Spiral Dynamics holds that the Ego only begins to manifest itself in the Red value system. I see similarities with Hinduism and more mystical approaches such as Sufism or Kaballahism (in Judaism), because here, the construct  of “individuality” is considered absurd, because we receive everything from the Earth, God(s), Allah, Jaweh and all is offered to us. To us all, and for us all. The Divine doesn’t consider exclusivity, which is a human construct. Sometimes that construct may be healthy, sometimes it is not.


An important difference between the Purple mystic and mystic movements such as Sufism and Kabbalahism (Turquoise values) is that in the latter the individual (Ego) is strongly developed. A paramount practice for such mystics is to develop a strong personality, not for individual gain, but to be of service to the Divine. As such,  these mystics see themselves as servants of the Divine with the task to let he Divine manifest itself through them. Whereas in Purple/Red the individual personality is beginning to develop itself, in Turquoise it is integrated and transformed. This means that choices can be made differently and that there is a difference between the interpretations of boundaries.

Dagomba Purple is rather boundless, and for me personally sometimes too boundless. There are expressions and duties that are sometimes difficult for me, and there are customs that can be peculiar and heartwarming at the same time. I am learning that it is not so much these customs that cause tension, but my judgments about them.

Take helpfulness, for example. In the tradition of the Dagomba it is matter of course to do something for somebody who you don’t personally know, as long as it concerns a request from a brother or sister of the one asking. I was asked by a Dagomba friend if I could help his sister with an invitational letter for a visa, and if I could help with a place for her to sleep that would be inexpensive. At first, I felt quite tense about this request.  Officially inviting someone I do not know? What if this person has plans to stick around or has plans that I don’t know about? My name would be tied to this person. I had many thoughts about risks I could encounter and the responsibility I might have if something went wrong.

I did write the letter and also chose to accept her as a guest in my house instead of making reservations in a hotel. My main reason for doing so was that during my first two trips to Ghana I was treated with similar hospitality. I was happy to return a favor and could hence learn more about the Dagomba and their tradition during our conversations and experience what it was like to step into the role of such a host, myself. Of course all went well and we had a good time together. My hospitality allowed her the possibility to prepare for her marriage with her fiancé who lives in Spain. Without my letter and invitation, she would never had been able to enter Europe.

This gesture increased my status in the community and made my life in Ghana a lot easier. Still, I would not do this for everybody, but it proves that hospitality is rewarded with hospitality, and, as a Dagomba would say — goodness is returned with goodness. I offered my house op for one week and in Tamale I lived a couple of months in her house, because she “Just couldn’t do enough to pay me back for what I did for her.” I think that is a little exaggerated (no payback is needed), but it makes me wonder how we Europeans treat people in Africa; how mistrust and fear governs us, even myself.

Islam has not replaced the original traditions with the Dagomba. Instead ways were found to integrate Islam into the older traditions. Certain Purple values (family sharing, kindness) are still more important. Traditional Dagomba already do a lot for each other and during Ramadan they do even more. Also certain specific rituals have found their way into the mosque. Seen from a Spiral Dynamics perspective, that seems to be a healthy development of the Purple value system toward Red and Blue value systems.

Not all Dagomba are as traditional as the people I live and work with. As a result of Western influences (merchandise, developmental aid, investments) the tradition is under pressure. Additionally, there is a natural evolution, where Purple develops toward Red, according to Spiral Dynamics. Justifiably so, this is worrisome. Tamale is the third city in Ghana with all the characteristics of a large city. It could be that the evolution from Purple to Red/Blue is going too fast than is required for healthy Red/Blue to develop.

Instead of sharing with their community, young people more often choose for their own satisfaction. They rather spend five Cedi (the Ghanaian currency) for their phone or a soda, than helping with the hospital bill of someone who is in need. The pressure to earn money is increasing because basic needs, such as water and a place to stay, are not free anymore and people have to buy food because they can’t grow it themselves anymore. Land that used to be common and shared by the chiefs and elders now has to be leased.

Life is getting more expensive. People that don’t have very much now are confronted with being poor, because the richness of the land is not accessible to them anymore. Families are separated because the man has to move to the city to find work to sustain his family. But jobs are scarce and there is much unemployment, especially under young people.  What greatly bothers me is that the departure of the man to make money Western style, seriously undermines the position of the woman. The family is also a community; the woman has a position and a function. But if the husband is gone and is not protecting or supporting her, she loosed her status in the family as well as in the community. Where Westerners are propagating gender equality, the adoption of our way of life is actually bringing the opposite.


Poverty and high youth unemployment are a dangerous combination for any society, also for the traditional community of the Dagomba. These people live in a reality that we see as something from the past, yet they are confronted with all kinds of matters that are alien to their approach to life and to their worldview. As a result of chemicals and introduction of industries, the soil is losing nutrients, rivers are getting polluted and people have to change their way of life against their will or even leave their houses. Every year it is becoming more difficult to practice arable farming, in North Ghana harvests fail due to lack of water and because chemicals and fertilizers reduce the soil quality. Slowly, the Savannah is turning into desert.

Some farmers have reached out to me, almost in desperation, because they want to stop using chemicals but don’t know how. They realize they are poisoning the land and, thus, themselves, but what really drives their need to change is that the introduction of modern agricultural techniques doesn’t bring them additional income in the long run. Whatever money they earn extra, immediately has to be spent on new seeds and chemicals that often cost more than what they did have or earn.  Additionally, they do not own the land anymore, but are tenants for a third party that dictates the price of their products as well as the way they should farm.

Mali and Cameroon are not far from Northern Ghana and — even though my Dagomba friends say it will never happen — I am very worried about the susceptibility of the young people to the messages from Boko Haram (and Daesh). The number of people that want to get to Europe, and is actually attempting the voyage, is increasing. This is not because they want to leave. On the contrary, they hope to save their communities by going to Europe to work. In my opinion, Europe is handling this issue completely wrong. In spite of any good intentions, Europe is making the situation worse by not supporting long-term solutions. As such, Europe is part of the problem and is aiding the violence, i.e.. Boko Haram.

Two years ago, Umar Mohammed, a leader in the Dagomba community in Tamale asked me if I would help to save his community and help the people to connect to our Western lifestyles, but in a way that honors the traditions of community, family and sharing. I accepted the challenge wholeheartedly, because I am convinced that the West can learn much from the traditions of the Dagomba to help solve certain issues in the Netherlands and Europe. Now, two years later we have, in our own way and with our own cash, developed a way of cooperation and making a living in Ghana, that immutably benefits over 1,500 families. We built on local tradition while I used my Western experience as innovator/change manager. In future papers, I will share how we did this.

In summary, in this paper I want to share four insights:

  1. Islam is much more versatile and diverse than most Westerners think. Our perspective on Islam is limited, supported by fear and strongly based on one (unhealthy) expression. Most Muslims do not support this expression of Islam and the violence of Daesh, Al Qaida and Boko Haram affects more Muslims than it does westerners.
  2. There is no battle between Islamic and western values. It is a clash between two manifestations of the same worldview; the Power Gods, a.k.a. the (unhealthy) Red value system. According to Spiral Dynamics, bombing people with drones is just as violent as cutting people’s throats. The viewpoint of “if you’re not for us, you’re against us” is unhealthy red, as the belief that blowing up people that have different beliefs will be rewarded in the afterlife.
  3. The “Free West” is part of this conflict and more the instigator than the victim. Through Daesh, Boko Haram and Al Qaida, we are confronted with unhealthy Red. However, our reaction to the influx of “illegal refugees” and the rise of Geert Wilders, Donald Trump and like public characters is a manifestation of the same unhealthy Red in our societies.
  4. It is easier to blame someone else than to look at one’s own unhealthy manifestations. While this may be a relatively normal human trait, it won’t solve anything. Perhaps we need to change our ways of thinking and acting if we want to work towards diminishing conflict between our societies and world views and solve the problems in our own civilization.

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About the Author

Alain Volz M.Sc. (1969) – founder and director of ATMA – has studied Business Administration and Organisational Psychology. He started his career with Royal Dutch Ahold and has worked with IPMMC and TC&O. For 10 years Alain has been working with Twynstra Gudde Consultants and Managers as senior consultant Human Talent & Change Management. He is co-founder of the Center for Human Emergence in the Netherlands (CHE), a former member of the CHE alignment circle and founding director of CHE School of Synnervation.

Alain is expert in value based HR strategies, competency based HR systems, leadership development and human behavior in change processes. He uses an integral perspective in his work as change facilitator and Synnervator. His major challenge is to support organisations in discovering and enabling talent to contribute to sustainable economic performance. In doing so he strives for realizing strategy by connecting people.

Alain has written several books and articles on competency based HR, knowledge management and leadership development. He is guest teacher at the University of Amsterdam and the Radboud University Nijmegen. He currently focusses on leadership, complex collaboration (meshworking) and social technologies.

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