Backstory: Can you program peace?

Before arriving in this African nation, I'd heard about how boisterous and aggressive its people are. But, after 11 days here, I'd put it a bit more pointedly: Folks here relish few things more than a good brawl.

OK, maybe that's a rash generalization given there are 130 million Nigerians. But I've just seen so many altercations.

There was the skinny 8-year-old girl walloping a bigger boy outside a cyber cafe.

There was the traffic cop bashing his fists on the hoods of the stream of cars crowding into his intersection, heaving himself against their grilles, shouting at drivers, in a mostly-vain attempt at traffic control.

There was the linebacker-sized guy in a powder-blue get-up at baggage claim bellowing, "What do you mean you lost my five bags?!" at the cowering desk clerk.

After these and other encounters, when I heard about an American nonprofit group gearing up to teach conflict resolution in Nigeria - by infusing peacemaking techniques and story lines into a TV show - I just had to investigate. I mean, preaching conflict resolution here seems like singing Kumbaya with a gang of Hell's Angels.

Anyway, they had my attention.

I arrived for Day 1 of "Common Ground Week," in which 60 cast- and crew-members of the TV show were being introduced to conflict-resolution basics.

Inside the warehouse-turned-production facility, the group is gathered in a circle, many of them slump-backed and clearly skeptical. First up: Allen Scheid, an American, who is the show's producer and local head of Common Ground Productions, a division of Search for Common Ground (a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that aims to "transform the way the world deals with conflict"). He's a skinny, greyhound of a guy who seems to subsist on espressos from his office coffee machine.

"OK," he says in a chipper voice. The best way to start the day is to "turn to your neighbor and give them a big hug."

There's a pause. The Nigerians seem baffled. Hugs don't fit in the cultural lexicon here. Eventually, many awkward embraces are exchanged. At least it's over. Or not."Now turn 180 degrees and hug your other neighbor," Mr. Scheid chirps. One guy in the circle is especially unenthusiastic. Scheid bolts over and hugs him. "He was looking a little frownie-faced," Scheid explains.

"Don't make me come kiss you," Scheid calls over his shoulder, walking back to the center of the circle.

"You won't," the guy says.

"Wanna bet?" Scheid retorts, adding a head fake in the guy's direction.

The group laughs for the first time.

"The people working here all represent tribes who are trying to kill each other," Scheid tells me.

Indeed, the circle is a Nigerian cross section - Muslims, Christians, northerners, southerners, and members of all four major ethnic groups. In part because of all these divisions, the country has been under military rule for 29 of its 45 years since independence. A brutal, ethnic-based civil war from 1967-70 left up to 1 million dead - and involved what some call genocide.

Asked to describe Nigeria, group responses include, "organized confusion," "scatter scatter," and "a mistake."

Sensing negativity, Scheid revs up: "Do you know this is the largest TV drama project ever attempted in Africa? Nobody has done this before. Does that make you proud?" A fairly enthusiastic chorus of "yes" fills the room.

The real point of today's exercises, he explains, is to break down walls in the group: "If they have problems with each other, or they can't communicate, we'll never have a TV show."

So, the first task of the day: Each person has written answers to questions like, "Why am I here?" But there are only 50 minutes left in the session - not enough time for all to share their answers. "How are we going to solve this problem?" Scheid asks, clearly recognizing a teachable moment. A long, tortured process of nominating solutions and voting on them ensues - a democratic approach not common in a country so often ruled by chiefs and dictators. Scheid exults in it. "If I were a dictator and just picked 10 people to share their answers...."

"Suspicious," one member yells, clearly enjoying the democratic process.

In fact, this is the day's first conflict-resolution lesson: "Everyone has the right to participate," Scheid explains, "and all parties must have safe space to voice their opinion."

Fast forward to the day's main activity: Create a mural to be painted on the facility's front wall to represent the members' aspirations for the project - and for Nigeria. They brainstorm ideas from a "uni-tree" to patterns of interlocking handprints. Tasked with picking one mural, the group bursts into a fit of inclusiveness - and decides to paint seven.

During lunch, I chat with Ike Umeadi, a thoughtful 20-something scriptwriter. He's just spent six months living in a house with other writers, developing scripts.

The fruit of their labors will start airing weekly early next year. A half-hour drama called "The Station" is about a fictional TV-news show dealing with Nigeria's biggest issues. Nestlé Nigeria Plc is the commercial sponsor of the four-year $4.7 million project - and additional funding is being provided by British, Canadian, and Swedish government aid agencie. The show will be followed by half-hour programs from other Common Ground projects in troubled countries like Macedonia.

The two core societal issues dealt with, Mr. Umeadi explains, are at the root of so many Nigerian problems: "powerlessness and unity/identity."

One episode has reporters covering a student protest over school funding that turns violent - and derails the students' aims. It shows the futility of violence. Another tackles young people's involvement in Nigeria's most infamous export: e-mail scams. Umeadi is clearly proud of how the episode ends. Playing on the great Nigerian respect for children, it has a reporter ask a young e-mail scammer, "When you have kids, will you advise them to do this for a living?"

OK, but can the show really change this country's brawl-prone culture? Umeadi is defiantly optimistic: "We can't change Nigeria overnight - nobody can. But we want to take a first step. If people take away a few simple ways to change their lives, it'll have a ripple effect."

Being a part of Common Ground has already changed some people. Amina Aminu is a Muslim from the conservative north. According to stereotype, she should be reserved, aloof, and wearing a veil. But this assistant director is high-energy and head-scarf-less. In fact, all afternoon she has the label from a water bottle taped playfully across her nose. "People always say, 'You don't act like northerners,' " she beams. "I never thought I could get along with people who aren't from my culture and ethnic group."

There's also a tall, hunky cast member (whose name can't be revealed because of a coming plot twist). He tells of riding to work a couple of days ago on an overcrowded taxi-bus. As he got off, a passenger was screaming at the conductor, whose head was bleeding. It was another Nigerian brawl. At first, the cast member passed right by.

"But then I thought, 'Wait, isn't this what I'm all about?'" So he turned around and began talking to the men, who were arguing over money. "You're just delaying yourself," he pleaded with the passenger. And he told the conductor, "All the other passengers are waiting for you." Eventually the two cooled off.

"I came to work with blood on my shirt," the actor laughs. "But at least I had done something."

So, teaching conflict resolution in Nigeria? Well, after a day spent with Scheid & Co., it seems a lot more plausible.

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