Many towns across Wales and the UK welcomes people to their approach roads with a ‘road sign’ celebrating their international links; often arousing curiosity – but how many people are aware of the rich stories that lie behind such solidarity initiatives?
The concept of ‘town twinning’ developed in the aftermath of World War Two, as a means of building ‘people to people’ community links fostering peace, prosperity and understanding between Britain, Europe and the wider world, after 2 generations of conflict and propaganda. Reflecting this reconciliation agenda, among the first British town twinnings was that between Coventry and Dresden – both cities which had been largely destroyed in the blitzes of WW2. In Wales, Cardiff’s links with Nantes and Stuttgart, as well as Swansea’s twinning with Mannheim, originated in the 1950s and all continue to this day. And the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, founded in 1947 to foster peace and reconciliation through music and cultural exchange, celebrates its 75th Anniversary in 2022.
Most of Wales’ traditional ‘town twinning’ connections are with communities across Europe particularly in France and Germany. Many Welsh twinning links have fostered cultural connections with similarly bilingual or sub-state regions as diverse as Brittany (France), Lesotho (South Africa), Welsh Patagonia (Argentina); and Maryland (USA).
The Freedom from Hunger campaign in the 1970s was a catalyst for linking Welsh professionals with projects from India to South America; and solidarity campaigns such as Wales Nicaragua and Cymru Cuba also found support at this time. The Ethiopian Famine and ‘Live Aid’ in the 1980s prompted some pioneering Wales Africa linking charities such as Dolen Cymru (with Lesotho), and Dolen Ffermio (with Uganda). In the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a number of Welsh charities, often aligned with local CND Cymru groups, set up links supporting communities in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. And diaspora communities living in Wales have often maintained strong links and cultural ties with their nations of heritage – such as Somaliland, India, and Yemen. Some hold annual celebrations, such as Wales’ annual Durga Puja festival, hosted in 2021 at the Temple of Peace.
In the 2000s, the idea of ‘twinning for development’ with nations across the global south was bolstered by public support driven by campaigns such as Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History, inspiring partnerships such as that between Pontypridd and Mbale (Uganda), and Hay-Timbuktu (Mali). First Minister Rhodri Morgan described such initiatives as ‘twinning with a (renewed) purpose’ – and Community Links (including health links, schools links and fairtrade links) became central to the Welsh Government’s Wales Africa programme, launched in 2007. In 2010, the most comprehensive mapping to date of Wales’ links worldwide was undertaken for the report ‘Welsh Civil Society and the Millennium Development Goals‘, researched by Craig Owen for WCVA’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Task Force and the BIG Lottery Fund. This identified not only links across Africa, but also the Indian Subcontinent and Eastern Europe.
Town twinning or community linking remains surprisingly active. Although the immediate post-WW2 reconciliation committees may have outlived their original purpose, new generations bring new ideas and enterprise to opportunities for international exchange. Even as recently as 2019, Brecon launched a ‘new’ twinning partnership with Dhampus in Nepal. In a globalised world, such links can play a key role in linking Wales with the world community: their very own local centres for international affairs.