Friday, January 25, 2008

Allez les lions!

An update on life here at uni.

First and foremost, we are in the thick of the African Cup of Nations 2008. That is, the continent-wide soccer tournament, culminating in the CAN in Ghana. The other day, Senegal and Algeria tied 2:2. It was madness here. If you walk outside into the middle of campus, you can hear cheers and boos coming from all sides. Senegalese are crazy about football, and Im being converted to the gospel of this sport. Its great, because its worldwide (except, unfortunately, in America). Let me tell you, though, how hard it is to explain why we call it ¨soccer¨ instead of ¨football¨...because you use your foot, and not your socks! Oh ps, the name of the national team is ¨Les Lions de Terranga¨...which literally means ¨The Lions of Hospitality¨..vicious.

Classes have picked up. That was unexpected. Teachers are trying to catch up from all the work that wasnt done before break, because exams are coming up in February and they're realizing that they have nothing to grade us on. I actually have extensive assignments in all my classes. Im going into town today to seclude myself and get some of this done. Not stressing like I would in America, though.

Let's see, what else? Oh, Im looking for cheap tickets to Morocco for spring break at the end of March. So far they're pretty expensive. If it doesnt happen, it doesnt happen. But if it does...hooray! Man, Ive already got the February travel itch. I just cant sit still right now in my life. As my roomate tells me, ¨Voise, tu bouges trop!¨ I move too much.

Speaking of: the dreaded February is coming. Pavvy, if you're reading this, good luck and Godspeed. Man, I hate February. For the past few years, the weather is always crappy and grey, I always get sick, everyone is right in the thick of classes and midterms, and to top it all off, frickin Valentines Day is stuck right in the middle! Im not just being pessimistic; for the past few years, something bad has always happened to me in February. And this year, there is even an extra day! However, here in Senegal everything is new. Maybe African Februaries are different. Im going to go into it with a good attitude, and not take seriously anything that happens.

Oh gosh, speaking of bad good friend here, Megan Alaska, just told me that she's going to be leaving early. She is one of the coolest women Ive ever met, with a true desire to follow God's heart and live big. Her fiancee came to visit over break and she realized how much she needs to go home in order to prepare for their life together. This is one of the most incredible concepts I've ever heard: she would give up Africa for the man she loves, because she knows that he's a gift from God. She and I had a tearful conversation in the middle of the resto one breakfast about all this. I was partly sad to see her go and partly impacted by the gravity of her sacrifice. So..she's leaving in February.

Okay, theres a line waiting for this computer. Any big news?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Big Strange Family

Memories from Casamance...

by Brian Andreas

I don't think of it as working for world peace, he said.
I think of it as just trying to get along in a really big strange family.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


I was asked to write about my research experiences by a journal in Madison. Here is what I came up with, in narrative form, without an introduction:


At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I am majoring in Political Science, International Studies, and an individual major in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution. I came to Senegal knowing that I wanted to research the little-known conflict in the southern region of Casamance. Frankly, I knew almost nothing about it either, except that it has been going on for a long time and that it has mostly been ignored by the international community. So I started doing my homework.

Most violent conflicts are born out of complex webs of fears and rivalries, spirals of retribution, and civic frustration. It is often difficult to determine who fired the first shot, and normative judgements like ¨who’s right and who’s wrong?¨ are near to impossible. When it comes to civil war like this one, it is hard to tell the difference between civilian and soldier. The Casamance Conflict is no different. Everyone has been affected. Everyone’s got scars.
The Casmance Conflict is a small-scale civil war that has been waged between the Senegalese government and the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance since 1984. The question was originally over the independence of the Casamance region, which is separated from greater Senegal by the Gambia and inhabited mostly by the Jola people. However, as conflicts seem to do, the reason behind the violence began to shift as the Casamancaises began to feel marginalized by the Senegalese government, whom they felt was cutting them off economically and socially as a form of punishment for the separatist movement.
It is said that Senegal’s first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, made a promise to Casamance’s leaders at the height of the independence movement from France in 1960, that if they joined Senegal for 20 years they would be able to have their own independence afterwards. The government did not follow through on that promise in 1980, recognizing the value of the resource-rich region. Indeed, most of the country’s fruits and vegetables come from Casamance, which is lush and green for most of the year. The MFCD, led by the Father Augustin Diamacoune Senghor (no relation to Leopold), held peaceful demonstrations around the region, until 1982, when the organisation’s leaders were arrested and the debate turned violent. There were riots in the streets of the region’s capital of Ziguinchor, and MFDC and Senegalese Army bases were attacked in the region, with civilian casualties resulting.
The conflict gained a little international recognition when four French tourists disappeared in the region, with both sides blaming each other. Tourism started to dwindle, as did the economic situation in Casmance. There were several ceasefires, but they were all short-lived. In March 2001, the Abbey Senghor and President Abdoulaye Wade brokered a peace deal, which allowed for the release of prisoners, the clearance of landmines, and the return of refugees, most of whom had fled into Gambia or neighboring Guinea-Bissau. Soon, the MFDC itself split up into factions, with some groups willing to compromise, and others still staunchly planted on the idea of independence. Today, most of the violence occurs between these factions.
The Senegalese government still refuses to consider independence for Casamance, and even though the conflict has all but fizzled out, the MFDC is still alive and breathing, and violence still flares up in the peripheral forest regions. The death toll is roughly estimated around 700 since the original riot in Ziguinchor, but the number of displaced persons is significantly higher. A 1998 Caritas census gave a figure of 62,638 internally displaced people out of a total Casamance population of around 1.1 million. UNHCR figures indicate that a further 10,000 people are refugees in Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia.

A death toll of 700 over 20 years is not flashy enough to create waves in the international media, so I was surprised to learn about the actual gravity of the situation. I decided to check this all out for myself. My original question was: ¨What is being done on a local level to ameliorate the conflict?¨ I wanted to see what the Casamancaises were doing to help their own local communities. I wanted to find out, also, if this proactivity was effective and if the people involved think that the best solution lies at a local, national or international scale. I realized that it is easy to pass the buck, putting the blame and the responsibility for recovery solutions all on the national government, or even to blame the international community for its forgetfulness. However, what I discovered there in the tropical paradise of Casamance astounded me.

I took the 16 hour boat ride from Dakar to Ziguinchor, a lazy little town on the Casmance river. It was hard to believe that there had been riots and violence in the quiet streets that now are the home to fruit vendors and cafes underneath the palms and baobab trees. I came to Zig with a hazy vision: I wanted to listen and collect a lovely and moving collection of histories from people involved in the conflict and conflict resolution.
I started by making appointments with humanitarian organizations and teachers at the local high school. These meetings with journalists, humanitarians, professors, and government officials were informative and led me to other contacts within the city. I learned about the huge role that women play in the local resolution of conflict. I learned about the mystical Boite Sacree ceremonies that are held to gather combatants for negotiations, involving animal sacrifices and led by community matriarchs. I learned about the Non-Violent Management of Conflict class that was started at Ziguinchor’s biggest high school, Lycee Djignabo, to educate this generation of students who have grown up with violence swirling all around them. The program has proved to be effective, as is demonstrated by the peer mediation tactics that were used when one famous student strike turned violent. I learned about the students in the village of Sidnian who started a program to rebuild their own destroyed homes brick by brick by organizing ¨Brick Making Days¨ for their communities.

The goal of my voyage to Casamance was to listen. When I wasn’t having interviews with organizations like Handicap International and USAID, I would go into the streets of the city and try to strike up conversation. The Senegalese are so welcoming and inviting, and the idea of terranga –or hospitality- is the highest Senegalese value. Easily enough, I would be invited to sit and drink tea and chat in the shade. What was not easy, however, was to get people comfortable enough to talk about the conflict that is still fresh scars for some. I ended up going back to one quarter in the city and sitting with this group of young men for 3 days before the subject of my research came up.
This motley group of guys, from the Cartier Tableau Pares, taught me one of the greatest lessons I learned in Casamance. They have started a gang they call ¨Begga Liggey¨, which means ¨Want to Work¨ in Wolof. All of them are under- or unemployed, and fed up with the neglect of their beloved Casamance. They are so frustrated with the inefficiency of the government that they hold concerts and soccer games and charge a little money. With that money, they themselves go and buy the materials to reconstruct the crumbling roads in their neighbourhood, and they themselves lay the brick and cement. These punk kids also organize community clean up days. Extraordinary.

The most profound experience of my sejour into the world of peace building and post-conflict reconstruction came with my last interview. I had already bought my return boat ticket to Dakar. I interviewed Demba Ba, who works for an organization called ANRAC, with a special program for the reconstruction of Casamance. This includes physical reconstruction of homes and infrastructure, and also social reconstruction with programs for the prevention of conflict and management of peace. ¨It is the community at the base who must construct peace.¨ He told me. ¨You cannot just reconstruct homes, but also mentalities.¨ I liked him right away.
We got to talking about ANRAC’s program for the re-insertion of ex-combatants into their communities, which has been difficult since the diminution of violence. I asked him specifically how this is done and he replied, ¨Well, we’re going to do it tomorrow. Why don’t you come along?¨ This opportunity, to go into the ¨hot zone¨ as Ba calls it, and to watch the peace process, was a once in a lifetime event, so I changed my return ticket and went with him and his two associates, Landing Badji and Moussa Ndiaye, into the forest of Cabrousse, to talk peace.
The peace conference was held in a run-down but brightly-painted nightclub in the centre of the city village. Village chiefs, priests, nuns, Muslim Imams, animist leaders, leaders of women and youth organizations, the prefect, ex-rebels, and victims of landmines were all assembled for this workshop to establish ¨cells of peace¨ in their village. I was even introduced to the ¨King of Ossouye¨. The goal was to talk about the trauma that has occurred there and then to have to villagers elect a team of leaders from amongst themselves who will be the monitoring system if conflict ever starts to bubble up again.
There was much pomp and circumstance, with many introductions and speeches, to make sure that everyone felt included, to give legitimacy to the importance of the conference. We needed everyone behind us for this to work. Everything was presented in French and translated into Jola. We began (a few hours late, of course) with a time of sharing stories. At first people were hesitant, but after the first volunteer, the histories and the tears started flowing. One man recounted a time when everyone in his community was gathered into the town square and mowed down by ¨armed men¨. I don’t know who was the guilty party- government or rebel- and I don’t think the man knew either. He just knew that he had been an innocent witness to a horrific event as the conflict swept like a tidal wave over his life.

This much I know is true: everybody’s got their something. Everybody has their something that makes them who they are, that influences their thoughts and lifestyle and personality, which we don’t recognize or don’t care to share. Having this something means that you cannot judge or rank or classify other people, because you do not know their somethings. Everyone has a story. Mr. Ba told me that ¨You must listen with a third ear, because our two are already conditioned to listen how we want them to.¨ It takes patience to listen and understand, but listening is the most central part of the peace process. So many people are hurting to be heard and to have someone hold onto this something, to recognize it as valuable, and to ameliorate the pain that might come with it. These wounded villagers in Cabrousse wanted relief to come from their suffering, which was internal, and not curable by any policy or program. Curable only by letting it go.

We discussed stress and trauma and the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder there in the woods with men and women who have experienced enough for many lifetimes. We talked about how trauma can change a person, but that does not mean that that person is not responsible for their actions, thus excusing a cycle of retribution. After a couple days, the villagers elected leaders for 3 different rural communities, who will be in charge of the management of conflict. A group of youth in the village heard what we were doing, so they wrote a short musical skit to perform for us about Aline Sitoe Diatta, the Joan of Arc of Casamance. It was extraordinary to see how a community, at the breaking point of trauma, is able to change completely their path, being fed up enough with violence that they vow never to let it happen again. It is extraordinary that everyone, from school kids to ex-combatants, agrees on this change. Everyone was primed for this shift.

Througout the conference, I kept thinking, who am I that I should be so privileged to observe this process? Throughout the days, there were tears and shouts of anger and laughter and handshakes and Jola greetings of ¨Kassoumaye¨, peace. There were not just a bunch of Africans in a room, complaining about their low estate. No indeed, as I sat there with my notebook filling up with priceless wisdom, I began to observe this quiet shift. I believe that this shift is made from the same fabric as the something that influences a parent to work every day so that their children will be better off than themselves. It is the same something as the moment when children stop saying ¨mine!¨ and start sharing toys. It is the same something as the hope of the tired teacher who believes in the value of timeless lessons. It is the same shift that made me see, from across the room, an ex MFDC rebel shake hands with a landmine victim. This shift that brings people from a place of bitterness and hurt to a haven of reconciliation is the shift that changes the fabric of nations. It is a shift to dignity and a better life for the new generation. And the concussion begins in the run-down nightclubs of tired villages.

The most important question I would ask in my interviews was question number 12. In your opinion, what is peace? I received diverse answers: peace is the cessation of fighting; the absence of violence; to be able to travel, work, and eat without being violated; it is a calmed state of mind; peace is the satiation of needs; peace is this new Western idea of human security; peace is stability, economic, social, cultural, and mental. My favourite definition, however, came from Pierre-Marie Bassene, the Director-General of ANRAC in Dakar. ¨Peace,¨ he told all of us on the eve of a profound shift ¨Peace is pardon.¨ It starts with forgiveness, it starts with listening.

In asking my interviewees if they had any questions for me, I would often hear the same sentiment. How will your research help the people of Casamance? Will we ever see you or this work again? Indeed, I did not want to step into this beautiful culture, rich in traditions, languages and values, observe like a kid in a zoo, only to write up a nice neat report and stick it in a drawer again. I did discover that the solution to the conflict in Csamance lies at local, national and international levels. I did discover that there is profound work being done on the ground, in local communities and villages in Casamance. I did discover some interesting propositions for amelioration, like a need for positive discrimination for Casamance by the national government. However, I left Casmance and there is still violence. In fact, a peace negotiator was just killed 2 weeks ago in a village 70 kilometers north of Ziguinchor. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know, and the more I experience, the smaller I feel in the face of all of this. Frankly, it is just all too much for me to look at.

So, I promised to write. I promised to interpret and share my experiences, microcosmic and profound. How can this model be applied to other conflicts? What will these villages look like in 10 years? Will my friends in Begga Liggey ever find jobs?

This much I know is true: the quiet shift has taken place within myself too. I have learned and now my life is made new.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

¨Go forth and set the world on fire.¨ -St Ignatius Loyola

So pretty much this vacation changed my life. Especially the last part in Casamance.
There is so much to report, however, so I will just write about everything excluding that sejour and my research in this entry.

Where did I leave off?
Christmas was...interesting. And fun. First, I went to a midnight mass in this huge catholic cathedral (a giant metal hut) where there was an African version of the Christmas story and djembes and chanting. It was long, but it felt good to hear one familiar song. After mass, we went to Jills house where her host mom had prepared a huge Christmas fete with a big dinner and dancing. It was hilarious. At one point us 4 toubabs stepped outside to get some air. Jills mom came out and said, ¨You will sing for us.¨ We asked her what she wanted us to sing, and she simply said, ¨You will sing American.¨ So we went inside and everyone had gathered in a circle and some of the guys made drums out of pots and we sang Christmas carols at a fast tempo with them playing those pots and pans along. It was so surreal to walk home at 6 am Christmas morning, all of us still singing Christmas tunes with Ryan accompanying on his harmonica.
I slept for a bit that morning, then I read myself the Christmas story aloud, just like my dad does every Christmas morning. then I went over to Sara's to make christmas chai and chackry, a porridge-y thing with millet and yogurt. We lazed around a bit, then walked to the beach.
I really wanted to make sure that I set my foot in the ocean on Christmas day, just to say I did.
Interesting, Ryan remarked that ¨Cath, youre all about living for the experience's sake.¨ Hes pretty correct, as I think about it.

That evening my friends Omar and Matar came to pick me up because they said they had prepared a Christmas suprise for me, because they thought that Christmas is the most important American holiday. They were both dressed in suits when they came, so I felt a little awkward. We went to Matar's dorm and they had arranged a little picnic, with music and a gift for me from Omars family. Very sweet. We danced blokas and feted until 4 am.

After Christmas, I spent some quality time in Dakar, walking around the city to discover areas I didnt know and to talk to people. My wolof is noticibly better from the first time I was there, so it was easier to communicate with my host family. I got a few chances to go surfing, and took the time to do some research and set up some appointments with people in Ziguinchor.

On the 29th, I took a 16 hour boat ride from Dakar to Ziguinchor, in the Casmance. It was awesome! I totally recommend it, if you ever get the chance. There was a little restauraunt on board and I watched the sunset and sunrise over the water and saw dolphins jumping and swimming with the boat. I was really cold, though, so I didnt sleep at all. In the morning, my friend Fatou from school came to pick me up with her cousin Ramah. I stayed with Fatou's family in Goumel, a new suburb of Zig. Mr. Sy is a well-known businessman in Zig, so I could say to any taxi driver to take me to ¨Keru Sy¨- The Sy's house- and they would know where to go.

The family is so so amazing. They have impacted me like Nan and John Barron did in Paris last year. So welcoming and kind, we had great meals all the time and they included me as their daughter. I call them Papa and Yaay Sy now. I spent time in Zig walking around, as I love to to, and talking to people. Every day I had interviews to do with Organisations, educators, journalists, and political leaders, as part of my research project. In between interviews, I would go into the neighborhoods and sit and chat with people, trying to get them to be comfortable enough to talk about the conflict with me, which is still a sensitive subject. Amazing stories. My best time came with my last interview, where I was invited to join a group of peacemakers as they went into the forest and discuss non-violent management of conflict with ex-combatants and rebels. So, I changed my return ticket for the boat and joined them. That few days changed my life. But like I said, I'll write more about my research later...

Before the conference, I spent New Years in this beautiful little resort town called Cap Skirring, which is famous among the French for being an exotic vacation spot. It was a little too toubaby for my taste, but gorgeous! Jill, Ryan, Claire, and I got rooms in a campement which was so cheap- $12 dollars a day including breakfast and a huge dinner of shrimp and rice and fries and salad and crepes and wine. It was so lovely, I decided to stay another night. I didnt even bring my work along, and I just let my mind wander on the beach. Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to live and work in that sort of paradise. It is so strange, also, to think about all the violence that has happened just outside of that isolated village.

At midnight, we were on the beach, drinking the famous Palm Wine. All of a sudden, fireworks started exploding from all directions on the shore. Ryan played Auld Lang Syne on his harmonica as we tried to sing along...but seriously, is there anyone who knows all the words to that song? Stepping in the ocean was my first act of 2008.

I went back to Zig to finish my interviews and hang with the family Sy. After the above mentioned conference, I took the boat back to Dakar on the 10th....which was quite the experience...and then took a bus directly to St Louis, where I arrived yesterday night. Im exhausted, and I have a ton of work to catch up on, I found out. I only missed a week of school, but they have started the discussion sections for our classes. I did a lot today, but Im trying not to stress about it all. One foot in front of the other.

Also! To whom it may concern: I finally got the package slips from the post office saying that I have 2 packages waiting to be picked up. I have to wait until monday and the anticipation is killing me! Also also, thank you to all who sent me lovely letters for Christmas. You know who you are.

What now? Aminata my roomie is the same as ever. I was convicted about how I wasnt being a good friend to her before break, and I want to change that now. UGB is the same as ever. Ive been having a lot of those ¨HI! Ive missed you! Where have you been?! How was vacation??¨ type conversations, which will probably last a while.

Its going to be interesting getting back into a routine of school after this amazing break. My thoughts are elsewhere, to be sure. I have little tiny things that I want to start living differently, lets see how they hold up against the temptation of falling into unhealthy patterns, which is so easy when Im too stationary.

To be honest, Im so excited. Im so excited to be here, and I excited that I have this priviledge of life. Im excited for what has been, for what is, and for what is to come.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Peace is forgiveness

I changed all my plans. Ive spent the last few days in the forest, discussing peace with rebels and victims of violence.



Cant wait to write about it when I get back to St Louis. Taking the boat tomorrow.
Au revoir, Casamance! You changed my life!

Thursday, January 3, 2008


December was one of the greatest months this year.

Ladies and gents, I write to you from yet another creepy internet cafe, this time in Ziguinchor, the capital city in the southern region of Casamance. After Christmas in Dakar, I took a 16 hour boat ride to Zig, where Im staying with my friend Fatou's family, relaxing, walking around the city, and doing interviews for my research project. Im researching the conflict, and specifically local resolutions. I want to find out what the Casamanciases do for peacebuilding. Veeeeeeery interesing! Ive met some really amazing people with really amazing stories, and Ive become an honorary member of a gang in one neighborhood called ¨Begga Liggey¨.

I spent New Years at this beach resort town called Cap Skirring with Jill, Ryan, and Claire. It was gorgeous and cheap and lovely to let my mind do nothing. I left all my work back here and slept 12 hours each night.

I am here until the 6th, when I take the boat back to dakar; then a bus back to St Louis. I promise that Ill tell all my stories and post my photos asap. I have learned more in this past month than I have in most of them this past year. Im actually excited to get back to school and start making mini reforms...changing the tape in my head, as my friend Andrea puts it. I know Im going to bomb big this year in certain things, but Im not going to hold myself to any expectations, and Im going to continue to put just one foot in front of another.

Oh yeah, before I forget....(some) Things That I Want To Do in 2008 (commonly called Resolutions, but more like things I just want to add to my lifes To Do list):
1. Perfect the art of Gluten Free bread and granola making
2. Finish the Koran
3. Strive for Quality, not necessarily Quantity this year. This has become my mantra for 2008.
4. Inform myself
5. Listen to more Bob Marley, Beck, and Iron and Wine