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.


Elizabeth said...

I have no words. I am so thankful you got to experience and grow from this.

Anonymous said...

Blessed are those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. mt5:9

Anonymous said...

You have such a beautiful soul. Thank you for taking the time to write and share your experiences. I'm so proud of you.


Anonymous said...

I feel like I'm reading a fictional, beautiful, story about a woman searching for wisdom. Many of the things you talk about seem so surreal. But at the same time, I know that they are all TOO real.

You are doing so much over there; your experiences seem to be boundless. I know everything you hear, see, do, learn, etc will stay with you forever, no matter where you are. I also know that after all this, you will be a different person, but you will still be Cath.

I don't know if I'd ever want to come back here if I were you.

Love you,
-Krista, your casama for life

xenobiologista said...

Cool. It's great that you had this opportunity to travel somewhere and talk to people who're rebuilding their lives and communities from a long-running conflict like that.

You might want to read Donald Horowitz's "The Deadly Ethnic Riot" someday, it analyzes how violent conflicts erupt. I've got a copy if you want.

- Shi-Hsia

Steve (your Bro) said...

Hi Cathy,

So, how will your work improve Senegal? Will you ever go back?

xenobiologista said...

Also, you have a really impressive amount of initiative in going around talking to people and participating in community meetings like that. How do you find a place to start?

autumn brooke said...

wow. that's incredible. i'm so excited to see the work that these experiences have done in you and the ways you will act upon them. i'm so proud of you.

go gettem' tiger :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing and posting your experience. I am awed by you and your true quest for peace & understanding. You're my hero! We miss you!

Hugs, Margo