When Karuna Center first went last July at the invitation of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) to train local leaders in community mediation, French and African Union peacekeepers had secured sections of the capital city of Bangui, but the atmosphere was tense. Continuing our partnership with USIP, Olivia Dreier made two more trips this winter to offer courses in conflict transformation and dialogue facilitation for the social science faculty at the University of Bangui, the country’s only university, and to help the Preparatory Commission of the transitional government design a participatory national dialogue process. UN peacekeepers have been on the ground since September, there is a tenuous cease-fire, and the markets of Bangui are open, but more than physical security is needed to prepare the country for the planned-for elections this summer.
Olivia and her USIP colleague, Maria Jessop, gave a series of three courses for university faculty, which they plan to put right to use. As participants, faculty members reflected on the root causes of violent conflict, why it escalates, and how to intervene. As teachers, they discussed how to integrate these concepts into their classes, the value of a participatory approach to teaching conflict transformation, and the importance of facilitating dialogues to rebuild trust between Muslim and Christian students. By the end of the third course, they had decided to create a research institute on peacebuilding, which they hope can become a resource during their country’s political transition and post-conflict social healing. They look forward to ongoing support and training from USIP and the Karuna Center in this endeavor.
When we reconvened, we asked each member to share something positive that had happened over the past week. Several referred back to our previous workshop and one said:
“I was very touched by your approach. It is so different from what we are accustomed to. You asked questions and drew responses from us. We are accustomed to a more European style of lectures, where we take notes, and the experts transmit, transmit, transmit. Your approach allowed us to develop our own vision. I was surprised by the results and the cohesion that developed among us. I also feel that I know you now. I often forget names, but I will always remembers yours.”
Over the next four days, this new spirit of cohesion in the group was palpable, though tensions of course remained. Much of the discussion focused on how to make this national dialogue process one that would encourage broad citizen interest and engagement in the “refounding” of the country and what it could do to put the country on a path towards reconciliation and social healing after the horrific violence of the past two years. The centerpiece of the dialogue will be the Bangui Forum to be held in May with some 550 participants from around the country, including refugees who are still in camps in neighboring countries. The group grappled with clarifying the core themes of the Forum, along with the very practical details that would make such an event possible, including criteria for participation, security, etc. However, its visionary and symbolic aspects remained paramount. We wish them every success and remain available for ongoing support in the planning process.