Engaging traditional priestesses to end the war

Senegal

Summary

Since the movement for autonomy in Senegal’s Casamance region turned to a war of independence over 30 years ago, the rebels have sought the spiritual protection of their ancestors and took vows with traditional priestesses of the sacred forest not to return to their villages until independence was won. Karuna Center raised money to convene 200 traditional priestesses for a 3-day ceremony for the purpose of formally undoing the spiritual protections and vows that rebel fighters from their villages had taken when they joined the fight for Casamancois independence, and to pray for the success of peace negotiations and reconciliation in their communities. As a result of that action, rebel fighters were able to lay down their weapons and look ahead to reintegrating into village life.

About the Program

In early 2014, we reconvened a civil society network from our earlier work in the Casamance with the skilled facilitation of our Senegalese Peacebuilding Associate, Joachim Diene. In April 2014, Joachim and Karuna Center director Olivia Dreier held community meetings that included a total of 407 people from 46 villages in the region of Oussouye. They also took three excursions to meet with rebel encampments in the surrounding forests. During these meetings, community members in the region made clear recommendations for the peace negotiations, based in the recognition of their economic, political, and cultural rights as well as the need to successfully reintegrate combatants. These community members told us they are willing to do everything in their power to support the peace process, and have decided to call their combatants home. 

Yet for this to happen, they explained, the rebels would have to first make peace with their ancestors and undo the spiritual protections and vows they took when they went to war. Since the movement for autonomy in Senegal’s Casamance region turned to a war of independence over 30 years ago, the rebels have sought the spiritual protection of their ancestors and took vows with traditional priestesses of the sacred forest not to return to their villages until independence was won. In traditional Casamancais belief systems, ignoring these sacred commitments could bring death or harm upon a combatant or their loved ones.

Karuna Center raised money to convene 200 traditional priestesses for a 3-day ceremony followed by community meetings with combatants and villagers. Exceeding our expectations, on July 2, 2014, approximately 300 traditional priestesses entered the sacred forest, representing 21 villages. Their purpose was to formally undo the spiritual protections and vows that rebel fighters from their villages had taken on when they joined the fight for Casamancois independence, and to pray for the success of peace negotiations and reconciliation in their communities. This is a critical step toward peace in the local culture, because it will make it possible for rebels to return to village life.

After emerging in a long single file line from three days in the forest, the priestesses completed the ceremonies and addressed community members as well as rebel combatants who had come to see them. The priestesses implored them to find forgiveness and reconciliation with one another—despite the pain that war has brought—so that rebels can return to their families once a peace agreement is reached at the national level.  In the meantime, rebel raids on participating villages came to a halt.

In December 2016, we expanded on this effort, helping to bring together leaders from 21 villages in the area of the Blouf (in the Casamance) to formally “call the rebels home” to their communities. Their actions included rituals, traditional song and dance, and community meetings to discuss the peace process. The rebels’ spiritual obligations to fight for independence were formally removed by the regional priestess of the sacred forest, assisted by women from villages throughout the area. As a result of that action, rebel fighters were able to lay down their weapons and look ahead to reintegrating into village life. This removed a huge obstacle to peace that was largely invisible in national policy discussions. It was the kind of problem, and the kind of solution, that only becomes visible by listening closely to local communities.

Videos

Blouf, December 2016: Women representing 21 villages in the region come together to formally call the rebel fighters home.

Oussouye, July 2014: 300 women emerge from the sacred forest after three days of ceremonies to call the rebels home to make peace.

Stories

Women Leading Peace

Karuna Center is supporting local villages to begin the process of calling their rebel combatants home, and holding ceremonies to reintegrate them into their communities.

Blessings for an End to Senegal’s war

Approximately 300 traditional priestesses took action to support peace negotiations and reconciliation in their communities

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