The Casamance region, which lies in the southernmost section of Senegal and is separated from much of the country by the Gambia, is home to the longest running war in West Africa. Grievances over economic and political disenfranchisement led to the establishment of the Movement of Democratic Forces in the Casamance (MFDC) in 1982 and its call for independence. Initially peaceful in their approach, the MFDC took up arms when demonstrations were suppressed with violence. Three decades of ineffective ceasefires and fratricidal fighting have factionalized the combatants, who have unfortunately preyed upon the population on whose behalf they are fighting. The conflict has had a negative effect on virtually every aspect of life in the Casamance, destabilizing a region that has the potential to thrive, but is instead among the poorest areas of Senegal—itself among the poorest 20% of countries in the world. The Casamance has been unable to capitalize on its prime agricultural potential, lush forests, white sandy beaches, and rich culture. Instead, economic stagnancy (as well as easy access to arms) has allowed narco-trafficking and banditry to proliferate.
Karuna Center began working with local NGOs in the Casamance in 2003 after a ferry boat disaster resulted in over 1800 deaths, compounding the stresses endured by years of civil war. We have maintained an active presence ever since.
Engaging traditional priestesses to end the war
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.
Peace in the Casamance
From 2010-2011 Karuna Center provided peacebuilding training and technical support to a USAID-funded program implemented by World Education that developed local Peace Committees that now work cooperatively to manage local conflicts and advocate for peace. Journalists from local community radio stations were trained to work in consort with the committees, publicizing their grassroots efforts to mitigate conflict, rebuild trust, and enhance security.
Support to the Casamance Peace Process Program
From 2006-09 we worked intensively with AECOM International Development on this USAID-funded peacebuilding program, designing and delivering trainings for Senegalese government officials, civil society groups, and the political arm of the MFDC separatist movement in an effort to build momentum for a negotiated settlement to the 30-year old conflict. Karuna Center provided strategic advice on the design of the overall program and led workshops on a variety of subjects, including conflict analysis, peace advocacy, reconciliation, and coalition building. The coalition building trainings led to the development of APAC (Alliance pour la Paix en Casamance), a broad-based alliance that includes grassroots actors as well as influential opinion leaders. Karuna Center also worked with the coordinating group of the civilian wing of the MFDC to organize community forums in which ex-combatants sought forgiveness and reconciliation with communities they have harmed.
In 2009 Executive Director Olivia Dreier authored a conflict assessment for USAID on Senegal and the sub-region, which includes a section on the conflict dynamics in the Casamance. The assessment is still being used as a resource by the USAID mission: https://www.usaid.gov/documents/1866/senegal-sub-regional-conflict-assessment-september-2009
Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution with Key Constituencies in the Casamance
From 2004-05 Karuna Center designed and implemented all the trainings for this USAID-funded project, implemented by PADCO that included Senegalese government officials in Dakar and the Casamance, civil society leaders, and the MFDC political wing. These trainings established trusting relationships and built skill sets that were further developed in the Support to the Casamance Peace Process Program described above. Recognizing that a successful peace process must reach communities at the village level, we worked with community-based organizations to collaborate on pilot projects that supported the return of refugees, the settlement of land disputes, and cultural festivals that brought disparate groups together to reinvigorate local traditions eroded by years of war.
PROFILE OF PEACE
See the PDF below which describes the life and work of Senegalese peace activist and Karuna program co-trainer Mathias Bassene.
The Culture and Peace Photography Project of Casamance
In 2008 Karuna Center partnered with professors Kerry Coppin of Brown University and Peter Mark of Wesleyan University to teach high school students to document daily life with disposable cameras as a way of promoting positive views of Casamance culture and identity. The students had never held cameras in their hands before. Check out the amazing results below: