My Research in Casamance   4 comments

As most of you know I served in Peace Corps/The Gambia between 2008-2010. The Gambia is surrounded by Senegal (I call Senegal the ‘pac man’) with ocean at the west. I lived just south of The Gambian River far upcountry in the country’s bush-area, and was never too far from The Senegalese border at any given time. One instance, I remember vividly, I was traveling south from my village on my bike headed to a meeting and entered into a location of which I was not familiar with. I kept biking until I finally stopped to ask for directions. After greeting a compound I asked if they knew where so-and-so meeting was. They understood my Pulaar but found the one person in their compound that understood English; this person asked me, “Do you want to be in Senegal or The Gambia?” It was then that I knew that I had accidentally entered into Casamance, and as a Peace Corps volunteer I was not supposed to be there.

The southern portion of Senegal – the region of Casamance – contains West Africa’s longest ongoing conflict. In simple terms and at the dispute’s original premise, Casamance wishes to separate from the rest of Senegal. This makes sense as the region is literally cut off from the rest of Senegal due to The Gambia slicing right through the country. Since the country’s independence, the people of Casamance have been marginalized and thus the region’s rebel group – the Mouvement des Forces Democratiques du le Casamance (MFDC) – has since been fighting the country’s military from regional independence from Senegal. The Jola ethnic group is commonly known for and attributed to the conflict but the MFDC (and its handful of [current] factions) may contain members of other ethnic groups. Furthermore, other ethnic groups live within the conflict zone, (cf the Peuls/Fulas and Mandinkas). Sporadic clashes between the rebel factions and the national military occur every so often even after the last peace accord in 2004 and most recent peacebuilding activity in 2009. Furthermore, the MFDC has planted landmines throughout the region, which hinders travel and agriculture. I am drastically oversimplifying the conflict but do so for sake of brevity.

Some folks reading this may or may not have heard of this conflict. Africa has many conflicts, and many of which take precedent, attention, and funding away from other conflicts. This goes towards developmental work in Africa as well. It is unfair, to say the least, but the only thing we as development practitioners and/or conflict management professionals can do is to keep the inequalities in mind once/while in the field.

During my first year of graduation school at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management (Brandeis University) and taking courses towards earning my first Master’s degree – Coexistence and Conflict – I noticed a trend. The obvious, or not so obvious, pattern is that once a dispute had reach a certain point within a context (Zartman considers this the ‘ripe’ moment for intervention), outsider intervention would intervene to ‘solve’ the issues. I found this both appalling and disturbing. Why would an outsider be better at resolving a dispute of which her/him knew (basically) nothing about, and knew nothing (more or less) of the context’s conditions?

My time at The Heller School made my realize my focus in school as well as my approach to my work as a development practitioner and conflict management professional: contextual approaches and conflict sensitive ways to both achieve peace and development, and within this focus my specialties are religion and gender (specially men and masculinities). So, by earning a dual Master’s degree in Coexistence and Conflict & Sustainable International Development I am well trained and prepared to approach said foci.

To finalize these degrees I am conducting research pertaining to a conflict area mentioned above. Since my degrees are in both conflict and development, but a context cannot develop itself if it has strife, I will briefly look into how conflict does impact contextual development. Specifically, my research topic is looking at conflict management cultural norms of the Fula ethnic group of Casamance. The data collected will be compiled and analyzed as a case study, and given to the Government of Senegal and other bodies in Senegal as an alternative approach to build peace in the region. This topic is built on the premise that: disputes and conflicts are innate within the human species; and each and every culture and context has their own save on auto repair way to deal with their daily/communal conflicts. Therefore, what better way to resolve a conflict than by using conflict management cultural norms and practices and not outsider/Westernized peacebuilding methods and strategies?

I must not forget about the language. Since the conflict is in Senegal, most people would assume that I’d be speaking in French to achieve my research goals. Well, I have tried to study French during my last year of graduate school, and it was difficult. If not French, then I should be learning/speaking Wolof – the other main language of Senegal. I’ll write more about language in another post, but I’ll just say for now that I refuse to ever learn Wolof. If development workers or peacebuilders wish to help others in need in an international context, language is key. However, within their efforts which language used is as vital. To achieve my research goals via a chosen language is key, I agree, but which language used to achieve those specific goals is as vital as the communication itself. In other words, the inequalities, marginalization, and unconscious racism of other ethnic groups and the international community towards the Fula ethnic group living throughout 18 countries in Africa has been thus far stagnant with the status quo being using/speaking French to this said ethnic group while researching, working on developmental projects, and/or promoting peacebuilding initiatives with them. Furthermore, when conducting ethnographic research of a particular cultural group, so much is ‘lost in translation’ when using the group’s non-native tongue. Therefore, I am spending the first two months of my time in Casamance not researching but strictly and intensively learning another dialect of Pulaar – Pula Futa – which is found in Casamance and into Guinea.

I choose to do my research in the region of Casamance and on a specific topic for a few reasons.

  • The conflict and the people of Casamance have been neglected from the world regarding this conflict.
  • Thus due to the conflict, development and development initiatives are hindered/ development workers are (possibly) afraid to work here.
  • Ergo I hope to highlight the conflict in Casamance to ‘higher powers’ so that much needed attention is given to the area.
  • Use of traditional or indigenous conflict management cultural norms has not been fully explored nor utilized in the sub-field of peacebuilding – alternative dispute resolution (ADR).
  • From my knowledge, any and all ethnographic research done on this specific ethnic group has been done in French. Thus, by learning and using their own language I am undoing the current status quo, building better rapport with the communities I will study, and thus will better achieve my research goals.
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • email

4 responses to My Research in Casamance

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Good stuff but, just to start some debate, I’m thinking about your question ‘what better way to resolve a conflict than by using conflict management cultural norms and practices and not outsider/Westernized peacebuilding methods and strategies?’ I’d broadly agree with that in principle and conflicts (at their deepest level) ultimately have to be resolved from within. However… your question may be (I would argue) premised on a false distinction. It sort of assumes that ‘traditional’ (for the sake of a short label) and ‘Western’ methods operate and have involved in isolation from each other. They have not: however local/traditional your methods, these things happen (as an African academic used to say to me) ‘in the world’. Casamance society has developed in a long (since the early 15th century) articulation with the West – slavery, colonialism, trade, globalisation – and the same is also true of the conflict itself. This is NOT to explain everything in terms of external influences (those sort of arguments annoy me) – the local and the ‘internal’ are important in their own right – but they are there, at some level, inflecting your ‘traditional’ peacebuilding and the terms in which you frame it (e.g. around a particular, colonially prescribed ethnic group).
    History matters here – a lot.
    Good night!

    • Martin,
      You are right on spot, my good friend. I was having this debate with Vincent Foucher (do you know him) about this very topic, and something I am still trying to grapple. Using the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘indigenous’ may be tough to define and defend when approaching this subject; can I use ‘existing’ and then find parallels of other societies/cultures who share those cultural aspects as well?
      I look forward to meeting you soon in Casamance.

      Travis Warrington
  2. Travis,

    Interesting post my friend. Sounds like your research motives are very well thought out. I especially like your approach with the language studies. You are meeting them half way, so to speak.
    My questions are with regards to the conflict management cultural norms of the Fula ethnic group of Casamance. First, if Casamance is a culturally diverse region, as you indicate, do you think that other ethnic groups in Casamance (who may have their own conflict management cultural norms) will readily accept the Fula norms as the best tools for conflict management. If there are many “norms”, how is it decided which are ideal for dealing with the government? Second, how receptive do you think the government of Senegal will be to the Fula conflict management cultural norms? Are there any Fula in the government? These are big questions which I am sure you will discover the answers to in the coming months. I look forward to hearing more about your experience my friend.

    • Brett,
      Thanks for your questions and comment. First, I’ve thought a lot about this question and as of right now I most likely will not ‘strongly urge’ the Senegalese government to use the Fula’s cultural norms, per se, but use the data from the research as a case study to demonstrate that these type of cultural norms exists and they can actually be used in a peacebuilding context. Second, I hope very receptive especially since the new president of Senegal – Macky Sall – is a Fula himself. I very much appreciate your questions and concerns!

      Travis Warrington

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *