Photo attributed to SFCG

When I entered the makeshift conference room armed with only a list of questions (carefully translated into French) and recording equipment, I felt a moment of panic at the sight of the assembled community leaders and members. I cleared my throat and began, “Good morning and thank you…” the faces staring at me changed from expressions of amused curiosity to confusion. “Your accent,” whispered one of my co-workers who was along to help me. “It’s too strong.” He addressed the room, “She’s American, I’ll help translate.”

Forty minutes later, I had brazened my way through my first focus group interview. This summer, I am interning with Search for a Common Ground, a conflict transformation organization which works through cultural channels to promote peace. I am analyzing the impact of several of their radio programs on conflict in communities in Cote d’Ivoire. This past weekend, I conducted the first leg of my field research in Bin Hoyué, a small town about four kilometers from the Liberian border. We conducted our research in the town center as well as surrounding villages.

Land conflict is the biggest issue in Bin Hoyué. The post-colonial government largely adopted a policy of, “you work it, you own it” policy in an effort to attract immigrant labor. When the Ivorian economy crashed, resources became scarcer and land became more contested, exacerbating tensions between native Ivoirians and foreigners as well as between ethnic groups. Add in a civil war and internally displaced peoples. In the current post (we hope) conflict environment, many are trying to return to their land to find that someone else has occupied it. In the absence of a widely known and cohesive legal system in regards to land ownership, the countryside continues to be plagued by individual and communal instances of land conflict. SFCG has tried to clear up some of the confusion through their radio programming by broadcasting government policy as well as examples of resolved conflict.

Over the course of the weekend, I made an effort to speak with women and youth in particular about the effect of these radio programs on their lives, as these are groups particularly vulnerable during times of conflict. I was personally very interested in the responses of women. I am not shy about identifying as a feminist, and I am always eager to learn how women navigate spaces for themselves in a patriarchal world. Tante (Aunt) Delphine, the leader of a woman’s association in Bin Hoyué took a few minutes to tell me that she feels as though radio programs featuring women in leadership positions have been a big help toward including women in the process of conflict mediation in her community. “Men hear these stories and realize that a woman’s place can also be to mediate conflict.”

She smiled a little wryly. “With more women involved, more conflicts get resolved.” She paused to add, “We need more of this.” Other women added in their agreement, but a few women told me that they don’t understand many of the radio programs. The more I see of Africa, the greater appreciation I have for its linguistic and ethnic complexity. Although French is spoken by most of the Ivorian population, those without access to formal education institutions often rely more heavily on maternal language. Again and again, the first step is education.

My session with the youth focus group was one of the most direct interviews I have ever conducted. When I asked what the principal cause of land conflict was, the answer was swift: it’s poverty (stupid). When there are no jobs and resources are scarce, competition gets fierce for what is there. “If you want to solve land conflict, you need to fix the poverty here.” It’s rare in life that you can be witness to that type of honesty.

When I write home about my experiences in Africa, I am a bit worried of sounding like someone who is just repeating clichés as I tell stories about how hospitable people are, how willing everyone is to make you feel welcome. But things often become cliché because there’s truth to them. This weekend, I was welcomed into homes, served the best food that was on hand, and given a new name so I could have something to remember Bin Hoyué by. And the killer was: all of it felt completely genuine.

When someone calls me their sister, aunt, mother, I feel as though they mean it. My favorite francophone Africa expression so far is, “on est ensemble” – we are together. It feels sincere every time I hear it.

There was a lot to process on the ride back to the office headquarters in Daloa. We had to pass through a Forces Nouvelles zone (the rebel group which is still demobilizing). We barreled past UN troops hunkered down in bunkers, coils of barbed wire and lots of ammunition between them and the Ivorian countryside.

After the welcome I received, all that armor seemed a little funny, whole-ly unnecessary. The hardest thing for me to wrap my mind around since being here is that there was ever a war here at all. That is was bloody and long and cruel. I guess that is the real work of conflict resolution – understanding the root of the problem, learning lessons from the past, and working at the root to prevent further flare ups.

The only thing I am sure about after this weekend is that the world needs more schools.

Apology: I took many pictures but dropped my camera while hiking back to our truck. I’m hoping to have it fixed this week, and I will be sure to make up for the lack of pictures then.