War and Peace

If two Guerzé women have a dispute, another woman comes and takes their pagnes (their wrap-around skirts) so they are butt-nekked until they can come to an understanding. Collecting such stories and traditional means of conflict resolution is one of the more fun and interesting aspects of my new job for the Mano River Women’s Peace Network.

I’m proud to be the first white chick in the ranks of this network of strong, big-hearted revolutionary women, though working with them isn’t easy in many respects. Our national headquarters is in a run-down building without regular electricity or running water; the small generator, when we have fuel for it, can only take one desktop and a laptop before it overloads, though there are four or five of us regularly working in the office. The women, though proclaiming to be the bearers of peace, sometimes fight worse than my cat Kéké and dog Quatorze. And my boss, the network’s founding president and Guinea’s former minister of social and women’s affairs, is a short, squat tigress of a woman who finds fault in most everything that crosses her desk.

“Hadja” (the female term for one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca) enjoys an near-cult following with the Network’s members, women who regularly sacrifice their precious time and money to make things happen in the organization. While her brusqueness can be frightening, and I bristle at the way she treats some of her underlings, we enjoy an inspired dynamic and she gives me great latitude in my work.

In my first three months, I’ve created a website (, developed a half-dozen grant proposals, and started developing a bi-lingual newsletter, and designed a pilot project for Guinea’s ex-volunteers, who defended their country against the rebel attacks in 2000 but were left with nothing when the government refused to either recruit them into the army or give them the means to restart their schooling or businesses afterwards.

I’ve also been charged with helping supervise, evaluate and support the work of the eight field offices the network opened this year in prefectures bordering Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. Though even more under-funded, under-equipped and under-trained than the national office, they’ve done a lot with a little– solving conflicts between Liberian and Guinean women in the marketplace, developing workshops in ethnically-divided communities, working with sages, military, youth, griots, refugees and imams to put aside their differences and personal interests in the name of guarding the peace in Guinea, a pillar of relative stability in a war-torn region.

Compared to the decades of terror the people of neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia have lived through or died from, Guinea’s armed skirmishes have been relegated to a series of rebel attacks in 2000-2001. But they left an unforgettable mark on the country, and people have started to see that the costs of maintaining peace are little compared to the price of war.

On mission to visit the new offices and evaluate their progress, we visit shell-shocked Gueckedou, where rebels destroyed thousands of buildings and families in 2000, taking testimony from an 80-year-old woman who was kidnapped by the rebels and forced to march hundreds of miles in the bush, seeing her colleagues eliminated before her eyes for having uttered nostalgic words about Guinea, hoping she would not be the next one to fall sick and be slaughtered rather than slow down the group.

Another woman I met can no longer be present for “sacrifices” -- the common Muslim custom of slaughtering a goat or a sheep – after she saw her own husband slain in front of her. She seems unsure if she was the lucky one or not, her life spared but only to live on forever disturbed. It filters into my dreams, nightmares of sadistic women who are not out to kill me so much as terrify me, play with me, make me feel the depths to which evil can occupy a person’s soul.

But the kindness encountered is just as profound. Though we had received per diems for our voyage, we were either treated to hotel rooms by the authorities or offered beds from volunteers, huge plates of rice and chicken placed before us though our visit was a surprise one. I was also touched by the dedication of my colleagues on the evaluation team, two of the most capable, caring people I’ve yet to work with in Guinea. There’s Kourouma, a Malinké consultant with his PhD in management who provoked us like a schoolboy pulling the pigtails of his secret crush, and Madame Diaby, who was Hadja’s Chef du Cabinet, and is one of the finest orators and diplomats I’ve met. After long days problem-solving in the field, we would work on our reports into the wee hours, until I, an early bird, asked them to have mercy on me and call it a night.

As soon as we return we are thrown into the hard work of MARWOPNET’s bi-annual general assembly, which brought together the network’s founding members from Sierra Leone and Liberia. These lovely, graying Liberia and Sierra Leonean ladies made the sessions gay, singing old songs like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain” in their adorable American-African (not to be confused with African-American) and British-African accents. We’re talking big ladies, in the flesh as well as in the scale of their accomplishments: Bringing together the three heads of state of the Mano River countries at a time when each was pouting in their respective corners; forcing their way into closed summits where civil society groups and notably women were barred from the table; crossing dangerous invisible boundaries into rebel territory to meet with the chief rebels at a time when they had refused to speak to anyone outside of their inner circle, whether UN Special Envoy or political opposition; setting up alternative mobile community radio stations so they could broadcast their messages of peace without their location being known. Yet the way they quibbled over a few words in their constitution and engaged in catty interpersonal politics, neglecting the larger headlines of their work, sometimes made it hard for me to believe they had accomplished what they had.

In spite of the group’s internal problems, a fierce faith and passion in their mission shines through, working in the air-conditioned chambers of the Novotel Hotel until 3 a.m. some nights to get the work done, and praying and singing in closure each time. It’s an infectious faith that touches even agnostic-leaning souls like me.

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