An act of courage

By Chris Hufstader

When he saw people fleeing for their lives, Gaspard Onokoko knew he had to help them.

Onokoko was working at a human rights organization in Bujumbura, Burundi, where an ethnic conflict similar to that which tore apart Rwanda in 1994 was driving a long civil conflict. "I saw in the market Tutsi being chased by Hutu armed with knives and revolvers, they wanted to kill them. I opened the doors to my office to hide them, and people there said to me, "Gaspard, if you do that, they will kill you too," and I said to them, "let them come kill me."

And they tried. "They destroyed my house, they wanted to kill me because I was defending the lives of others," Onokoko said. "Well, they did not kill me. I am here with you."

This was just one incident in his human rights work in central Africa, which eventually led to his imprisonment in Burundi. Thanks to the intervention of foreign human rights organizations, Onokoko, a Congolese citizen, was released and eventually found refuge in Senegal 10 years ago.

He says he was never scared. "If you are fearful you cannot defend human rights. If you are scared you can't build peace and development. It is an act of courage."

A trained teacher, Onokoko turned his attention back to education. "I could hear a lot of talk about resolving conflict, but I could see in the schools there was no program of peace education and human rights," he said. "So I was one of the first to introduce [it] in the schools."

Onokoko concentrated his work in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, the scene of more than 20 years of conflict between the government and separatist rebels. In 2003 he began a collaboration with Oxfam America, and developed a primary school curriculum complete with teacher training guides, student workbooks, and other material to help teach young people about peace, human rights, and citizenship. By 2006 he had convinced the Ministry of Education to allow the curriculum to be introduced in over 200 primary schools, and started expanding the student mediator program, in which students learn to resolve conflicts, into high schools in Casamance.

"Peace education in Casamance is having very positive results," Onokoko said. "Students who used to willingly go into the bush to join the rebellion now are not interested in this—they know that peace is more important than war, and that if there is war, they can't go to school and there will be no development. Their parents are delighted that their children speak of peace, and human rights. This is very satisfying for me personally, and it is thanks to Oxfam."

Onokoko, now 51 years old, lives in less danger in Dakar, Senegal, and travels frequently to the south to promote the peace education curriculum he developed with his organization GRA-REDEP. With the recent peace agreement in Casamance there is less violence, but many challenges to peace remain, including widespread poverty and land mines.

But Onokoko is taking the long view. "To build peace you have to have a lot of patience, it takes time to change people's behavior, and change their hearts."