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Students take the lead

By Chris Hufstader

The Oxfam-funded program to train student mediators in the Casamance region of Senegal has been such a success at the primary school level that GRA-REDEP and local school administrators expanded it into secondary schools in the beginning of 2006, when they held a training session for 100 students.

About a dozen students came from Lycée Djinagbo in the city of Ziguinchor, a vast campus of low buildings scattered around dusty grounds bounded by withered trees and walls. On a windy day, clouds of dust blast between the buildings, obscuring the walls and students walking to class in their khaki uniforms. With nearly 4,700 students and 125 teachers, it is the biggest school in the city.

Keeping a school like this running has its challenges: The Casamance conflict has destabilized the entire region, and Lycée Djinagbo as well. There are fights between students, and problems between students and teachers. Like many high schools in Senegal, students sometimes go on strike to protest funding cuts and other school policies, making it hard to finish studies within the academic year.

Abdoulaye Sidibé, an advisor to the student mediators at Djinagbo says that the school is a bit less chaotic since students underwent the mediation training last January. "Since this program was initiated, there's a lot more stability. Fewer problems between students, between students and teachers, and between Muslims and Christians. It's partly due to the team we have here responsible for the resolution of these conflicts.  When they are confronted with a conflict their first reaction is to ask themselves, 'How can I help resolve this in a peaceful manner?'"

Mamadou Lamine Diatta, a 21-year-old literature student and mediator at Djinagbo, explained how his training helped him stop a fight between two students, and teach them a lesson of nonviolence: "One student got a bad grade—and the other was teasing him; they came to blows. I broke it up and took one aside to talk it over, and to allow him to express his frustration. Then I did the same with the other. After that I brought them together—but I did not ask them to repeat their story in front of the other, so as to avoid more anger. Instead we focused on the merits of friendship and the need to tolerate one another."

Maty Thiam, one of Djinagbo's 1,876 female students, is also a trained mediator with a confidence and wisdom well beyond her 17 years. She greets visitors, looking them directly in the eye, with a firm handshake. The mediation training changed her outlook on conflict completely. "Before the training, I understood conflict existed, but I did not know it could be mediated," she explained. Thiam has keen analytical skills, which help her understand the issues and move those in conflict towards peaceful resolutions. The most important thing she has learned from the training? "It is how to listen to people in conflict to get to the heart of the problem. Always avoid telling one or the other he is right. Then create a way to resolve it to show both that they have contributed to the resolution, but also that they have both gained something from the resolution."

High school students see their training resolving school quarrels as important preparation for their professional life. Boubacar Baldé, 18, a trained student mediator at an agricultural technical school outside Ziguinchor, says he wants to create a more peaceful relationship between farmers and livestock herders, two groups who routinely come into conflict all over Africa. "I am a Fulani," he said with pride. "We are known for cattle. But we live near people who grow crops, so we struggle to find grazing lands. And there are many conflicts. My experience will help me negotiate to reserve part of the land for pasture, and the rest for growing crops, and educate villagers in ways of mediating any problems that come up."