GREENCASTLE, Ind., October 4, 2005 – When two people from West Africa’s Ndiaye and Diop families (quite common family names in the Senegambia) meet, they are required to ‘dis’ each other. They insult each others’ family heritage, eating habits, you name it. But this practice has actually helped to solve serious conflicts in the region, says Brett O’Bannon, assistant professor of political science at DePauw University.
O’Bannon will be among the presenters at an international colloquium in Paris entitled “The ‘Cousin’ and Policy: Alliances with Jokes and Policy in Africa.” The October 27-28 conference is sponsored by the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, a unit of the prestigious Sciences-Po, which is France’s Grande École (the top institution in producing leaders) in political science.
The scholars convening this colloquium are all interested in the power of a well-known cultural institution called the ‘joking relationship’ which binds families, clans or even whole ethnic groups into ties of imagined kinship, O’Bannon’s October 27 presentation will review his research on local conflict management in West Africa.
“It’s pretty funny stuff, actually,” O’Bannon says of the ‘dis” encounters between the two families. “The important thing is that they are not only required to engage in these insulting exchanges, but they are equally obligated not to take offense.”
O’Bannon says these interactions are interesting to political scientists for several reasons. “For one, these fictive relationships have been known to bring an end to quite serious conflicts,” O’Bannon says. “I document an instance in which a rebel group in southern Senegal actually released a carload of hostages because the driver successfully pleaded for their lives in the name of the Serer-Diola joking relationship.
“The Serer and Diola are two ethnic groups bound by a mutual pact of non-aggression, so to speak,” he says. “The rebels in question are mainly from the Diola group and the terms of their joking relationship prohibit the spilling of the other’s blood. “
Last year Amos Sawyer (seen at right), the former president of Liberia who was forced out of power by the rebel Charles Taylor, visited DePauw and discussed the importance of recognizing cultural institutions on the ground in any effort at peacemaking or peacekeeping.
“During his talk, for example, he discussed how essential local women’s groups in Liberia have been in brokering and maintaining peaceful relationships across ethnic and even national lines,” O’Bannon recalls. “We’ve continued to collaborate on this question and my paper will reflect some of that.”
The potential for these kinds of indigenous institutions of self governance is significant, O’Bannon says.
“Sawyer’s point is that efforts such as international peacekeeping missions, multilateral peace talks or even post-conflict nation building are usually doomed if they don’t appreciate the importance of cultural institutions that structure people’s daily lives,” he says.