The Search for the Sacred Woods

By Lucia He | December 01, 2017 | Senegal

Senegal’s southern Casamance region is one torn by a decades-long conflict. Separated from the rest of the country by the Gambia, residents of the southern Senegalese community often felt economically and politically marginalized. It is this feeling of abandonment that prompted the rise of the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) in the early ’80s. The MFDC’s call for independence from the national government led to a violent conflict between rebels and the Senegalese state that extended until 2014, when a ceasefire was declared. Throughout the conflict, women in Casamance played a key role in the region’s peacemaking process, promoting dialogue between rebel groups and the national government, and raising awareness about the impacts of war on local communities.
To find strength and courage in their fight, women often turned to a special place: the bois sacré, or sacred woods.

During our reporting time in Ziguinchor, we met with several activists and women involved in the peacemaking process, all of whom mentioned the sacred woods as a key place in peacebuilding work. The women told us that whenever they went to talk to the rebels, they would first stop by the bois sacré to get the blessings from the spirits.

Intrigued by the idea of such an important and spiritual place, we asked one of the women peacemakers if we could visit the bois sacré. To our surprise, she said yes. That is how Glendora (IRP’s Deputy Director) and I found ourselves in a car driving towards our mysterious destination. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but speculated based on the importance implied by the women: perhaps a majestic forest, lush and green, with an air of magic reminiscent of a Grimm fairy tale? Would we be received by a traditional healer who lived in a humble cabin nearby? The imagination session didn’t last long. Though we expected a journey that would take us far from walking distance of the town, a few minutes after getting in the car, we were already parking next a small, walled lot by the main road. Inside were a group of women sitting on floor mats and makeshift stools made out of old computer monitors. Behind the women, and partially covered by cardboard and tin boards, was one tree — the (singular) Sacred Wood. In the space of a minute, we realized the source of the misconception. In French, bois can be translated as either “wood” or “woods,” depending on the context. Given the reverence with which the Senegalese activists spoke of the bois sacré, all of us journalists had pictured in our heads a hushed, verdant forest, when in fact, this powerful aspect of the Casamance peace process turned out to be something that, to outsiders, appeared much more modest.

After being directed to salute the spirit in the tree and having a short conversation with the women to clarify some of our doubts, we were back on our way to the hotel. The story we had expected to tell the rest of the group during dinner wasn’t as thrilling as we thought it would be, but we solved the mystery of the bois sacré and learned our lesson: it’s always better to see something in person when trying to understand a foreign concept, especially if French plurals are involved.

View All Posts By Lucia He

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