Ivory Coast | Water Builds Bridges in Divided Community

By Selay Kouassi

On a quiet morning in October, I decided to leave Man for Téapleu and several other villages surrounding the Ivorian-Liberian border town of Danané. After a one-and-half hour drive, a metal sign riddled with bullets and almost completely shrouded in the roadside bushes announced the little town of Téapleu. “Here we are,” I said to myself. The bullet holes in the metal sign could vividly testify to the intensity of violence here during the Ivory Coast post-election conflict early last year.

The car left the tarred road and followed the laterite lane into the village. Clay huts and concrete block homes appeared. Sheeps and goats ran here and there. No need to ask if they live in pens.

We pulled up in the courtyard of the home of Denis Badi Zan, the traditional chief of the village. He was waiting there, surrounded by his wives, his offspring and by some members of the village council.

The chief’s youngest wife dashed to the nearest well, drew water and poured it in a calabash and, genuflecting, offered it to me. “Sir, you are welcome,” she said.

I answered quickly: "Oh, it's very nice; I have already drunk a bottle of water. I am fine!” The chief kept insisting: “Do not refuse, young man! This is how we say ‘welcome’ to our guests according to our customs.” Again, I politely refused.

“If you refuse to drink it means that you are not the bearer of good news,” Zan said. And the audience began laughing. I also laughed. After the usual greetings and introductions, I told the chief that I saw bullet holes on the sign at the entrance of the village. He then began a tale of his experience.

"It all started here. The fighting between Liberian mercenaries hired by (then-President) Laurent Gbagbo and dozos (traditional hunters) and armed forces backing (election winner) Alassane Ouattara started in Téapleu...Some armed fighters invaded the village during the night. They seized me and tied me up. Having learned that I was captured, all my subjects fled the village," Zan said.

Zan underscored that the recent post-election violence had taken a serious toll on Téapleu because of political and ethnic divisions existing between the villagers. “If the wall does not crack open, how can the gecko enter? There is no way! The invaders came here and oppressed us because we were divided.”

These days Téapleu is looking forward. Its inhabitants have learned from past mistakes and have found the way to prevent further divisions: the water committee in the village is now considered an essential means to reconciling the populations and bridging the divide between communities in the village. That was not the case a year ago.

Sanogo Hamidou, from Burkina Faso, who has lived in Téapleu for 15 years, explained how the water committee used to work.

"Until recently, the water committee was composed exclusively of members of the major ethnic group in Téapleu, the Yacouba, typically considered supportive of Ouattara. Then, other ethnic groups backing former President Gbagbo were suspicious. Things got worse between us when on the eve of the presidential poll, ethnic groups systematically lined up behind different candidates and backed them openly. This exacerbated the post-election violence in the village," he said.

But after some members from other ethnic groups and nationals from neighboring West African countries were included in the water committee, “it (the water committee) is now seen as the crucible of reconciliation,” said Paul Monpéhi, a Téapleu resident.

“Trust and the true spirit of reconciliation are taking shape gradually, with the new format of the water committee,” Hamidou added. But another challenge remains for Téapleu: improving the safety of water and preventing waterborne diseases.

"Save the Children and IVS (a local NGO) gave us special buckets with tapes designed to conserve water and keep it clean and away from any polluting sources. But we are not immune to waterborne diseases. Actually, we fill these buckets with water that comes from water wells as most hand pumps are down; the few hand pumps that are still working are distant from the village and invaded by people in search of water. Many of our children suffer from diarrhea because of the quality of water," said Kapeu Benedicte, another resident of Téapleu.

In Téapleu and in many villages around the town of Danane, people praise the reconciliation initiatives launched by water committees. But anguish has gripped many villagers because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CDVR)—installed by the government to foster national reconciliation—seems to be not much interested in these locally-made reconciliation initiatives, according to the villagers. Also, the frequent breakdown of hand pumps has hamstrung meetings and regular activities of the water committees.

“The unity and activism of the water committees depend on the good functioning of hand pumps,” Anatole Guéï, a Téapleu resident explained.

“The more the hand pumps break down, the less the members of water committees meet. Hand pumps are considered the most treated source of safe drinking, but they are also the connection points in our village. It’s where our women usually meet, not only to fetch water, but to share news and fuel gossip as well. It’s a pity that broken hand pumps wait a long time before being repaired. This can soften the reconciliation initiative launched by the committees and dilute the social relationship between women and other members from different households,” Guéï added.

I left Téapleu at sunset. I did not drink the water the chief’s wife had offered. While we were driving back to Man, I wondered if I was a bearer of good news for Téapleu inhabitants or not. The only thing I was sure about was that I gave them the opportunity to make their voices heard in the country and beyond Ivorian borders. Everyone wanted to talk to me; everyone had something to say about water and the reconciliation process in Téapleu and in the surrounding villages. I was happy to meet these people whose trying experience is not covered by the mainstream media.