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Africa's peace seekers: Betty Bigombe

Betty Bigombe spends her days talking to rebels and Army officers in Uganda's bush country. She is one of Africa's peace seekers - individuals willing to leave loved ones behind, shrug off personal threats, and even spend significant amounts of their own money to end some of the continent's most intractable conflicts. Part 2 of three.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2005


It was a CNN "breaking news" flash that first caught her eye.

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On the chilly morning of Feb. 22, 2004, Betty Bigombe was racing around her cozy condo in Chevy Chase, Md. She was focused on paying bills, packing for a business trip, and hoping to squeeze in a workout.

Walking past her bedroom TV, she suddenly froze. In her native Uganda, the anchor said, the Lord's Resistance Army had just massacred more than 200 villagers. They had forced entire families to stay inside huts - then set the houses alight, shooting anyone who ran out. Ms. Bigombe remembers whispering, "Oh, my God, I can't believe it's still happening."

Her own picture appeared on the screen. The reporter explained that Bigombe, a former government minister in Uganda, was the one person who'd ever gotten the rebels and the government close to peace. But that was back in 1994.

Now the ongoing barbarity in her homeland filled her with shame. Standing there in her nightgown, she was deeply torn. Should she go back to Uganda to help? Could she afford to lose her well-paying job at the World Bank? Could she stand to leave her college-age daughter alone in the US? After hours of pondering, she concluded, "Maybe ... maybe I can give it another try."

* * *

That February day marked Bigombe's reluctant reentry into an elite group at the center of efforts to end this continent's most-intractable conflicts. They are Africa's peace seekers. And these days they're increasingly successful: Last year, the number of major conflicts in Africa (six) hit its lowest level since 1997, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks global conflicts. It spiked in 1998 and 1999 to 11, but has since trended downward.

The geopolitical reasons for the shift include the end of the cold war and the proxy conflicts it spawned in Africa, the rise of democracy on the continent, and the new peacemaking strength of African regional organizations. But the change also springs from individuals such as Bigombe - peace seekers who are willing to leave loved ones behind and strike out on quests others have failed to finish. They often work 20-hour days, endure sleepless nights, and even spend significant amounts of their own money. Some have succeeded. Others, like Bigombe, are pushing hard.

There's been a recent "surge in willingness" of individuals and regional groups in Africa to "be responsible for getting out of the mess" that has long pervaded their continent, says Sharon Wiharta of SIPRI. These people and organizations, she says, "have been more and more successful in negotiating the end of conflicts."

* * *

Little did Bigombe know her initial "maybe" would turn into 18 months of grueling work. She's mostly been camped out at a one-story motel in rural northern Uganda. It's a far cry from Chevy Chase. The sheets are so scratchy that Bigombe swears she'll bring her own set next time. Order chicken in the motel's dining room, and the staff goes out back to kill a squawking bird.

Bigombe says she has spent about $8,300 of her own money on the peace effort - on things like calls to rebels' satellite phones. In the past year, she has seen her daughter, Pauline, for only a handful of days - and once nearly had to pull her out of college because money was so tight. Bigombe is on leave from the World Bank - and isn't getting a salary. Sitting in jeans and a white T-shirt at a plastic garden table on the motel lawn, she sighs, and adds with a laugh: "Three weeks - I thought I would be here three weeks" before a peace deal was struck.

When she arrived last year, two months after the February massacre, she began her one-woman peace effort with no official position or outside funding - just a history of trust among all sides. Hopes were high. The rebels seemed desperate - and willing to negotiate. International pressure was building on the government to end the war. But today, 1-1/2 years later, despite some near successes, the 19-year conflict rumbles on between essentially three factions: The rebels who've been branded terrorists by the US, and who've killed more people than Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hizbullah combined; Uganda's headstrong president; and profiteering Army officers who apparently manipulate their commander in chief to prolong the war.