Faculty voice:

Stephen Esquith: Compassion in the time of Ebola

Dec. 3, 2014

Stephen Esquith, dean of MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, has spent the five months in Mali working on a partnership program between RCAH and the Ciwara School and Institute for Popular Education in Kati.

In “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez explored the relationships between love, passion and anger. We see, among other things, how an unrequited love can plague us to no end, physically and mentally. And, just as a love denied can become heated, even choleric, compassion in the time of Ebola can hemorrage fatally.

Ebola has reached unprecedented levels in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and it now has moved across the border into Mali.

I didn’t come to Mali because of Ebola. I came, initially with my RCAH students (who left before Ebola arrived), to respond to the coup and occupation of 2012-13 through a local dialogue project on truth, justice and reconciliation.

My work in Mali at the Ciwara School and Institute for Popular Education in Kati has been on the limits of and alternatives to compassion—not in health care, but in the peace and reconciliation process in Mali.

Starting in July, my small group of RCAH students began working with Ciwara school teachers and students from the University of Bamako to construct a series of local dialogue forums for residents of Kati who had experienced the violence resulting from the coup and occupation.

We interviewed women and children who were attacked, who lost their homes and property and whose husbands and fathers had been killed in the conflict. We re-enacted and re-presented their stories in various ways, from fabric art and photography to poetry, theater and dance, in order to prompt dialogue and discussion.

Our primary goal was not merely to show compassion, although that certainly happened. Instead, it was to give those who have been stigmatized, traumatized and unjustly treated a forum in which to discuss their current needs and their past grievances. We wanted to help them assert themselves and at the same time demand political responsibility for the violence during the coup, the occupation and its aftermath.

When the Ciwara School opened in early October, I continued to work with Ciwara teachers to compose picture books telling similar stories for their younger students and to create a “Mali Peace Game” in which 40 eighth- and ninth-grade students learned about the multi-dimensions of the crisis and possible ways of resolving it non-violently. The game, modeled on John Hunter’s World Peace Game, helps students learn about the temptations, traps and consequences of violence through a simulation. In our case, the simulation of the conflicts in Mali includes ethnic, environmental, economic, political and now a new public health crisis.

Caught between arbitrary professional authority that has failed to minister effectively and a corrupt state that has abdicated its democratic responsibility, where can Malians turn?

Our dialogue project in Mali seeks to ground compassion in local political responsibility. It is a modest experiment, though by no means the only one of its kind; for example, we have benefited considerably from the work of the international NGO Interpeace and its Malian affiliate, Institut Malien de Recherche Action pour la Paix.

In the time of Ebola, when the limits of compassion as a practical ethic seem to be even more evident, we have tried to provide a forum in which collective political responsibilities for injustice can be discussed and enacted. In the case of the Ciwara School, the actions include a new peace and justice curriculum and local dialogue forum built around our Malian Peace Game. It also includes a series of storybook projects written by students themselves in French, English and their traditional languages.

The proposal will be followed by a period of negotations, alliances and actions by all four countries mediated by international and regional organizations. This is one of 20 crises the students will address throughout a 16-week period.

The game will be coupled with a set of reflection projects in which small teams of students will tell the stories of the game as they have experienced it in visual and performance art presentations. These stories will be the catalysts for local community dialogues about the actual crises that have riddled Mali.

By combining compassion and political responsibility through these presentations and local dialogue forums, we hope to strengthen both of them. Our hope is that out of processes like this one will come a new generation of citizens who will understand that compassion cannot be a substitute for democratically elected and controlled political institutions.

Instead, compassion should be part of a moral economy regulated by higher order principles of political responsibility. Similarly, political responsibility will no longer be the exclusive duty of insulated government functionaries acting arbitrarily according to their professional notions of safety and security. Instead, political responsibility should be a set of principles for democratic politics that can check and guide this moral economy toward justice.