When I started working, I thought that I should have other activities. I gave literacy courses. I felt that immigrants were oppressed and that it was quite normal to help them. I started doing this in 1970, when large numbers of immigrants came to France. Living under very bad conditions, among them were Portuguese people who did not want to be sent to Angola to fight against the Independence movement there. It was a bloody colonial war.
While doing this literacy work, I felt that the best way to understand the people, with whom I was working, was to meet them in their own environment. A girl belonging to the literacy group said that she was going to North Africa on an SCI work-camp, I was interested. I did not have to choose between organizations: this was just an opportunity. I had once heard about SCI from a friend who talked about conscientious objection. At that time, I had never thought about it before.
Normally, for new SCI volunteers, there was at that time (1973), - unlike nowadays - an SCI training course under the responsibility of the Africa, Asia and Latin America Commission (CAAAL). It lasted a full week, plus a weekend, which volunteers went on just before leaving for the camps. Jean-Pierre Petit was in charge of it; he interviewed each volunteer before giving the ‘go-ahead’. Now, in view of financial constraints, the training course is limited to three days. I was a member of this Commission for a long period, and I disagree with this reduction.
At that time, the training course included geography, history, sociology and economics (international relations).I feel that such training is essential, even for short-term camps. With this sort of training, and with discussion evenings, people are obliged to put their ideas into question. We discuss themes such as: “What is a work-camp? What is it for?”. We also explain that we are not just going to dig a well, and that there is little chance that they will actually do what they expect to do. Too many people go in for humanitarian work, and imagine that they will change the world by digging a well. On a week’s course, they have enough time to look at things in a different way, and they may even give up. I feel that this is important. There are also people who go to the training session without having made up their mind. In a week, you can also see whether certain people may have difficulties adapting to living in a collective situation. Living is sometimes difficult in work-camp conditions, especially in Third World countries. Sometimes, we have to tell people that it would be better if they did not go at all. Others realize that the country they want to go to does not necessarily correspond to their expectations.
The point is, to explain what development is, what a Third World country is, and to stimulate thinking about the reasons why some countries are developed and others are not. SCI should aim, first of all, at developing awareness among volunteers themselves. The volunteer training course, as it used to be, was very demanding, with a week plus a week end and an assessment session after the camp. It meant that those who actually went on camps after the training course were really committed, and they were likely to stay with SCI. Nowadays, the training session only lasts three days, less than half of the volunteers come for the assessment after their camp, and no more than 2% carry on working with SCI. This reduction in training time took place a few years ago, in response to the competition with other organizations which are less demanding. When they saw that the number of participants in SCI training sessions was decreasing seriously, the Commission wanted to do something.
My work-camp in Tunisia (1973) lasted for three weeks. It took up all of my vacation time. It was in a village, and we were altogether about 15 volunteers, North African and foreigners. Most of us were girls, whereas there was not a single North African girl in the group. We had to dig canals. What for, and for whom? I did not know, and actually I did not care. The camp was a hard experience in many respects, first of all, because intercultural relations are always difficult, especially in North African countries, and the majority of us were European girls.
It was also very hard from a physical point of view. I cannot stand the heat, and it was awful in Southern Tunisia. We had to be vaccinated against cholera, since there was an epidemic at that time, in order to be able to drink the water. We dug irrigation trenches in the blazing sun, while a number of the North African boys would go and sit in the shade and sing little songs. But they were always first at dinner table. Still, the food was so spicy that I could not eat it anyway. As soon as we spoke to a North African boy, the others became jealous and got upset. Radios played all night, every night. In other words, it was exhausting.
In the evening, we had to go through a process of self criticism, probably because the team leader did not have much experience and was lacking in self-confidence. He did not want to have any problems, so if, for example, I had spoken to a boy in the group and not to the others, I had to apologize, and so on. Apart from that, there were no organized discussions as far as I can remember. Anyway, it was already difficult enough to face our everyday problems. As it was the camp was organized by a local institution which was under the responsibility of ‘The Party’, therefore discussions were not really welcome anyway. Exchanges were rather limited to music and dancing in the evenings - which was compulsory – local folk-dancing of course.
In any case, gender relations in North Africa are always a bit complicated. Especially for young boys who have never met foreign women before, nor any other women for that matter. However, the girls did not have to prepare the meals. We had a local cook, but even the Tunisians from the North could hardly eat his very spicy food. Another positive aspect of that camp was that, at the end, we had the opportunity of being invited by the families of the local volunteers .Thus we were able to discover certain aspects of local life and culture. When I came back to France and went back to work, I saw the North African people I was dealing with, in a different light. I was able to talk with them about small, everyday things, and even exchange jokes. A number of things now had a name for me.
Despite the fact that, altogether, it had been a very difficult experience for me, I was not discouraged. What was very good with SCI was the weekend after the camp, and the assessment that took place then. One could hear other people’s reactions and I concluded that, it had not been so bad after all. There had been some value in what we had done, and I kept in touch with a friend met at that camp, because, after all that collective life, in hard conditions, personal relationships had been stimulated, without any consideration for social origin, education and so on. One is faced with such a completely new situation that it creates a real relationship. I think that this is very good. At this final meeting I felt that by assessing its activities SCI was a real organization, doing a serious job of work. It involved an aspect of continuity which I considered to be very important.
Thus I got involved with a work-camp organization. In addition one was offered to do something afterwards within the framework of the CAAAL (the Africa, Asia and Latin America Commission of the French branch of SCI), which was fully independent (its leaders were Gerson Konu and J.P. Petit). We were asked to think about a particular topic. It was in 1973, when the first oil crisis took place, and I was lucky enough to work on the oil problem. This is how I learnt about the price of oil and things like that. This is essential, and that is why I stayed with SCI: one not only has to do manual work, one has to think as well. Over a period of years, I continued to work on other issues: each volunteer did his or her part of the work, and we met from time to time.
The following year (1974), I went to India to do another work-camp. It was the first time that short-term volunteers were sent to India as a group. There was a long period of preparation before our departure. Everyone had to do a lot of reading, and there was a weekend camp to make one another’s acquaintance. Volunteers had to commit themselves to the camp for a minimum period of seven weeks, which was a long time for working people like me. In India, there was a week of information in Delhi with long presentations by SCI. Then there was a workcamp in Madras, to build the foundations of a dispensary. We, short-term volunteers, were mostly French and we were supervised by Indian and international long-term English-speaking volunteers. We were able to travel a little. Later on, I stayed about two weeks in a dispensary in a slum near Delhi. Volunteers did not really work there, since they were not adequately qualified for the work.
This experience was completely different from my work-camp in Tunisia. In the first place we had been invited by the Indian branch of SCI, which considered it important to explain how the Indian branch worked, and what life India was like. It was equally important, in a country where the caste system is so predominant, for the public to realize that people from different countries could actually work together. This is the point I remember. One difference though was the large number of women participating in the camp. I have seen more of India than of Tunisia and was more impressed by the poverty there, but I was also impressed by beautiful things. Before going there, I had expected India to be inaccessible; which I discovered was not true. Likewise I had imagined it as a magical place, which I quickly realized it certainly was not. It was really hard seeing all that poverty! Another thing that I discovered was Indian dancing, which I loved. Religion did not seem to have the same influence on daily life as in North Africa, though we did see some religious ceremonies. No doubt there was talk of non-violence, but my main memory is of a football match at the end of which people threw stones at each other.
During that period, I became a member of SCI volunteer-training team, since I have an intellectual job, and that is why I liked SCI: it was a place where one could speak. It was not activism for the sake of activism. This is probably why I carried on. This is compatible with manual work, but I would not have stayed if it was only manual work. It is not so much the camps that interested me, but rather the experience that I could gain through them .It was the best period for me – unfortunately it is no longer the same.
At the end of the `70s I also participated in an SCI camp in Peru. Someone in SCI was trying to develop an on-going relationship with Latin America, but it was very difficult. Over there, if you are not a Latino, you are considered a ‘gringo’. There would be a lot of work for SCI to do in Latin America, promoting mutual understanding and non-violence. However, it is very difficult to do, given the rather radical politicized attitudes that tend to oppose South American people towards one another. It is extremely difficult for people to believe someone who claims to be non-violent if they perceive that person as belonging to the opposing side.
During that period, there were differences of approach in international activities between national branches, and different views as to what was the specific character of SCI. The British branch was very pragmatic, the Germans had a bad conscience because of the war and they simply wanted to give money. On the other hand we (the French branch) thought that it was impossible to undertake development work only by donating money – and this does not apply only to Latin America. I found that cooperation between European branches was difficult in view of these differences.
Later on, I belonged to two SCI groups: ‘Women and development’ and ‘Vendée’. The latter,-which is now called ‘Vendée/Afrique’ - initially brought together farmers and craftsmen of the Western part of France, who wanted to do something to help developing countries and who did not know SCI. They met Gerson Konu, who was then in charge of SCI activities in West Africa, and he told them “If you want to help developing countries, the first thing you have to do is to get to know them.” He suggested that they should receive people from the Third World into their homes. He went a long way, and he persuaded them to receive a Senegalese farmer and a carpenter from Benin for a whole year. It proved to be very difficult. It was in a remote area where they had never met black people. I was involved in it, and even though it was a first experience, it did not turn out to be a failure since it is still going on today, and the group is still active. We had to do a lot of assessment work in order to see the positive side of the experience.
I did not personally initiate that project. Looking back at it, I feel that it was too heavy; it went on too long – especially for the African participants who tended to make a nuisance of themselves, to the extent of becoming unbearable, which is not unnatural. For those who met them, it is less difficult as the group is large enough, so that its members receive the Africans in their families in turn. Also there was follow up, involving several assessments. Later on it was suggested that the French group themselves should go to Africa. So now, every other year they go to Africa for two weeks, and the Africans come here the following year.
This was really revolutionary, first of all because the Europeans get to understand the African way of life. In the beginning, the Europeans believed that the project would stimulate the development process in Africa. They believed that it would work, just like that. But, what has been really interesting, have been the exchanges between farmers, which have been highly beneficial. The result is stimulating in that they realize that they are skilled which makes things a lot easier when participants do a similar job. The project is not financed by SCI. We organize money-raising activities, such as collecting waste paper, and now by organizing paying meals. We also organize training and information evenings. When we receive African people, we provide information on life and living conditions in Africa, and we organize discussions on exchanges between Europe and developing countries. Consequently, today many members of the group are more knowledgeable on these issues than a lot of so-called experts.
I still participate in these activities, but to a lesser extent now, because the meetings take place in the evenings, and the local people have taken over full responsibility for the project. Nevertheless, I am not sure that it will last much longer, because I doubt very much if such a varied group of people can pull in the same direction without someone to coordinate them.
The project called ‘Women and development’ was launched by SCI in connection with International Women’s Year (see Dorothy in chapter 2). Two Swiss long-term volunteers participated in a work-camp in West Africa, where they met African women’s groups. The volunteers told them that they did not have any money to offer them, but asked the groups in which way they could cooperate with one another. This became the strong point of the ‘Women and development’ project: the idea that we do not have any money. Therefore, exchanges were established without us donating any money. This changes the whole thing. The Swiss volunteers came back saying: “Over there, women say that they tend to feel discouraged, because they are isolated, they don’t have any exchanges with the outside world, and no help is forthcoming locally”.
Such a situation was not surprising, since - at least at that time - exchanges between West African countries always had to go through Paris. We then thought that we should attempt to establish a support link between groups of women in Africa, to prevent them from becoming discouraged. As usual, an outside contribution may be useful: it helps raise questions, it provides food for thought, helps in enabling people to see things in a more objective way. This is how we were useful, by saying: “Okay, you do things this way; other people do it another way”.
In 1976, in Benin, Gerson Konu organized an international conference of women’s groups from French-speaking West African countries. The previous year, the country, until then called Dahomey, became the new state of Benin, under a Marxist-Leninist government. This change of regime led to four of us finding ourselves in an extremely difficult situation; I could write a novel about it! There were all kinds of difficulties. I was one of the four foreigners who took part, and we had arrived earlier in order to prepare the conference. Unfortunately, the Government had taken over the event and selected its own participants. There was always a representative of ‘The Party’ present, policing the situation, especially during discussion meetings. It was horrible and meaningless. We had to be very careful about what we said, never sure of what would happen to us after the meeting. A relationship was nevertheless established between the participants, but there had been no ‘free discussion’ at all.
Prior to this conference, at the CAAAL in Paris, we had envisaged a charter to define the type of relationship that should be maintained with sub-Saharan countries, and the conditions required to allow for proper exchanges. It stated that exchanges would be completely impossible if on the one side there are those ‘who have’ and ‘who know’, and on the other those ‘who have not’ and ‘who do not know’. In that case, all the others can do is say ‘thank you’, but that it is not an exchange. For us, this is basic. Money can destroy a relationship. If another branch comes along after us and offers financial aid, the partner will naturally prefer the organization which is prepared to give them money, rather than the one who just says: “let’s discuss your problems”. It is even worse with organizations like UNESCO. We had an example of a meeting when the participants were asked for their ‘per diem’ (= daily expenses or allowance); people did not even know what it meant. We then realized that UNESCO’s way of dealing with things was jeopardizing our way of working. There was another meeting when representatives of the local ‘establishment’ were the only ones who spoke, which made us understand that we had to go through ‘the establishment’ in order to get to the people with whom we wanted to talk.
In the ‘Women and development’ project, every one pays for his or her own travel expenses and there are money-raising activities, such as making fruit juice and selling it. We try to organize exchanges between women who do not live too far from one another, in order to reduce travel costs. From time to time, some of us go to Africa to see what is going on (paying our own fare). Another activity is producing our newsletter, where women recount their experiences and exchange views.
At the beginning, our meetings were called seminars, but now they are called working meetings. Also usually, we organize some manual work to do together (such as planting trees). In this way, we only get participants who know that they will come to work and live in very simple conditions, without any financial benefit. This goes against the dominant trend. The objective is to exchange views on improving the functioning of women’s groups. Once, we asked the participants to talk about a specific skill they possess, which gave them (including the non French-speaking participants) responsibility for passing on a piece of know-how to the other participants.
Recently, a further step has been made: small meetings occasionally now take place without any French participation. Normally, two participants are invited from each group. The African women come to France for three months. If they stay for a shorter period, it is just tourism, they just admire what they have seen, and conclude “If only we were white, we would not have any problems”. If they stay for three months, they first go to a rural area, which is nearer to their way of life; then to the Paris area. There, they are confronted with some of the more negative sides of western life (especially for immigrants), and they are left to their own resources, to travel home and so on. Then, they usually find it quite difficult, and are eager to get back home, which is exactly what we want. Their conclusion is that everyone has a burden to carry–and we have to do it at our own pace. We have thought a lot about the selection of participants, and about those who actually do the selecting. It is quite possible that those women who come back are not well received by the others, since she realized that life in France was not what they imagined.
We are working for the long term, attempting to change mentalities, here and there. An isolated work-camp is meaningless to me, if it is not part of an on-going activity. In any case, what is important is not whether the job has been done efficiently or not; but, the relationship that has been established through it. The trust gained allows us to reflect on things together. If the camp is organized by another institution, this must be its approach. If the idea is just to meet people, it is useless. It is important to include the long-term aspect in what we do. When people go on a camp, we tell them that they should go back again, preferably to the same place, so that the people whom they meet again know that they are not simply tourists, but more like friends. I am not a volunteer for a tourist agency. Even though it is usually true that a work-camp is an opportunity of opening up people’s minds, but only so if the participants are properly prepared.
The ‘Women and development’ project was not really supported by the CAAL. However, it is a typical SCI activity, and I have been a member of its board. For some time, I was employed as a part-time worker in SCI Paris office; but then there were disagreements about what it means to be an employee, as compared with being a volunteer. In 2004, I participated in a work-camp in Algeria, with volunteers from among my colleagues (details not given here) in the Paris area.
To conclude - ‘What is SCI for me?’ First of all, it means building Peace through concrete action. For a long time we struggled, together with conscientious objectors to try and explain: “When there is injustice in the World, this is the origin of War; struggling against injustice means building Peace.”