Safe Haven

Targeted scholar and his family flee Ivory Coast, and find a new life at Smith

by Christina Barber-Just

BaboThe day armed rebels fired on Alfred Babo was the day he began his long journey to Smith.

It was September 2002. Babo was a 29-year-old doctoral candidate in social anthropology and development studies at the University of Bouaké in Ivory Coast. Laurent Gbagbo, then president of the West African country, had just survived a coup attempt. The rebels who tried to overthrow him had seized the city of Bouaké and started a civil war. They were torturing and murdering suspected Gbagbo supporters, especially members of his ethnic group, the Bété—an ethnicity shared by Babo.

When the rebels stopped Babo on the street, he decided to make a run for it. They ran after him, shooting their guns and crying, “Lie down! Lie down! Otherwise we’ll kill you! Stop!”

“It was really terrifying,” Babo says. “If they caught me at this time, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Babo fled occupied Bouaké and began an odyssey that last year brought him to Smith and his current post as visiting lecturer. He is with Scholars at Risk (SAR), an international network of higher-education institutions dedicated to protecting intellectuals by creating temporary academic positions for them while they are threatened in their home countries. The college has also welcomed Babo’s wife and three children. The family is living on campus, in a Paradise Road house provided by Smith.

“When we arrived here, it was a big emotion for us to see this big house,” says Babo, whose first language is French. “We never dreamed about this kind of experience.”

Remarkably, it was not the dramatic events of 2002 but of 2011 that prompted Babo to appeal to SAR for help. During the intervening years, he received his doctorate; became an associate professor at the University of Bouaké, which relocated to Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s largest city; and completed two postdoctoral fellowships, one in Geneva and the other at the University of Massachusetts, with the African Scholars Program. He also got married and had children.

The situation in Ivory Coast deteriorated following the 2010 presidential election, where disputed results sparked the country’s second civil war in less than a decade. Once again, Bété people were massacred and Babo was targeted. But this time he had a family to worry about. Forced to flee the country, they crossed into Ghana and went on to Togo. Still, the threats followed him.

“I launched a sort of SOS,” Babo says. Among others, Catharine Newbury responded. Newbury, Gwendolyn Carter Professor Emerita in African Studies and government at Smith and former director of the African Scholars Program, raised funds for Babo and his family, who left Ivory Coast empty pocketed. “This money gave us hope, gave us dignity, and we started to believe in life,” Babo says. The exiled family of five rented a small apartment in Togo, and on Newbury’s advice, Babo applied to SAR.

“When Scholars at Risk learned of the threats Dr. Babo was facing in 2011 as a result of the political instability in Côte d’Ivoire, we reached out within our network of universities to find a position where he could continue his academic work in a safe environment,” says Clare Robinson, SAR director of protection services. “Smith College stepped up to help Dr. Babo during his time of need.”

Babo and his family arrived in Northampton on January 4, 2012. Their children—ages 5, 7, and 14—enrolled in the city’s public schools, and Babo began teaching a French class, Francophone Africa: Colonialism and Beyond, at Smith.

Teaching at a private college versus a public university has been an adjustment. Babo has far fewer students—a dozen in a classroom, not hundreds in an auditorium—and wide access to books and other library materials, which are scarce at home. African leaders, he says, prefer to buy weapons.

The Smith community has embraced Babo, the first SAR scholar to find a place at Smith. “He came to campus as a guest but has become a friend and a wonderful colleague,” says Marilyn Schuster, provost and dean of the faculty.

Newbury says Babo enhances Smith with his biography as well as his scholarship. “Alfred greatly expands our international engagement,” she says. “His presence here is a particularly vivid reminder of the global community of scholars of which we are all a part.”

The college extended Babo’s stay from one semester to three, but not indefinitely. Babo doesn’t want to return to his country while it’s still in crisis, so he’s applying for permanent positions in the United States—ideally within the five colleges, so as not to uproot his family again. But he’ll take what he can get. “When you are trying to save your life,” he says, “sometimes you don’t have a choice.”

SAQ 2012-13