I was honored to be a part of a panel on “Understanding Chronic Crisis,” featuring myself and two other African Peacebuilding Network (APN) alumni, Titilope Ajayi and Pamela Chepngetich, at a conference on “Rethinking Approaches to Chronic Crises in Africa: American and African perspectives.” The conference was organized by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) in collaboration with Search for Common Ground and took place at John Hopkins SAIS Kenny auditorium on March 5th, 2020. On the following day, together with Jennifer Sherys-Rivet of the SSRC’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN), I participated in a series of meetings with officials from government agencies on March 6th, 2020.

My presentation at the conference on “Understanding Conflict and Crisis in the Cameroon and Central African Republic (CAR) Borderlands” was focused on local women’s approach to peacebuilding. I spoke about the endogenous practice of peacebuilding performed by women of peace locally called “Oko’o Nga’a Mo” among the Gbaya community of Cameroon and Central African Republic (CAR).

The Gbaya people are a cross-border community. My presentation traced the history of conflicts in Gbayaland from early resistance to the Fulani Jihad (launched by Ousman Dan Fodio in 1804), and Gbaya resistance against French colonization between 1927 and 1930. In the post-colonial era, conflicts took on an ethnic or religious character, such as those between the Gbaya and Fulani in Cameroon from 1991 to 1993, and between the Seleka and anti-Balaka in the CAR since 2014. More recently, there have been political and election-related conflicts as well as conflicts between farmers and herders in both countries. In response, the Gbaya people have performed their cultural rituals of peacemaking called Soré Nga’a Mo’o to prevent or resolve such conflicts.

I described the Soré Nga’a Mo’o ritual as a women’s cultural practice of peace in Cameroon, focusing on the significance of the tree of peace called Soré (the Anona Senegalis). Oko’o Nga’a Mo were highly revered post-menopausal women who were beyond childbearing age. I, however, made the clarification that men announce the holding of the ritual, it was the women who performed it.  During peacemaking rituals, leaves from the Soré tree are mixed with twelve other shrubs and ritual water believed to be obtained by a special washing of the Oko’o Nga’a Mo vagina. The mixture (Zora), believed to be sacred, is placed in a calabash and sprinkled across the village amid singing and prayers led by the Oko’o Nga’a Mo. I informed the audience that based on my research and observations, each time the ritual is performed, conflict is either prevented or ended in certain parts of Cameroon and the CAR. My presentation elicited many questions, followed by rich discussions with members of the audience. Several people wanted to know if I could point to instances where conflicts had ended after the performance of the Soré Nga’a Mo’o ritual. In response, I gave several examples, including the ending of the conflict between the Gbaya people and the Fulani after Oko’o Nga’a mo Koko Didi1Christelle Amina Djoulde, “Tribute to Koko Didi: A Woman of Peace (oko’o nga’a mo), in the Gbaya Community in Cameroon,” Kujenga Amani, April 15, 2020, https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2020/04/15/tribute-to-koko-didi-a-a-woman-of-peace-okoo-ngaa-mo-in-gbaya-community-cameroon/. performed the ritual of peace in Meiganga in 1992. Another example was the role of the ritual in the prevention of conflict from spilling across the Cameroon-CAR border town of Garoua-Boulaï into Cameroon in 2010 and 2011. The ritual is also carried out in refugee camps sheltering CAR refugees in Cameroon to prevent conflict from breaking out. Moreover, the Gbaya community in the city of Bouar and its surrounding area were of the view that the ritual was a contributing factor to the peace in the region, unlike some other parts of the country.

Some members of the audience wanted to know why the ritual was exclusively performed by women, and I explained that Gbaya women were key actors of the ritual because of cultural beliefs in the sanctity of motherhood. To the Gbaya, the Oko’o Nga’a are considered as women with divine powers, including those to bless or curse. The Gbaya people believe women give life. Children are conceived and carried in women’s wombs and born by women who transmit life and peace. Women are seen as peacebuilders who can bless someone so that they prosper, or curse those who dare to disrespect them, or disregard their decisions. This is particularly so in the case of post-menopausal women whose are seen as holy and pure.

I was asked if other ethnic groups in Cameroon had their own peace-making traditional rituals. In my response, I noted that it was not only the Gbaya people that practiced traditional peace-making rituals led by women. I identified other groups such as the Bamileké, Bali Nyonga, Bafut, Bayangué, etc., who also performed peace making rituals. The discussions that followed underlined the point that conflict resolution in Africa should not only be based exclusively on models imported from outside the continent. Members of the audience agreed on the importance of endogenous approaches to peacebuilding in Africa. They emphasized the need for international partners to work in partnership with local communities, based on a good understanding of their cultural beliefs and practices. In the African context, the role of women in cultural institutions of peace (such as the Soré Nga’a Mo ritual) should be integrated into existing peace and security architectures as a part of the implementation of the UN 1325 WPS agenda.

On March 6, together with the APN Program Assistant, Jennifer Sherys-Rivet, I visited and held discussions with officials from US government agencies and NGOs. The meetings and discussions enabled me to share views about transforming my research findings into materials for advocating a local turn in peacebuilding in Africa. I also learned about how actors within the policy and development community in Washington, DC are using bottom-up approaches in partnership with local African partners to prevent and end conflict in the Sahel. Of note is the work of a US NGO that focuses on the education of young people in peacebuilding and democratization in the North and South West regions of Cameroon. Discussions with some US policymakers helped broaden my perspectives on the research-policy nexus, expand my network of experts working on Cameroon and Central Africa, and generated more interest in the environmental and cultural aspects of endogenous peacebuilding in Africa.

My stay in Washington, DC, was also an opportunity to visit places of interest. Jennifer Sherys-Rivet and I visited important sites such as the Hyatt Place, National Mall, Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church, World Bank building, the Library of Congress, and the Capitol building. We also went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture where we connected ourselves to another part of Black history.

I am thankful to the SSRC and Search for Common Ground for giving me this great opportunity to share my research findings with and learn from a diverse audience of US policy makers, practitioners, and activists working on peacebuilding in Africa.