State of the Planet

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A Day Without Ghost Towns and Guns: How African Women Leaders Reimagine Peace

By Padini Nirmal 

Janet* makes five dollars a day selling tomatoes on the street. That is all the money she has to feed herself and her family. It is the money that pays for her children’s education, for her family’s healthcare and for the upkeep of their small home. Today, there isn’t a cloud in the sky. The streets echo a resounding silence. There is no laughter, no sound, not a soul around, not even a pair of slow-moving legs as far as the eye can see. A decapitated head skewered on a stick is the only morbidly lifeless sign of life.

This isn’t the beginning of a zombie novel. There is no apocalypse to witness. As Christelle Bay, founder and executive director of Hope for the Needy Association (HOFNA) recounts, this is just a regular Monday in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon. Thanks to a dark colonial history fraught with tensions between the French and the British, Cameroon’s ‘Anglophone crisis’ has separatist forces in the English-speaking regions engaging in an armed conflict to demand inclusion within the French majority state. Bay says civil society in these regions is enveloped by the realities of war, “caught between state military forces on the one hand, and the armed separatist groups on the other.”

Bay shared her story of the invisible war in Cameroon on May 7th, in a first-of-its-kind, all-African-women’s panel entitled, ‘Piece by Peace: How African Women Leaders are Building New Peace Movements Across Africa.’ Co-sponsored by Columbia’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) program, the event brought together leaders who shared critical insights about peace and security in their home countries, while also painting a picture of their remarkable pioneering efforts to chart new paths forward and reclaim spaces for peace and justice in their communities.

Along with Bay, the panel included Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Peace laureate and WPS executive director, and three other contemporary African women leaders: Riya Yuyada, founder and executive director of Crown the Woman in South Sudan; Omezzine Fatma Khelifa, founder and CEO of Mobdiun, Creative Youth in Tunisia; and Rumbidzai Chisenga, former program manager at the Mandela Institute for Development Studies in Zimbabwe. While Chisenga and Khelifa are Obama Scholars, Bay and Yuyada are recipients of the first-ever Peace and Social Change Fellowship offered by the Women, Peace and Security Program at Columbia.

As Leymah Gbowee poetically articulated in her introductory comments, Cameroon isn’t home to the only invisible war in Africa, and these women aren’t the only invisible grassroots advocates, policy experts and visionaries whose voices go unheard in board rooms and in academic circles. They are among millions of others who deploy their intimate understandings of insecurity to carefully craft together pieces of hope and joy that make a peaceful world. Their voices need to be heard. Their expertise needs to be central. That is the way forward to truly achieve global peace and security—and this is the dictum that drives Columbia’s Women, Peace and Security program as well.

panel of african woman leaders
Left to right: panel moderator Elleni Centime Zeleke, assistant professor of African Studies at Columbia University; Omezzine Fatma Khelifa, Leymah Gbowee, Christelle Bay, Riya William Yuyada, and Rumbidzai Chisenga. Photo: Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland

WPS Peace and Social Change Fellow Riya Yuyada was one of the architects of the peace movement in South Sudan. As she recounted before the panel, “No one cared about what was happening in South Sudan, so we, as a group of concerned young women, decided to do a silent peace march. We asked those who joined the march to write their messages on posters, and we were surprised by the kinds of messages people shared. Some people wrote ‘We Want Peace’ others wrote, ‘Pens not Guns for Children.’ We taped our mouths shut, and began the march, and before we knew it, it became a huge march, so many people joined us. Then the international media picked it up and the world finally got to know about it. This is movement-building work. This is women’s peace work.”

Yuyada added, “now, through Crown the Woman, we are working to demand for peace in other ways, too. When we were young girls, we didn’t have any proper mentorship or guidance. So today, we offer that to young girls in our communities. We mentor young girls to say no to child marriage—we currently have a campaign called ‘Too Young to be Married’, to stop child trafficking and to end child marriages. We also mentor them to protect them from acts of gender-based violence. This is peace work too.”

As Gbowee emphasized, the stories that Bay and Yuyada share are not anecdotes for the curious Western ear. They belong in libraries, in academic conferences and in policy settings. “I want to walk into a library and see Bay’s name there,” Gbowee said. “I want people to cite them. They are the experts on peace and security in Africa, not people with a double PhD who live in the ivory tower. In fact, I challenge anyone who says they are experts because they have double PhDs to go head to head with Bay here and win!”

Bay, Yuyada, Chisenga and Khelifa shared remarkable stories of insecurity—and stories of great successes in bringing about peace. In their own ways, they each explained how peace is not just the absence of war, but a far more complex and intertwined condition, which includes economic, political, social, cultural and physical security.

For example, for the tomato vendor whose future is threatened by the current war, Bay asked, “What will happen to her future? What will happen to her children? … To the tomato seller, peace is being able to sell tomatoes in the market.” She also noted the links between education, economic and social futures of children, and the current status of insecurity: “Since 2016, 80 percent of children do not go to school in the English-speaking region. It is not because they don’t want to go to school. It is because they are not allowed to go to school. If they do try, their fingers are chopped off, or worse. What kind of future will our children have?”

During a conversation before the panel, Bay also shared a deeply personal story of the impact of gun violence on children. Her young child said to her one day, “that is the separatists shooting, not the army.” Bewildered, Bay asked him how he could tell the difference. He calmly replied, “that is not the sound of a machine gun, it is a pistol.”

Having seen these real and chilling impacts of war and the armed conflict between the separatists and the state on women’s lives, including her own, Bay defines peace as “the calm in a woman’s body, mind and spirit.” She adds, “there are hundreds of internally displaced persons camps. For girls in these camps, peace means having access to sanitary pads. That is the work we do at HOFNA. This is what peace work looks like.”

Addressing the global need for peace, and the transnational connections between war and peace in a globalized world, Yuyada says “we are all responsible for the war in South Sudan.” The United States is implicated, she explained, because the South Sudanese government contracted a U.S. firm to lobby the Trump government to block the establishment of a hybrid crimes court meant to try war crimes in South Sudan. “How is this justice? How is this peace?” Speaking truth to power, she added, “silence is compliance. By being silent, you are supporting the war, and working against peace.”

Despite drawing on different contexts and ages of expertise and careful theorizing, all the panelists provided the evidence to support one common fact: women have answers to end wars, and African women have actionable plans for peace and security that need to be heard now. And as Bay and Yuyada demonstrate, silence isn’t the answer. And quiet isn’t calm.

* pseudonym

Padini Nirmal is the Learning and Evaluation program manager for the Women Peace and Security program at Columbia University.

The Women, Peace and Security Program currently partners with five organizations from across the African continent, including Crown the Woman and HOFNA. You can find more information about our other partners here: Coast Women in Development, Kenya; Institute for Young Women’s Development, Zimbabwe; and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Ghana.

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4 years ago

These are the #PiecesOfPeace!!!

Thank you Earth Institute of Columbia University and the WPS PROGRAM for not only making for this moment but giving this opportunity for grassroots women leaders like Riya Williams Yuyada, these other amazing women leaders and my humble self to bring our voices and stories to that global platform.

Thank you Leymah Gbowee for this kind of Leadership that disrupts, nurtures, transforms then strengthens!! That’s true service to humanity!

Some of our untold stories are the reason why our world is still living in so much chaos.