Young and Hopeful: What's the driving force behind Youth Think Tank Clubs for Peace in Cameroon?
"I look forward to living in a hate-free Cameroon, where people accept and celebrate their differences. A Cameroon, where language, culture and religion unite people instead of driving them apart."
The reality in Cameroon is sombre. In 2016, the anglophone crisis broke out when a protest aiming to keep the English-speaking legal and education system in the Southwest and Northwest escalated into an armed rebellion. Six years into the crisis, more than 6,000 people have lost their lives, and around 600,000 people are internally displaced. Young men and women are significantly affected by the crisis. Many radicalised and joined the armed groups. Others decided to rebuild peace in their country. One of them is Mali, a 28-year-old year Master's student in Peace, Conflict Resolution, and International Relations from Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest region hit hard by the crisis. Driven by her curiosity, eagerness to learn, and determination to build peace in Cameroon, Mali has become a beacon of inspiration to her peers.
The crisis broke out a few days before the planned graduation ceremony for her bachelor's degree. To this day, Mali has never worn a graduation gown or stood on a stage to celebrate her academic achievements. Instead, she has lain flat on the ground, seeking shelter from fighting, often for hours, because of stray bullets flying everywhere, killing many people. With a calm and factual voice, she describes how the crisis has affected her mental health:
"I have seen people being killed and dumped by the roadside. People here are burnt alive. Young girls are raped. I know many people who have lost family members."
But Mali does not go more into depth. Maybe words fail her. She is more eager to talk about what happened when a friend introduced her to peacebuilding.
"In the summer of 2022, a friend I know through our work at the Presbyterian Church Peace Office recommended me to join a two-day peacebuilding training organised by WAA Cameroon as part of their VOYCE project. My friend knows WAA very well as he has participated in their training before."
The Voices of Youth in Cameroon for Peace (known as VOYCE) project aims to prevent the radicalisation of youth and supports those who have to de-radicalise in the Southwest and Northwest of the country. Through the VOYCE project, WAA Cameroon offers peacebuilding training, hosts intergenerational dialogues, and sets up Youth Think Tank Clubs for Peace.
"During the peacebuilding training, I learned different methods and tools to help change attitudes and behaviours. One of them, for instance, is creating alliances through Youth Think Tanks for Peace."
It is not surprising that during the crisis, her peers nominated Mali as the leader of the ‘’Mile 4 Youth Think Tank Club for Peace’’ in her community. While Mali is very young, she is wise beyond her years and a born leader. She understands that young people have the power to be actively involved and positively influence the ongoing Anglophone crisis. She also understands that conflict between people is natural but does not have to escalate into violent conflict. Differences, for instance, can be solved through communication and active listening.
"Young people are actors and factors in the Anglophone crisis. They are actors who have picked up guns because they want to use this crisis to make money easily. But then there are some of us young people who hate the sound of guns, who hate the feeling of violence. Some of us cry when others are hurt. That is why we focus on promoting building peace."
Her ideas are thought through, her insights on the crisis are profound, and her unwavering determination for young people to lead peacebuilding is contagious. In her presence, you truly believe peace is within grasp in Cameroon.
"After the WAA training, I immediately created a WhatsApp group for around 60 friends because I wanted to pass on everything I had learned. I sent many voice messages about conflict management and different ways to respond to the crisis."
Today, nine Youth Think Tanks for Peace operate in the Southwest and Northwest. Young peace champions trained by WAA Cameroon on conflict resolution methods lead them. The Think Tanks offer a space for young people from different backgrounds with different experiences, opinions, and interests to support one another in resolving conflicts and promoting peace.
"Youth Think Tank Clubs for Peace are important because they bring together young people affected by the crisis to lead change in their communities."
After sharing that initial flurry of audio wisdom to kick off her Think Tank, Mali and her peers turned words into action and embarked on building peace in their community. For instance, they orchestrated an online peace campaign on the International Day for Peace in 2022, flooding their social media handles with thought-provoking visuals and messaging on ending discrimination. In February 2023, they received a mini-grant from WAA to organise interactive outdoor activities to unite young people and commemorate National Youth Day while fostering conversations about peace.
"So many young people learned about the term peacebuilding for the first time, but everyone could share what peace means to them."
In this remarkable journey of empowerment, WAA Cameroon played a pivotal role in supporting youth-led peacebuilding, as securing small amounts of funding for youth-led peacebuilding initiatives tends to be an uphill battle. Unlike many others, WAA Cameroon’s steadfast belief in the potential of youth-led peacebuilding and its trust and encouragement does not go unnoticed. WAA Cameroon is not only one of the few organisations actively providing these much-needed mini-grants, allowing for flexibility and ownership, but it also operates in and outside of the capital, Yaoundé.
"WAA gives opportunities to young people by providing mini-grants to those who have been through their training and workshops to pass on the knowledge to others. Also, WAA goes where the young people are, especially in the crisis regions, and most importantly, WAA always comes back."
Together, Mali and WAA Cameroon are a powerful force for peace in Cameroon. While Mali's unwavering commitment stands as a testament to the resilience of youth, WAA's dedication to empowering young peacebuilders proves that working together for peace is possible and impactful. Both refuse to be defined by the turmoil in their country, choosing to rise above and embrace the power of peace together.
Watch Mali talk about the value of Youth Think Tanks for Peace.