Cameroon-Defying The Odds In Peace Building For Esther Omam
By Boris Esono Nwenfor
Esther has negotiated humanitarian access into some of the most remote and dangerous pockets of the Anglophone Crisis and in 2019, she successfully persuaded key non-state armed group leaders to lift a three-year school ban. Despite threats, rumour-mongering, and kidnappings, Esther has remained steadfast in her commitment to humanitarian and peacebuilding work because in her words:
“This is a passion; you don’t do it for money. You do it because you are interested in saving lives, causing change, and leading social healing so that the wounds, pain, and suffering of your people are relieved,” she says.
“Women peacebuilders run to the problem when everyone else is running away,” said ICAN’s CEO and Founder, Sanam Naraghi Anderlini. This statement could not be truer of award-winning Cameroonian peacebuilder, Esther Omam. Esther’s career has seen her go from development worker to humanitarian responder to mediator and peacebuilder, in the South-West region of Cameroon.
Pan African Visions Magazine caught up with Esther Omam who is the Executive Director of the NGO, Reach Out Cameroon, a member of the Women Mediators across the Commonwealth, MWC, and became a member of the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership, WASL, in 2020. She sheds more light on her organization and ways the ongoing crisis in the North West and South West Regions can be resolved.
Tell us who Esther Omam is and what made you enter the humanitarian field.
Esther Omam: I am just an ordinary woman like any other woman. I do ordinary things for ordinary people. I am Njomo Esther Oma, the Executive Director of ReachOut Cameroon whose humble beginnings informed the path for which I have chosen today. The many inequalities suffered by women which I also suffered, especially the girl child. The patriarchal nature of our society, where the boy is privileged over the woman, the levels of poverty which we went through, looking at the high levels of illiteracy and the bridge in communication between generations. All these made me get into the path of development and today, humanitarian and peace work.
Can we get an insight into what Reach Out Cameroon is all about?
Esther Omam: Reach Out is an accredited national NGO, whose humble beginnings started in 1996 and got its legal status in the year 2000. We work to support other privileged groups, issues of health, human rights governance, and wealth creation using a community-centred approach and advocacy.
How impactful has the organization been looking at the priority areas?
Esther Omam: It is not for us to say, it is for the ordinary people who have been benefiting from our services to talk about the impact of our work. Reach Out so far has been able to cover all six divisions of the South West Region, carrying livelihood programs, health and closer to the people. We have been working in some of the remote communities, all of which the government’s policy has little or no impact at all. We have been able to access some of those communities and rekindle hope and make them believe that we are there to complement the government’s actions, for whatever we do, whatsoever CSOs do is to complement the government’s actions. We have given voices to the women and the girl child. We have improved the girl child’s education. Healthwise, we have worked with health centres trying to bring in innovative ways of handling tropical diseases, primarily, improving healthcare.
We have worked within the humanitarian context, bringing relief aid to internally displaced persons in the hubs where they were settled. Besides the humanitarian aid, we carry out trauma healing sessions, making them know that all is not lost, there is hope. We have been ensuring that there is protection for all those abused in one way or the other in the area of gender-based violence. As a result, we have put in place a peace house with a brave space, that brave space is what we called a safe space where survivors of violence can come and get counselling, all the support they need to boost their morales before taking them back to the communities that they come from or new communities they want to settle.
We have helped Internally displaced persons get accommodation, especially those who were homeless and try to bridge the gap between them and the host communities, making sure that they understand the need for social cohesion and living together, preaching the message of non-violence in the various communities where we go to. We have been able to help more than 600 thousand internally displaced persons and other vulnerable persons will not be a lie because we have the data, we even had to empower other NGOs to be helping through us.
Besides humanitarian support, creating roads for other humanitarians to get into the various communities as we did in the early beginning and today, we have so many NGOs, international organizations which came and rely on what we had as information data and they have implanted themselves well trying to help our communities to stabilize. We have caused engagement at local, regional, national and international levels, making partners and the international community know that we are a people who have their issues, and if they can help both the communities and the government address some of these issues, that will be good.
We have been trying to strengthen community systems and then we vulgarize that concept and I am happy that today, localization is very effective, many people are embracing it. We started it and tried to blow the trumpet for people to know that there is a need to localise if we want to stabilize our communities, this is what we have done. We have been able to economically empower internally displaced persons using our poverty graduation programs, and take their levels from where we met them initially to where they can start earning incomes.
Like any other venture, there are challenges. What are some that Reach Out has encountered in the course of carrying out or providing these services?
Esther Omam: You will agree with me that we cannot do all that we have achieved without having challenges. We have been working a lot to see that our communities stabilise and that our people are catered for and as a result of doing this, we find ourselves in a very highly polarized environment, where everybody thinks it is all about money, they should access it also through a competitive way by mudslinging, backstabbing. We have issues with ever-growing beneficiaries who need our support but with limited finance. We have the issue of the inaccessibility of the places we go to, our means of transportation get broken all the time and we find it difficult at times to get to the remoteness part because of that. We have other communities that live in wetlands, to get to them you will have to use the maritime road which is not easy. We have issues of safety and security in terms of protection of our staff and ourselves. One of our cars was burnt down and our children and staff have been kidnapped on several occasions.
When we talk about challenges, we have communication issues, and the misconception of who humanitarians are, and why we do what we do and this at times also poses a threat to what we do. We have threats coming from left to right and we try to advertise and preempt some of these by putting out there a clear communication about who we are and who we represent and what we do.
Let us talk about the ongoing crisis in the North West and South West Regions. In 2018, you created the South West-North West Women’s Taskforce, SNWOT to address the crisis. How has this effort fared?
Esther Omam: A lot has happened since the creation of SNWOT. It is in this same office that I invited four women to join me so that we can put in place the South West-North West Women’s Taskforce following the vision which I had about the ongoing conflict and the many deaths, kidnappings and pains that we caused them. We started the movement with women and it grew to become a voice to reckon with in the country and beyond and as a result many other networks have been born. These networks have been born because they want to also contribute to addressing this same issue, though in different ways but they follow the same purpose. The women’s voices have contributed enormously in making the government realize its stance and the non-state armed groups also realized their stance making them understand that there is a need to build common grounds where we can sit and interact.
Women contributed a lot concerning the Major National Dialogue. The very first event of civilian action which was held was that of the women here in Buea and the North West. All that we asked for was the need to have an inclusive dialogue and we had the Major National Dialogue which was held in Yaounde. The Dialogue was held as a result of the women’s call and if education is going back to normalcy today is because women worked a lot in the background to reverse the rate of solarization, which we had by meeting the government and non-state armed group leaders and try to give them the women’s position with regards to the pains that they were causing to our children. This has helped in increasing school attendance. You have communities which are stabilizing today as a result of women who are at the forefront of even building bridges of peace rather than violence. Remember that women were the first voices to be heard at the level of the UN Security Council through a person when my organization spoke about the humanitarian crisis in Cameroon.
You once carried out peacebuilding activities during the Bakassi conflict. How does this compare with the current crisis in the North West and South West Regions?
Esther Omam: There is no comparison to make but there are lessons to draw and learn on the approach to resolving the current crisis. Why I say there is no comparison is because the crisis in Bakassi was a conflict between Nigeria and Cameroon, these are two different countries and that is why all of us could pull our energy and support for our government because we considered Nigeria as the energy who was coming to create havoc in our country and we gave our all as an organization. The outcome of that work is seen today through the women who have become leaders in their communities, leading as mayors, some were senators, municipal councillors and female entrepreneurs as a result of that. This was a good lesson learnt and this informed us that this conflict is not between Cameroon and another country but it is Cameroon versus Cameroon, it is brothers within a country fighting each other.
This crisis is not a country versus another country, it is Cameroon as an entity with its citizens fighting each other, where there is complexity in resolving the conflict. If you look left is a brother, you look right is a brother, who do you support and who do you condemn? The only way is to draw lessons on what happened in Bakassi, bridge bridges of hatred, create common grounds for people to start talking and then strengthen community systems by reinforcing localization for better stability.
You have been distinguished with several awards, from the outstanding Humanitarian Peace Award, and Best Peace Advocate, listed in 2021 among Cameroonians who moved Mountains. How do these awards strengthen the work you do?
Esther Omam: When people get awards it should call for rejoicing. These awards should not be a source of rejoicing but a source of reminding us how far we have gone in addressing issues related to this crisis which has taken so many lives in our various communities, has made our communities bleed and has rendered vulnerable our people, making them lose the sense of belonging. There would not have been any awards if there was no conflict. It is a result of our determination, and our commitment to say we contribute to ending this dirty war that has led our efforts are being recognized.
As a peacebuilder and negotiator, what will you promise as a means to solve the present crisis?
Esther Omam: We have so many things to do, peace is never achieved in a day, nor is it achieved through one solution as people think. Peace is a long road and a chain of actions which are interwoven and no one should try to separate one aspect within that connection. To achieve peace requires a chain of action, it is about taking actions and reflecting and going back to actions. It is about action, reflection and action and many initiatives have been going on at community and local levels, national and international levels and we need as of these. We talk about inclusive dialogue, yes, there is a need for inclusive dialogue but it is not just about dialogue it is also about many other things. We have our communities which have been dislocated, who have lost cultural values and many others.
We need to reinstate that within the communities so that they can now see themselves in the mirror which they used to look at before as the owners of the land. There is lots of healing that needs to be carried out, there is a need for lots of community dialogue before even claiming to go to any dialogue at the national or international level. People are hurting, frustrated, in pain and devastated by all that has taken place. Let us retract a little bit, think, come back and talk to one another. To resolve this conflict is not just to go and sit somewhere in Yaounde and start talking about it, it is to start talking to ourselves.
Cameroonians do not have the culture of talking to themselves; we must try to rekindle the hope of the people first before even talking about external solutions. external solutions are good but you go externally when you have tried all possible means within and it does not work. Have we tried when everybody is disgruntled in our families and communities? Have we carried out a perception index to know how the people feel, and what the people think about the saga? It is not just one particular aspect of solving the crisis. Every one of us at our local levels needs to build peace.
The solution to this crisis does not lie in the hands of the government nor the hands of the non-state armed groups. The solution lies in the hands of all of us. It is us against the I and this is what has made us to be at the point where we are today because people refused to look in the mirror and see beyond the mirror, people refused to see the voices of the unheard millions. We all are the solution to this problem, the moment we start accepting that I am because you are, then we will start resolving this conflict.
What has been the hallmark of your career?
Esther Omam: I have contributed my little quota in stabilizing communities in this country and these two restive North West and South West Region. I have contributed my little quota in giving women voices and enforcing the women’s peace and security agenda. I have contributed my little quota by making sure that people know the difference between credible civil society and non-governmental individuals.
*Culled From May Issue of PAV Magazine