Last month I helped facilitate a two-day food security conference in Meiganga, a city in the Adamaoua close to the border with the CAR. Several volunteers in the area brought health center staff and care providers who work in malnutrition. The participant were all from villages in the east Adamaoua, and were about evenly split between Fulbe, Muslim herders who make up the dominant ethnic group in the Grand North, and Gbaya, a smaller Christian minority who tend to cultivate corn or beans rather than investing in cattle and goats. There is no slight antagonism between the two groups; the Fulbe dismiss the Gbaya as lazy drunks, while the Gbaya feel that the Fulbe are domineering and sly. Still, trade occurs between the groups, and in this professional setting, none of us anticipated any problems. Colleen, a volunteer in Meiganga, had done an excellent job organizing the logistics of the conference, and things began smoothly.
My role was to give the practical demonstrations, making enriched peanut paste, soymilk, soy bouille, and tofu with the help of a CARE- trained counterpart, Marie. But practicums must always be based in theory, and before we could light the propane stove, we had a 2-hour session on nutrition and malnutritions. We started off on the right foot; it was frankly a relief to be working with health care providers. As I normally give nutrition sessions to undereducated village women, who struggle with concepts like protein deficiency—or even protein as a distinct food group—it was a pleasant change to be able to open a discussion with people who already had the necessary knowledge to skip straight to talking about causality and possible interventions.
We asked the group to think through why, in their communities, food insecurity exists. Was it a question of access to certain foods? Was there consistent access, but poor utilization? Was it a question of larger system instability, or was there a missing link at the household level?
A health mobilizer from a small bush village volunteered that while cities like Meiganga had access to fresh vegetables and meat on a daily basis, challenges posed by erratic transportation meant his community could only buy produce at a once-weekly market. Another participant, a Fulbe man named Dahirou from the town of Mbarang, countered by pointing out that individuals could improve access by gardening, thus providing themselves with nutritionally diverse food options.
Across the table, a Gbaya woman—also from the Mbarang contingent—snorted contemptuously. “We could grow gardens, of course, if your goats would stop eating them and your cattle stop trampling our fields!”
Dahirou started up, nostrils flaring, his accent becoming thicker and his rolling r’s more exaggerated in his indignation. ‘My goats? MY goats?!”
And like that, the whole room erupted into chaos, Fulbe and Gbaya leaping to their feet, shouting across the table in their respective patois, pointing accusatory fingers and hurling blame like handfuls of mud. It felt something like this, particularly the part between 1:36 and 2:10:
This was the most open example I had ever seen of the farmer-herder conflict, something anyone who has read about land management in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the Sahel, will recognize. It had come up before during my service—the Nbororo, nomadic herders who wander the North and Adamoua, are widely disliked, in part because their cattle destroy crops—but I had never experienced such a stark presentation of the depth of emotion tied up in the question of land rights. Will, the conference organizer and primary presenter, tabled the debate, and the furor finally blew over. The participants, in typical Cameroonian fashion, seemed to hold no individual grudges, dividing into groups for the next session without complaint or rancor.
The rest of the conference went as well as could be expected. Will and I ended up spending hours the first night boiling and straining soy curds to make tofu for the next day’s lunch—feeding almost forty people more than sample-size portions is a task not undertaken lightly. By the end of the night, Colleen’s kitchen floor was slick with spilled soymilk, Will and I were exhausted and filthy, and every pot in the house was encrusted in tofu. Still, it was worth it to promote soy among the participants, who in turn have the power to disseminate what they learned in their communities.