Laughter helps heal traumatized survivors of Cameroon’s simmering conflict

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON – For Canisia, a woman traumatized by the conflict in the English-speaking part of Cameroon, May 26 was a day of laughter, the first in 18 months.

Audience members join in the spirit of the ‘Laughter Heals’ show. Photo by Tanteta/LOYOC, published with permission

Canisia, 54, who asked that her full name not be published for fear of violence, had fled to the capital, Yaounde, from her home 370 kilometers (230 miles) away. That Sunday, she attended a special performance by a group of the country’s best-known comedians.

“I am so excited with the performance of the comedians. I have really had a good laugh. This is a rare commodity for people like me from the troubled North West region who are burdened with the trauma of gunshots and awful atrocities,” Canisia told Civic Ideas. She said she thought all hope had been lost until she was invited to attend the ‘Laughter Heals’ comedy show.

“This event has wiped out my sorrow and given me the impetus to move on. But I still feel for the thousands of other Anglophone refugees and internally displaced persons who have not had this experience,” Canisia added, bursting into laughter as she watched another comedian perform on stage.

Canisia is one of a few of thousand English-speaking Cameroonians displaced by a drawn-out conflict in the North West and South West regions. She, like a hundred others, has benefited from a local initiative that offered them psychological healing from the trauma of the bloody conflict.

Upsetting Experience

Present day Cameroon is made up of former British, French and German colonial territories. The conflict began as low-level protests in October 2016 when English-speaking lawyers opposed the appointment to courts in the region of French-educated judges with training in Civil Law, rather than Common Law. Government didn’t handle their grievances with tact, and a few other frustrated groups joined them later in peaceful protest against real and perceived marginalization of the English-speaking minority by the Francophone-dominated government.

Comedians performing at the ‘Laughter Heals’ comedy show. Photo by Tanteta/LOYOC, published with permission

By 2017, recurrent clashes between unarmed protesters and government security forces turned violent, with the killing of tens of protesters. Those who were initially moderates were pushed to the extreme and have now joined armed separatists seeking to create an independent country they would call ‘The Federal Republic of Ambazonia (Southern Cameroons)’.

A new report jointly published by the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights indicates that the conflict in the Anglophone regions (North West and South West) of Cameroon affects a population of 4 to 5 million people, representing between 20 and 25 percent of the national population of more than 24 million people. An estimated 450,000 to 550,000 people had been internally displaced by the end of December 2018, representing more than 10 percent of the regions’ population. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that insecurity and violence in these two regions have forced more than 32,000 people to seek refuge in neighbouring Nigeria, while the UN agency said in January 2019 that 1.5 million people were in need of emergency health assistance.

The Norwegian Refugee Council says that Cameroon is the world’s most neglected displacement crisis out of a list of 36 crises analyzed in 2018 and that “every day the conflict is allowed to continue, bitterness is building and the region edges closer towards full-blown war.”

Civil society organizations as well as national and international human rights and humanitarian groups report that government forces have killed civilians, torched villages and used torture and incommunicado detention with near total impunity. Armed separatists for their part have killed, tortured, assaulted and kidnapped dozens of people, including students, teachers, administrative and traditional authorities amid increasing violence. No fewer than 1,800 government security forces, armed separatists and civilians have been killed since 2017, according to Human Rights Watch. Many residents in the troubled areas have been running for their lives. Canisia, who fled to Yaounde from her native Njikwa, is one of them.

“Much earlier, my only son was shot at point-blank in an early morning raid by soldiers. My world turned apart. I was still reeling from the shock (of his death) when my husband was arrested and taken to an unknown destination. I have not heard nor seen him since then,” Canisia said. She says it was then that she felt so unsafe that she decided to leave for good.

Like many displaced survivors of the conflict, Canisia has been traumatized by her experiences. But getting psycho-social care is a difficult thing when the priority is often food and shelter. Comedians like Senior Pastor are stepping in with a local initiative to fill the gap.

Laughter Therapy

The ‘Laughter Heals’ comedy performance is a flagship show to build cohesion and provide an avenue for the psychological healing of broken hearts in Cameroon’s fractured community. According to the host of the show, Senior Pastor, an award-winning Cameroonian comedian, it was his own small contribution to countering hate speech and bringing relief to victims.

Senior Pastor, host of the ‘Laughter Heals’ comedy show. Photo by Fahrenheit Pictures/LOYOC, published with permission

“We gave them hope, laughter, and depression left. In fact, we gave them our best,” Senior Pastor said. He notes that the show, more than six hours long when staged in Yaounde, will be performed in other towns as the means provide.

Ntui Olga, an internally displaced person from Kumba who attended the show, said it was awesome: “In a very long time, I could feel like we are in peace time.”

Senior Pastor was joined by renowned Cameroonian comedians, both Anglophones and Francophones, among them Moustique le Karismatik, O’Boy Da Comic, Sparko, Marcus, Aunty Bara, Ulrich Takam, Badly Brought Up and Oracle. Gospel artists such as Prosper Menko also gave soul-searching performances.

The comedians joked and touched a bit on the conflict in order to make survivors laugh about it. But they did so without any form of prejudice.

The ‘Laughter Heals’ comedy show was inspired by a project carried out last year by a local organization – Local Youth Corner Cameroon (LOYOC) – which targeted influencers. The project’s principal objective was to get youths to say ‘No’ to hate speech, a factor fueling the conflict.

Achaleke Christian Leke, National Coordinator of LOYOC, said that, beside the added value of reaching out to the distressed of the society, the proceeds of the ‘Laughter Heals’ comedy show will be used to empower some of the victims.

“We will start with women empowerment of IDPs whereby we shall give vocational skills to some 20 of them in Douala,” Achaleke said, noting that LOYOC  put about FCFA 4 million (US$6,888) into the social venture. He also said that part of the funds raised will be used to finance a prison essay competition.

Chufi Henrietta Ngong épse Mega, a senior youth and action counsellor in Cameroon’s ministry of youth affairs and civic education, said in an interview that the ‘Laughter Heals’ concept is “a huge success as most comedians thrilled the audience and almost everyone departed from the hall with a broad smile on their faces.” Chufi wants such platforms to be promoted because they offer the audience, mostly conflict-affected persons, entertainment, as well as relief from stress and help to heal their souls.

Organizers of the ‘Laughter Heals’ comedy show present themselves. Photo by Fahrenheit Pictures/LOYOC, published with permission