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When collective cooking brings back social cohesion

Health Inclusion
Central African Republic

After a decade of conflict, mistrust is still prevalent in Central African communities. To recreate safe spaces, HI has been reaching out to these communities to organise collective activities.

A group of women and children sit in a circle under the trees as part of a cooking activity.

May 2023, Koui sub-prefecture. Collective cooking activity organised by Judith with Gbaya and Pana women from Boyaye Wantounou village | © HI

Rachel Goume, 35, lives in the village of Boyaye Wantonou, in the north-west of the Central African Republic. Every day, she takes care of her 11 children and cultivates small fields near her village. The relations between communities in her village, damaged by years of conflict, are being rebuilt thanks to the action of actors like HI, designed to strengthen social cohesion. Today, Rachel and Judith Mbotouga (an HI social mediator) explain how one particular activity has helped restore community dialogue.

An activity that encourages participants to open up and share their experiences

To help mend ties in Rachel's village and encourage the villagers to re-engage in dialogue, HI organised a collective cooking activity. For Judith, HI's social mediator in CAR, food and cooking are key to bringing people together.

Prior to the event, HI's teams met with the authorities and community leaders to explain the thinking behind the activity. They then talked to the local people to find out how they felt and identify needs and areas of tension between ethnic groups. This stage helped clarify how best to prepare in order to respond to these needs.                     

Lastly, a group was formed with members from several communities and, after a discussion to decide on the menu, a representative from each community went shopping with the HI team to buy the necessary ingredients.

At first, Rachel was sceptical about the idea, but she quickly came round:

"I thought the activity was just about preparing and eating a meal, but then I realised that it was more about rebuilding connections. We talked with the other women, first about the recipes, then about our day-to-day problems and the life of our community before and after the conflicts.”

The activity began with a round table, with each participant introducing herself. Judith then explained why HI organised this type of meeting and the group discussed the importance of social cohesion. Then it was time to start cooking! Each participant contributed to the recipe, shared her tips and used this time together to talk about the need for solidarity within the community. Any tensions and mistrust gradually subsided.

"This activity really helped to strengthen links between communities, as all the participants worked hand in hand, chatting, singing and dancing before sharing a meal together. It was also an opportunity for women who hadn't spoken to each other for a long time to exchange a few words", explains Rachel. 

Finally, it was time for the meal, and everyone enjoyed the food prepared by the different cooks. At the end of the activity, the participants shared their impressions of what had been achieved and expressed their hopes for the future.

Conflicts that damage social cohesion

With the intensification of armed violence, tensions between communities and population displacements, the social and humanitarian situation in CAR is worsening by the day. 

As a means of support, Humanity & I ran a project in 2023 intended to alleviate psychological distress and contribute to the well-being of communities exposed to violence. In addition to psychological and psychosocial support, the project organised inter-community activities in the Ouham-Pendé region – very isolated because of the conflicts – to help recreate social cohesion.

This is where HI met Rachel, whose life has been severely affected. Her children can no longer go to school and she no longer has access to the land she used to farm. In addition to the fear and the risk of physical and sexual assault, Rachel describes the climate of mistrust between communities in her village: 

“The war has had an impact on relations between people. Community life was good before these conflicts, but now there is a climate of mistrust. Some people believe others to be criminals and vice versa, and tensions are growing between farmers and Bororo herders over the use of arable land”.

Rebuilding social and community life

For HI, it is crucial to remind communities that have experienced violence that much of the damage is psychological and that the trauma caused can be long lasting. Many members of these communities talked about this “dual jeopardy”; others told us that they no longer trust other people, are constantly suspicious, are victims of false rumours, and so on. These emotionally draining situations show no sign of improving. 

"Get-togethers like these are really positive, as they help people to see that the current situation isn’t normal. Even if the context isn't improving much, remembering that it wasn't always like this can help people feel better and give them a little hope", explains Judith.

This activity with Rachel produced some very positive results. In total, twenty women from different religious communities and ethnic groups took part, all of them enthusiastic and keen to repeat the experience. When HI asked her if she thought there should be more activities of this kind, Rachel was very excited about the idea:

"If HI could extend the activity so that we can organise a community meal that involves everyone rather than just a small group that would be great. I know it would be complicated, but I think this kind of activity is a first step towards mutual support and better relations.

HI organises other events to strengthen social cohesion in CAR, events that enable people excluded from the community to be included and take part in activities designed for the whole community, such as sport or dancing. 

”This is a way for people who are unable to speak as a result of trauma to spend an enjoyable time with others,” adds Judith. “In organising these activities, we’ve seen the parents taking part encourage one another to entrust their children to someone for a little while, which is a real sign of trust."

This project, combining psychosocial support and education about the risks of explosive devices, was financed by the Humanitarian Fund. It ran from March to August 2023, benefiting 4,500 people from among the most at-risk populations in Ouham-Pendé, including 2,610 children.


Date published: 17/10/23


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