Ngala Desmond, Cameroon Country Project Manager, responding after presentation of the prize in Yaounde. Details below.
#defyhatenow initiative gets it first recognition as a peace promotion organisation. As the Project Manager for Cameroon, how did you receive the news?
Honestly, this is one of the greatest surprises we have had this year. In fact, it had never crossed my mind or that of my team that our work would be appreciated so soon. Our focus has been on creating impact and touching as many lives as possible. We even judge ourselves thinking we do not even do as much work as we ought to. On that fateful August 12, I left Yaounde in the morning, hoping to be in Limbe in time for the 18 Annual General Meeting of the Cameroon Association of Media Professionals – CAMP. This is the third consecutive year we are engaging the members through capacity building sessions. I decided this time around to accompany the team by attending in person. Unfortunately for reasons beyond my control, I could only reach Douala at night. It was too late for me to travel to Limbe. But two of my colleagues, Derick and Raissa had gone ahead, they did my presentation on cross cultural communication, and later in the evening, they both received the award on our behalf. I was particularly thrilled to receive this news, just like everyone else, coming from the team. I doubt if it would have felt the same if I had been the one to break the news to them. I used this story just to illustrate what we do at #defyhatenow. We work selflessly, without even think of any immediate reward. Since it is team work, we are able and ready to step in at any time irrespective of the person initially assigned for the task. Even in my absence, my colleagues, though unprepared, were able to fill sit in for me and bring back such wonderful news. Throughout our work, we see the same mindset in communities where we have engaged persons. Some of them even go extra miles to more than we had expected. The news was a great surprise, but at the same time, it is a great encouragement for the entire team.
This is the organisation’s first award after close to five years of relentless efforts in peacebuilding. Should such an accolade not have come earlier?
My answer to this question is a big no! #defyhatenow works on mobilizing civic action against hatespeech, we do not work on our own, but we need to build a community around our values. #defyhatenow is not a project like others that belongs to the core team, absolutely no! It is a concept, an ideology, a mind-set, in fact, a way of life. We all need to take a personal commitment to say no to hate. We all have a role to play both at individual and collective levels to build a peaceful society. This requires time, resources and coordinated efforts to mould or transform mind-sets. So in my opinion, this award has come faster that we could have imagined. It is indeed a good thing to see that our work has garnered support both at home and abroad within such a short period. Receiving this surprised VIIMMA 2023 Award is a big tap on the shoulder. This is a clarion call from the external community requiring us to take the message of peace to the furthest parts of Cameroon. The news came at a time when we were hosting our first activity in the East Region, targeting displaced persons and host communities in Garoua-Boulai. This takes us to nine regions out of 10 where we have active community relays. We are looking forward to covering all 58 Divisions, and why not, have at least one active peacebuilder in each of the 360 subdivisions of the country.
So far, we have been involved in different national and regional discussions where we share our experience. Building community peace weavers particularly in the crisis-hit North West and South West Regions has not been easy. But wherever we have been, doors have always been opened to us. Community members always received us with a lot of warmth. So this award makes us feel like it is now that real work begins. As we all know, the higher you go, the greater the expectations too. Henceforth, we have a solemn responsibility to live up to it!
What does the VIIMMA 2023 signify to your team and the entire #defyhatenow community?
This award is an eye opener, an encouragement and at the same time a reminder of how much work we still have to do. This pushes us to cover more terrain and not rest on our laurels, especially as we see evolving trends in the spread of hatespeech and disinformation. To be very honest, we cannot take credit for this alone, because without the supportive #defyhatenow community in Cameroon and abroad, we would not be celebrating today. I wish to particularly thank the project initiator, r0g_agency for open culture and critical transformation for introducing the initiative in Cameroon. This award is timely as it matches the 10th anniversary of r0g_agency. For a project of such a magnitude that started timidly to have grown this far, we can never thank the German Government enough for entrusting such a huge yet humbly task to us. The financial support and backing via the Federal Foreign Office has spurred other diplomatic missions, the government of Cameroon and international organisations to rally behind us in our collective strife for a #HateFreeCameroon. This adds to the endless list of youth, women, media, grassroot organisations that are able to own their peace processes and champion local initiatives themselves. We equally wish to acknowledge policy makers, municipal, traditional and religious authorities that did not only receive us, but willingly granted us access to their communities. These are the real owners of this beautiful accolade. Every #defyhatenow community member should feel free to visit us, see and touch the award. It belongs to us all!
What are some of the milestone achievements of #defyhatenow in Cameroon, which you believe must have attracted this recognition?
The very first milestone is that the core team travels less than before (laughs!). I know some people reading this may not fully understand. When we started this initiative in Cameroon sometime in 2018, we were testing the waters and there was no guarantee things would work. We did not even know what exactly to do, since there were so many areas that needed our attention. After a test period, later in 2019, we had a clearer picture of what to do, though we needed people to accompany us. A few activities here and there with some key stakeholders helped us to shape ideas in a more organised way. Even when we sat to conceive the first #defyhatenow Social Media Hatespeech Mitigation Field Guide, we were adapting it from the version produced in South Sudan. So it was more of learning and adjustments through practice. And then came the year 2020, just when we imagined we had gathered enough momentum to take a leap, but Covid-19 broke out, bringing everything to a standstill. We had to make a difficult decision whether to continue or stop. Most of the team members we have today joined us at this particular trying time. And as the team lead, I felt a lot of relief when I realised they embraced the project as seriously as if their lives depended on it. So between June 2020 and December 2021, we had to spend countless days on the road, sleepless night working to ensure the project’s full implantation. We had to lay the solid foundation, for the rest to follow.
Today, when we look back at all the work, we are glad to see more people championing peace initiatives in their communities. It is easier us for to send resources to remote communities and have them run activities on their own. After attending our capacity building and mentorship sessions, participants have surprised us with greater results on the ground. We ran a series of regional workshops in Buea, Bamenda and Yaounde where over 150 Journalists were trained. Some were later selected for a mentorship phase on conflict-sensitive reporting. Based on the success, we extended the project to broadcasters in Pidgin, grouping 50 community radios and televisions. We got very interesting feedback from these discussions, which served as the basis for a one-day Media Leaders’ Forum we organised in Yaounde on April 28, 2023. Close to 50 participants made of publishers, owners and editorial members of print and audio-visual press outlets held talks on upholding free-speech and countering hatespeech, after which they produced a statement as a way forward.
Closely linked to our #Media4Peace programme is the Africa Factchecking Fellowship- #AFFCameroon. This is a quarterly hands-on training for journalists, bloggers and Civil Society leaders. We realised that Social Media serves as a primary source of information for both new digital and mainstream media. As such, it is necessary to enhance the media and information literacy of content creators. Cohort 8 is currently in session, thus making about 140 Fellows trained this far. While they participate in a national programme of this nature, we try to gain insights to questions relating to mis/disinformation and hatespeech in different parts of the country. Cohort 6 was specifically focused on the three northern regions: Adamaoua, North and Far North. Cohort 7 was exclusively made of Fellows from the North West and South West Regions. You will be surprised to discover the diverse forms, manifestations and effects of disinformation and hatespeech in these communities, based on their locally realities. We also engaged schools through frequent #PenNotGun campaigns, teaching young people to develop peacebuilding skills at an early age.
In addition to online data analysis and response, we also build the capacities of community-based groups. We see youth-led, media, women-oriented, sociocultural and religious groups incorporating our Field Guide as a conflict mitigation tool in their daily work is an accomplishment. Through these community relays, our message of peaceful coexistence among people is carried to the nooks and crannies of Cameroon.
What gives us greater joy today is seeing positive response and acceptance from host communities. We also get numerous calls and invitations to participate in event and discussions, thus contributing to national efforts aimed at curbing the spread of hatespeech and violence. We work with both public and private actors, which explain why our peacebuilding efforts are attracting public appreciation. We saw this collaboration particularly in November 2022 when we organised our first national conference on disinformation. The same response was seen in May 2023, when we hosted a national symposium on hatespeech in collaboration with the Department of Sociology in the University of Yaounde 1 and the Pan-African University. But our overall goal is for these persons we have touched directly or indirect be it online and offline to carry the work further in their respective domains.
What are the organisation’s prospects in this year and beyond?
This year including those to come, we will focus on maintaining an upward trend. We aim to leverage the successes of the past, learn lessons from our shortcomings and define new strategies to climb higher. We are re-launching the conflict sensitive reporting training, because we have realised that both digital and mainstream media space is not yet hate-free. This time around the call for applications is nationwide to get as many different experiences as possible. We also continue to support community-based organisations in their use of the Field Guide. Hard copies of the resource packages have bee, distributed and are being used in at least 35 out of the 58 Divisions of Cameroon. Within the Africa Factchecking Fellowship , we are looking at new trends especially the use of AI and how it impacts the information chain. Future cohorts will have to work on such and related topics which will enhance their professional careers. This year is indeed meant for celebration as r0g_agency, #defyhatenow’s initiator clocks 10. We will launch the Cameroon Diaspora Dialogues Panel Discussion on 23 September, to engage with the diaspora in an effort to bring about conflict transformation and resolution. Both at home and abroad, we will leave no stone unturned as we collective strife for a #HateFreeCameroon.
Interviewed by Laure Nganlay