By Jack Losh
By creating vibrant economic networks, women in the Central African Republic are coming to terms with the violence they have suffered during their country’s civil warThe bakers of Bamingui have lost loved ones to war. Rebel soldiers drive past their roadside bread ovens daily. A spectre of violence remains. Regardless, Yvette Abaka and her female baking collective make dough and roll with it.
In this impoverished, rebel-held corner of the Central African Republic (CAR), this group of mothers came together last year to better their lot. Since then, their loaves have become a hit in the wider community, promoting the women as their families’ breadwinners and promising further, quietly profound, change.
“This bakery makes us more powerful than before,” says Abaka, the group’s leader and a 50-year-old mother of two. “My husband respects my work. Now I am his equal.”
In this turbulent country, scarred by years of conflict, Abaka’s bakers are not the only people hoping for something good to come out of the troubles. Following a major ceasefire brokered earlier this year between the government and 14 rebel militias, groups of women are coming together across the nation to reinforce the grand strategy for peace at a community level. They are rebuilding their country from the ground up, forging formidable sisterhoods in the ashes of a protracted conflict.
High rates of sexual violence, maternal mortality and teenage births have made CAR one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. But now female activists, displaced mothers and survivors of rape have joined forces to heal deep wounds and restore trust between opposing ethnic factions as part of an ambitious attempt to mend a broken country in the heart of Africa.
Besides Abaka’s bakers, another group called Femme Debout (“Woman Standing”) is defying religious tensions by bringing together Christian and Muslim widows in Bangui, CAR’s capital, teaching them commercial skills and helping traumatised individuals recover collectively. Elsewhere, in camps for displaced people, where people shelter from militants who use sexual violence as a weapon of war, survivors enrol with associations to fight the stigma of rape and to cultivate hope.
“Such groups are vital forces for social change,” says Viola Giuliano, a researcher in CAR for the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an NGO focused on civilian protection. “They are uniquely placed to find and prioritise solutions and enable a sense of ownership of the peace process, which is key for sustainable, long-term reconciliation.”
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In the northern village of Bamingui, lead baker Abaka is familiar with such horrors of war, having survived six years of it. In 2013, an alliance of mainly Muslim rebels assembled close to her village before running amok through the rest of the country, committing atrocities and seizing power in a bloody coup d’etat. In response, “anti-balaka” militias consisting of Christians and animists rose up and carried out revenge attacks against Muslim communities.
Increasing waves of violence killed thousands, displaced more than a million people and prompted warnings from the United Nations of an impending genocide. The rebel coalition has since fragmented into numerous armed groups competing over territory and access to mineral reserves.
Among the many fatalities was Abaka’s son. Her brother, aunt and grandfather also perished in the bloodbath. Today, gunmen from the same rebel group that killed them frequently drive past her home and bakery. While the militants’ presence has taken on a surreal air of normality, Abaka’s war-weary community – like others nationwide – fear this uneasy truce could shatter at any time.
Chief baker Yvette Abaka stands outside her bakery in Bamingui. Photograph: Jack Losh
“At first the kids were scared of all these weapons, but now they’re used to it,” she says. “But I do worry that the war will begin again. We’ve already lost so much. We cannot afford for it to happen again.”
Despite these concerns she presses ahead, along with seven friends, with what they do best. They rise at dawn and congregate to scrub baking trays, gather large logs, chop up kindling and light fires in the kilns. Beneath a tin roof, they knead dough into hundreds of rolls. Small ones sell for the equivalent of 7p, a medium one for 14p, a loaf for 35p. Any profit is split between the women, allowing them to buy key household items and reinvest the remainder.
Revenues are modest; the impact, big. With almost half the country affected by acute food shortages and several regions teetering on the brink of famine, food production for malnourished communities is crucial. The bakers sell to local Muslim families, bringing once-divided communities together to intermingle in the marketplace.
And in a place where the international response to a humanitarian crisis has received less than 50% of the funding it needs, a little extra cash represents a lifeline for struggling families.
“This bakery is the only opportunity we have to make any money by ourselves,” says Estella Yarsara, Abaka’s fellow baker and a 27-year-old mother of five. “This work means I have some extra food for my children too. I do this to help myself and to help my family. We all want to lift up our community.”
The job has upended a conservative hierarchy, helping Yarsara challenge her role in society: “If I have some money and my husband does not, I can intervene and support him. It is making our relationship more equal. I don’t have to depend on him. I have more strength in the family.”
Their bakery opened last September, kickstarted by an EU-funded initiative. While this programme was focused primarily on wildlife conservation in the nearby Bamingui-Bangoran national park, officials were keen to reach out to the wider community. In addition to the bakery operation, other locals are taught how to farm guinea fowl, produce shea butter and air-dry beef in order to reduce an unsustainable dependence on bushmeat.
Reverent Yakoudou, a park manager, knows the value of this investment: “Women are more reliable with money. They use all their profits to look after their family and reinvest in the business.” Abaka’s vision for the bakery’s future confirms this. She hopes eventually to open up a permanent shop, selling their bread among many other products: “That way we can help our children and our community even more.”
Although separated by hundreds of miles of rebel-held roads, Abaka would find a sister in arms in Florence Atanguere, who runs the Femme Debout women’s association for widows and orphans in Bangui. Many of its members have suffered displacement and witnessed extreme violence, yet despite the war’s divisions along religious lines, Christians and Muslims are welcomed alike.
Supported by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, the group meets every week on the edge of the capital to discuss their difficulties and successes. From sewing to soap-making, they are taught new skills, helping them foster solidarity and a boisterous, entrepreneurial spirit.
“Little by little women are getting together to fight back,” says Atanguere, a mother of six who saw her brother stabbed to death when rebels stormed her neighbourhood in late 2013. She fled to a squalid camp for displaced people and eventually returned home three years later, founding the association with the women she met there. “We are sisters. We are all Central Africans. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Muslim or Christian. Here, we are all equal.”
While the worst of Atanguere’s ordeal is over, more than 600,000 people remain displaced within CAR, with a similar number uprooted as refugees outside the country. Many of the women have been raped by militants. Yet among these exiled communities, there is resilience and a restless desire to rise above such harrowing circumstances.
One of them is 18-year-old Céleste, who was five months pregnant when rebels attacked her village in northern CAR late one night. Gunshots and the roar of motorbikes woke her. “They raped many girls and tortured many men,” said Celeste, just 15 at the time of the attack. She wasn’t spared either. Four soldiers entered her house, each taking turns to rape her: “My pregnancy was visible but they still did it anyway.”
Afterwards, she fled her village and hid in the bush for several days, surviving on whatever she could find to eat. Her distress was amplified by memories of what she had lost. Before the war, she had enjoyed helping her father farm cassava, okra and peanuts, participating at school as an enthusiastic dancer and eager pupil. Now, forced from home, her sense of helplessness grew when she learned a few days later that her fiance – the father of her unborn child – had been murdered in the course of a car-jacking.
Céleste, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, eventually made it to a displacement camp on the outskirts of a rebel-held town called Kaga Bandoro. She moved into a cramped tent where she saw out the last few months of her pregnancy but could not shake off the psychological and physical pain of the attack. “Sleeping at night has been hard,” she said softly. “It is difficult to forget. I miss my fiance terribly.”
Yet even in this overcrowded and perilous camp, where armed groups freely operate, Céleste has started to overcome this nightmare. A friend introduced her to a women’s association where fellow survivors of rape enter a shared process of mutual healing and, together, tackle the stigma of sexual violence.
“I now feel that I have the strength to deal with what has happened,” said Céleste. “The pastor at church teaches us to forgive, let go and move on. During therapy sessions, we can express ourselves. We talk about what has happened and discuss any problems that we still face.”
Céleste and her fellow members are keen to return to school. Their dream: to take up midwifery and help pregnant mothers receive the care that war and poverty have denied them.
In spite of the camp’s dangers and dreadful conditions, her son is now two years old and in relatively good health. With her country edging towards greater stability, Céleste clings to the hope of a life beyond their tiny, dusty tent – for now, the only home her child has ever known.