Healing community trauma to promote peacebuilding in Northern Ghana
On April 13, 2022, unidentified gunmen attacked the Zakoli community, a Fulbe settlement near the town of Yendi in northern Ghana. The Fulbe are a largely pastoralist ethnic group that is spread across multiple West African countries. Their permanent settlement in Ghana is more recent, and relations between Fulbe and non-Fulbe have often been marked by tension and conflict.
The Yendi attack was surmised to be a reprisal attack for the killing of a non-Fulbe teacher by suspected Fulbe bandits. The violence profoundly impacted the community, including 29-year-old Memuna Belko, who lost three of her brothers among the eight men killed.
Having recently lost her husband in a motor accident, the tragedy compounded Memuna’s grief. Overwhelmed by anguish, she even contemplated suicide.
In parts of northern Ghana, this conflict between Fulbe and non-Fulbe groups poses a threat to social cohesion and community development and enables exploitation by violent extremist organizations. According to local context tracking by the USAID Office of Transition Initiatives’ (OTI) Littorals Regional Initiative (LRI) and anecdotal evidence gathered since 2021, violent attacks on Fulbe communities have increased in intensity and frequency in northern Ghana.
The violence has been met with a handful of arrests and little to no justice for victims. The Fulani Youth Association of Ghana (FUYAG) notes that these incidents, based on long-held stereotyping of the Fulbe as criminals, have pushed many Fulbe to the periphery of towns and villages or caused them to flee to neighboring countries, including Burkina Faso, a country currently under threat from violent extremist organizations.
The violence and upheaval that punctuates these conflicts may be easier to spot, but what is often left unaddressed is the less-obvious damage to the population caused by emotional and psychological trauma — such as in Memuna’s experience.
Working with communities to address trauma
From March to August 2023, OTI partnered with the Center for Social and Development Reform (CSD Reform), a local Ghanaian NGO, to start addressing the psychological effects of the violence by conducting trauma healing training in Karaga, Gushegu, and Yendi — three districts in the Eastern Corridor of the Northern Region with high incidents of clashes between Fulbe and non-Fulbe.
In collaboration with the Council of Fulani Chiefs and two Fulbe organizations — the Ghana Chapter of Tabital Pulaaku and the Fulani Youth Association of Ghana — CSD Reform organized a training of trainers on the Rising from Resilient Roots1 trauma healing tool for 30 selected Fulbe and non-Fulbe youth. CSD Reform then supported these trainers to facilitate trauma healing sessions for 720 residents in the target communities and organized six dialogue sessions between Fulbe communities and traditional and local government authorities.
Trauma healing gives a sense of hope and agency
The trauma healing exercise led by CSD has been life changing for Memuna Belko. Tears flowed as she narrated her story as part of the session and drew her tree of life, a visual depiction that signified her past, present and future represented by the roots, trunk, leaves and fruits.
“The tree of life showed me that despite what I have been through, I still have so much to live for. I have my life, children, friends and my community who love and support me. Suicide is no longer an option,” she said after the session.
Inspired by the transformative power of their individual trees of life, Belko and the other 29 members of her group (both Fulbe and non-Fulbe) decided to merge their creations, forming a collective forest of life, a symbolic gesture representing their shared journey toward healing and growth. Later, during community dialogues, the women discussed how to nurture this forest by deepening inter-ethnic peace and collaboration.
Trauma healing participants initiate trust-building efforts
After CSD Reform led the trauma healing exercises, participants started working together to apply what they learned and build trust and confidence in their abilities to address local conflicts. For example, in May 2023, a Fulbe male leader and female leader in Bagurugu town in the Karaga District jointly organized a meeting for 30 herders and 20 Fulbe women in the community to educate them on best practices to avoid farm destruction by their cattle.
According to the Fulbe woman leader, “The training helped to ease my pain from the past conflict. I also reflected on the loss of property, which cannot be replaced. I want to make sure we can prevent these kinds of conflicts in the future to avoid further pain and loss.”
In April 2023, following a series of farm destruction incidents by Fulbe cattle, a non-Fulbe youth leader in Bagurugu town in the Karaga District averted a planned attack on the Fulbe community.
A farmer was upset following a series of farm destruction cases by cattle he believed belonged to a Fulbe. The non-Fulbe youth leader, who happens to be a member of an interim mixed mediation committee formed after the “Rising from Resilient Roots” training, became aware of the farmer’s frustration and employed due processes learned during the training to calm the farmer down. The youth leader also liaised with Fulbe representatives in the committee to identify the owner of the cattle and resolve the issue amicably.
The cattle owner took responsibility for the farm destruction, apologized, and was prepared to pay the compensation, which the farmer graciously declined on the grounds that the herder admitted to the wrongdoing and earnestly apologized.
According to the youth leader, “I have learned that peaceful co-existence between community members is a very important way to prevent the inflow of violent extremist groups into the community.”
Additionally, in August 2023, Memuna and over 30 youth from the Dagomba, Fulbe, and Konkomba ethnic groups from the Zakoli community formed a multi-ethnic peacebuilding group to organize community dialogues to tackle conflicts peacefully.
Restorative Circles: A trauma healing tool
In a separate activity in Tamale and Wa in Ghana’s Northern and Upper West Regions, Dr. Hakim Mohandas Amani Williams, a professor and the Director of Peace and Justice Studies at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, trained 44 OTI partners and other interested civil society representatives to use a trauma healing tool called restorative circles.
The tool teaches a method that encourages conflicting parties to sit in a circle and air their grievances through equal opportunity sharing and listening. After the training led by Dr. Williams, participants reported using restorative circles to improve community relationships and pass on the knowledge by training their peers on the trauma healing technique.
Since May 2023, Hajia Mariam Alhassan Alolo, an Islamic instructor and founder of the Hajia Mariam Alolo Islamic Institute in Tamale, has taken what she learned and introduced the restorative circle methodology to her community. She took the initiative to organize five training sessions on it for 49 members of her school community.
Damata, one of the participants, acknowledged the benefit of the sessions and said, “The training is healing. It has helped me bring out some issues that have burdened my heart for a long time, and it is refreshing to share this with other people who are going through similar pain.”
Hajia Mariam’s ultimate goal is to introduce the methodology to the other instructors at her school and eventually integrate it into her curriculum. Additionally, two Queen Mothers — who play powerful leadership roles in their communities — and a female Fulbe leader successfully introduced the restorative circle methodology to 47 Queen Mothers in the Upper East Region.
So far, former participants of the initial training have conducted restorative circle training for more than 300 of their peers across northern Ghana.
Recognizing the transformative power of trauma healing practices, OTI remains committed to harnessing local capacity in this area and piloting innovative approaches to conflict resolution, healing, restoration and recovery.