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Girls Not Brides

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Welcome to day two of Women Deliver 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia! Being here is so energizing and inspiring ALL THE TIME! Two days ago I went to a session organized by Girls Not Brides which is working to end child marriage within a generation. While listening to women from around the world speak about child marriage in their countries all I could think about was my own host family in Cameroon… In Ngaroundere my host mother was married at age fifteen. My host mother never was given the opportunity to go to school, but has created her own business making clothes and uses the money she earns to send her children to school. The most incredible part is that she has promised to let her three girls finish secondary school (high school) before they get married. This decision has changed the lives of her girls- who I know value education and who are determined to make a difference. One of them wants to be a “journalist without borders” when she grows up. The impact of these girls staying in school is enormous- the decision to discontinue the practice of child marriage in their family produced an immediate and tangible impact which convinced me that when given the opportunity, women deliver for other women- this thing called the “women’s movement” is worth our time.

Ngaroundere Mama and me!

Ngaroundere Mama and me!

While in Cameroon I was grappling with the concept of cultural understanding- I wanted to immerse myself in this community without judgement. Looking at these issues through a cultural relativist point of view has its merits (not judging but understanding). And for my host mother whose husband was kind and supportive, life after child marriage turned out alright. However, the panel with Girls Not Brides made me realize that the overarching reality is that child marriage steals opportunity and future from most girls forced to marry before age 18. Once married most girls are forced to discontinue school (if they were attending at all), and when they become pregnant, girls are five times more likely to die during childbirth than women in their 20s. Check out for more information about how you can get involved with the fight against child marriage.

The awesome thing about being at the Women Deliver conference after my experience in Cameroon is that the once impersonal and foreign issues, such as child marriage, have become familiar and personal. After living with my Ngaroundere family, supporting Girls Not Brides not only seems like the moral or right thing to do, but it is supporting the decision of my host mother, and helping support my host sisters as they hopefully are given the opportunity to lead.




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After being home a week I’m about to board a plane for another adventure… this time to Malaysia where I will be a panelist and participant at the Women Deliver conference. Since boarding starts in five minutes I don’t have a lot of time to explain the crazy things coming together/blessings that led to this adventure. I will be blogging and (hopefully if I can figure it out) podcasting. The Women Deliver conference is the “largest global event in the decade to focus on the health and empowerment of girls and women.” Check the event out at http://www.wd2013.

I will arrive in 40 hours or so and will send out an update if I can. YIPPEEEEEEEEEE!

Picture day!

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Here are some of the fun things that have happened over the past few weeks…

Sonia and I made AWESOME pizza for my host mother. We then made Bailey’s Chocolate milkshakes… The food and tiny party we had that night was like Christmas and birthday rolled into one


This is mango juice Maman made from fruit fresh from the village. Amazing. Yesterday we spent two hours together in the front yard washing, peeling, and pureeing, I kid you not, 200 mangos. We had mangos like this (insert relevant Cameroonian hand gesture that indicates “beaucoup” here).

IMG_4574Every Saturday and Sunday there is aerobics class at the Parcor Vita halfway up Mount Febe. It is an intense two hours of bouncing around to classics such as “Barbie Girl” and “Who Let the Dogs Out,” with 100 others.Photo on 2013-04-20 at 10.27 #2Baby Gloriaaaaaa!!!! Such wonderful, joyful days spent with this little nugget baby.

IMG_4598More pics to come soon!

The lady’s fault?

I’m sitting right now in my new favorite spot in Yaounde- RENATA headquarters-and enjoying the view out the window. Lush, dark green trees interspersed between the hundreds of houses packed onto the hill. Yaounde is so beautiful. I can’t believe that I am leaving in less than four weeks.

My hang spot is RENATA, the only organization of its kind in Cameroon. Their mission is to fight unplanned/unwanted teenage pregnancy, advocate for teen mothers and for victims of rape, and to fight against breast ironing (an injustice unique to Cameroon. Wikipedia it.). To put this mission into action, RENATA goes out to different cities and villages throughout Cameroon to hold leadership training workshops for teen mothers… Many times the workshops allow space for victims of rape and incest to come forward, share their story, and start to heal. Once these young women are trained they become “Aunties” who lead their community in further education and sensitization on the topics of health and sexual violence. RENATA does an incredible job of offering support to victims and sensitizing the community on sexual violence.

Last week I got to see RENATA in action in a sensitization workshop for high schoolers. The facilitator, Sabina, stood in front of 60 students and said, “We are going to start with a delicate topic: Rape.” The whole class giggled, obviously a little uncomfortable. After talking about the dangers of rape and the steps victims should take afterward, she opened the floor for questions. A boy who looked about 17 stood up at the back of the classroom and started to walk towards Sabina as he said, “Who provokes the man to rape? Is it the man or the lady?” Most of the boys in the class erupted into shouts, saying- “THE LADY! THE LADY! THE LADY PROVOKES THE RAPE!”

I stood there with my video camera in horror and disbelief. Since being in Cameroon I thought I had  gained a pretty good understanding of the cultural stigma surrounding rape, and I thought I was prepared to hear anything, but when dozens of young men stood enthusiastically to yell that rape was the woman’s fault I was shocked. This is what many, if not most of these boys and girls are taught… and it’s exactly why RENATA is fighting a really difficult battle.

Sabina handled the situation with grace and understanding. She said- “I understand what you are saying, but here is my question: when a six month old baby is raped, does the victim bring that on? If your grandmother was raped, would it be because she brought that on herself?” Those questions really challenged the class, and it was apparent that, for some students, perspectives were changing. If this experience taught me anything it was that fighting for women’s voices to be heard in the face of stigmatization and silence is not just difficult work, it is counter cultural. Although the process may be slow, RENATA is changing Cameroon for the better through grassroots work charged with passion, education, and understanding.

IMG_4516The main reason I love to be at RENATA is their incredible community. Women come in and out all day, some have faced unimaginable pain, but without fail the office is always full of laughter and life. This organization is a constant reminder that in the face of great darkness, light and love is always more powerful.

It’s a malarious story.

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In the hospital after my friends visited. This is Sonia and me!

Last week we traveled in an overnight train to the beautiful city of Ngaroudere. The north proved to be an incredible microcosm of tradition and culture unlike any other I have experienced. My host family was one of the most warm, welcoming, hard-working and kind group of people I’ve met while here; I feel so blessed to have been a part of their family for a week.

On my third day in Ngaroundere I found myself in a doctor’s office sitting across from a man who told me, “You have water poisoning and, oh yes, there is some malaria as well.” Say what now? “Oui, le paludisme. Malaria.” This was my first fore into the world of tropical diseases, and the experience was an adventure to say the least.

The two days and nights in the hospital with quinine drip-dropping into my hand gave much time for reflection upon issues of poverty, healthcare, and development in Cameroon… All three pose many problems and I really don’t have any answers. In fact, in some ways I fewer answers now than I did before coming to Cameroon. I am grateful to be exposed to the complexities of change in the developing world, but it makes solutions that much more difficult to envision.

I do know two things for sure after this experience: 1. Quinine makes you feel like crap. It’s the best medicine to treat malaria but it really sucks; and more importantly, 2. Malaria is totally treatable. No one should die from this easy-to-cure disease.

Check out this hilarious, awesome campaign to see how you can make a difference. Malaria-No-More and have teamed up to create MALARIOUS– 24 videos of comedians doing crazy stuff (i.e. “Nick Offerman: Slam poem to bacon), pay whatever you can and you’ll get one of these videos and you will also pay for malaria treatment for a child in Africa.

Although the aforementioned problems are huge, and although sustainable, scalable solutions are difficult to put into action, each day in Cameroon convinces me more and more that a solution that saves even one life is a success.

My sisters and their friends  after picking mangos in Ngaroundere

My sisters and their friends after picking mangos in Ngaroundere
North Cameroonian henna on our feet and hands

North Cameroonian henna on our feet and hands

Our Mama in Cameroon

Wonderful Nathalie on her birthday!

Wonderful Nathalie on her birthday!

This post is dedicated to the wonderful, inspirational Nathalie. As a member of the SIT (School for International Training) staff she is in charge of our lives outside of school- she sets up our home stays, takes us to the hospital when we are sick, and offers a shoulder to cry on when we have breakdowns. My first night in my home stay I was really overwhelmed- homesick and literally sick, and I was near tears the whole night until Nathalie showed up with medicine and a big hug. I immediately felt at home. I am so grateful to have a Mama like her here in Cameroon. Wednesday was her birthday and we celebrated with chocolate cake and ice cream. Such a treat!

Last week our class took a trip to the English speaking region of Bamenda, a beautiful city full of kind faces and surrounded by mountains. In between classes, Nathalie and I began a conversation about the rights of women and girls in Cameroon. I shared with her that I was struggling with gender relations in this country- “Many of these women do not identify with this western idea of ‘gender equality’ and do not want it forced upon them or their situations. What do I do with this passion for women’s empowerment if the concept does not translate here?”

She thoughtfully responded by referencing the instance of rape in Cameroon: “Those women should be able to be empowered to speak out, not be shamed but helped. Breaking the silence is difficult, but it’s necessary to healing and advancing the status of women. Women should be able to speak out and be heard.”

This is not a new or revolutionary idea, but it is one that has changed my perspective. Women’s empowerment definitely means different things to different women- it is a concept with many definitions and many different applications, but there is an aspect that is universal and that transcends cultural difference: Women everywhere need to be empowered to speak their struggle and be heard.

Nathalie continues to fuel my passion for the rights of women and girls by pushing me me to research, learn, and speak more on the subject of violence against women. Her passion for the survivors in Cameroon has inspired the topic for my Independent Study Project- “Breaking the Silence.” Starting in a few weeks I will be working with an organization that advocates for survivors of rape, specifically researching: (1) The obstacles women face in breaking the silence and (2) if breaking that silence is changing the stigma surrounding rape.

This is a tough topic, but I am too inspired by the strength of these women to let this opportunity pass without studying the problems, listening to stories, and looking for solutions.

I’m super grateful to be here, super grateful for new friends, and super duper grateful for people like Nathalie who support and inspire us all daily.



Women’s Day

Marching with the women of MUFFA- a local micro-finance organization on Women's Day!

Marching with the women of MUFFA- a local micro-finance organization on Women’s Day!


Last Friday we joined Cameroon in her celebration of International Women’s Day. In the US, March 8th is pretty much a day like any other, but in Cameroon it is a giant celebration of women.


“8 Mars” commences with the annual Women’s Day Parade where dozens of women’s organizations converge on Yaounde’s Centre Ville to showcase their work. The women in my study abroad group chose to march and upon reaching Centre Ville we were immersed in a sea of thousands wearing matching pink and blue. We walked through throngs of women laughing, eating, and drinking, all wearing beautiful hats, elaborate makeup (the woman with gold glitter in her eyebrows and hair was my favorite), and individualized dresses. It was like a huge, formal tailgate party throughout all of downtown. Overwhelming in its awesomeness.


We marched in solidarity with the women of MUFFA- a local micro-finance organization- and were warmly welcomed by all. During preparation for the parade the energy in the air was palpable as we stood hand-in-hand with these strong, beautiful women. While we were getting into formation, a man with MUFFA and a government official began yelling at us to get in better order- “Get in line! What do you think you are doing?! NO 12 to a line, not 14!”


I was taken aback by the actions of these men. Questions raced through my head… Why were they yelling at us- wasn’t this a day to celebrate women’s strength and leadership? Wasn’t the female leader of our group doing a good job before they came and took over? Was is possible that these men just saw a need and took the lead? Was it also possible that those in our group were not following the direction of our female leader? Why did we all follow the orders of these men without question?


After the parade I asked my french professor if the actions of these men were normal on a day like “8 Mars.” She chuckled as she said that, had she been in our situation, she probably would not have noticed that the men took charge- “C’est la vie au Cameroon.”


One of my friends here reminds me that it is easy to play the “gender card,” and I agree. Genuine social analysis takes more time and is more difficult to perform than simply writing off a problem as a product gender. After much thought, however, I believe that this situation was evidence of patriarchy at its most elemental.


The “8 Mars” celebration is actually quite controversial among many women and men that I have talked to. One of my Cameroonian friends will not march in the parade because she does not believe the celebration represents true emancipation of women. Some see the festivities as a way for women to “act like men for a day,” as March 8th is the only day some of these women are allowed out of their homes to drink with their friends. The next day it is back to normal, and they are expected to fill their traditional role in the home. If that is the case, then what is the celebration for?


After the parade we went to MUFFA headquarters to share food and conversation with members, and I continued my quest to hear more opinions on “8 Mars.” I sat by a woman named Catherine who joined MUFFA in 2009. There she received a micro-loan to start a small convenience store in the local market. She has since grown her business and can help support her family with her income. Catherine continues to receive support from her community at MUFFA and joined them in the parade. I asked her what she thought of the celebration and she said, “There will always be women who just want to drink and go wild on 8 Mars, who do not care about women’s rights or economic empowerment. There are also women like me who want to see women advance, who march because they want women’s voices to be heard.”


Catherine, like so many other women I have met while here, is a warrior. Whether working for the welfare of their family, working for equal opportunity, or working to end patriarchy, these women are determined and strong. And although some view the “8 Mars” celebration negatively, I believe despite its pitfalls it gives women an opportunity to dance, eat, drink, and fellowship with one another- all necessary activities to continue fighting the good fight, whatever that fight may be.