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Monthly Archives: March 2013

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.

 

 

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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.

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Life in Dschang

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We just got back to our home base in Yaounde from a two week stay in the city of Dschang. When I was taken to my home stay at the beginning of the two weeks I was immediately greeted by Nadine, my 24 year old host sister, who wore the biggest, most beautiful smile I’d ever seen. Integrating with this family was such a rewarding experience. My four host siblings were all around my age so there was always someone to laugh or dance with. My older host sister had a one year old baby, Divine, who supplied no end of entertainment. We watched music videos of Cameroonian and American bands religiously, and Bruno Mars “Locked out of Heaven” was the favorite. Every time it came on TV everyone got up and danced like crazy.

My baby niece in Dschang- Divine during a dance party!

My baby niece in Dschang- Divine during a dance party!

One of my favorite days with this family was last Sunday. My sister Mimie and I did laundry outside, and the view from the back porch was beautiful- full of hill-side houses and banana trees. As we listened to Kesha and Adele from my ipod we scrubbed, soaked, scrubbed, and soaked our clothes for hours. Most days there was not running water at our house, so going to the neighborhood wells was a habitual practice. To finish rinsing my clothes I went with Mimie to gather water. The next door neighbor had a deep well covered with an old oil barrel and I learned quickly that gathering water is a sport that requires practice. Mimie dropped the bucket down the well, and as she started to lift it I turned to her and said “I got this.” After lifting for five seconds I knew I had spoken too soon. That bucket was heavy. As she lifted the next bucket to the surface with ease I realized that this woman was powerful.

Mimie and me at the dinner table

Mimie and me at the dinner table

Mimie is studying Agro-Forestry at the University of Dschang and works harder than most people I know. Every morning she wakes up at 4 or 5am to do her homework, goes to school, comes back at around 7pm, goes to sleep, and wakes up to do it over again the next day. This Smart Girl Out Loud wants to change this world by protecting the communities and forests of Cameroon, and I have no doubt that she will be force of great change very soon. Her passion, intelligence, and strength continue to inspire me.

 Until tomorrow! On est ensemble!