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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!

Chillin’ with the Chief

 

Last Thursday I met a royal for the first time in my life…. No, not Prince William or Princess Kate, although, this king comes from a dynasty almost as long as that of Queen Elizabeth’s… Our study abroad group met with Chief Toukam who welcomed us to his Chefferie last Thursday.

After two hours on a dusty road, we arrived at the beautiful Chefferie of the Batoufam and were greeted by a dozen men and women playing a wooden xylophone, drums, and shaking maraca-like instruments. The beat was like nothing I had ever heard- intense and layered. We ran off the bus to join the village women in their dancing and were welcomed immediately. For the next thirty minutes we danced with these women and men in the dust, which we kicked up until we were surrounded by a haze of red. My friend Sonia turned to me halfway through dancing and said, “There is something really grounding about this.” I agreed wholeheartedly. Moving to the drums with the Bantoufam people, living their tradition and experiencing their joy, I felt at home.

We entered the Chefferie and were guided to one of the Chief’s main sitting rooms which was elaborately decorated with rich wood carvings, brilliant woven rugs, and beautiful wall hangings of the chief.

He had many interesting things to share, including how globalization has effected his tradition and how he helps create development for the people in his village. More to come on those subjects soon…

The subject I was most interested in was his wives, as the majority, if not all, of the traditional chiefs of Cameroon are polygamists. He would not say how many wives or children he had because giving an answer would mean he was done obtaining more wives and making more children. He did say that he is one of his father’s 200 children which kind of gives an idea of how many kids and wives he might have over his lifetime.

After graciously answering our questions the chief took us on a tour of his grounds, which is an honor some community members never get the chance to experience. He took us by the homes of some of his wives, and we went in to say hello. Such a surreal experience. There we met about ten women gathered around the fire, some young and some old, who all welcomed us graciously. In that cool brick room I met Carol, one of the chief’s wives, who was the mother of a little boy sitting in another woman’s lap. Meeting this community of women was as much an honor for me as meeting the chief. These women are in charge of taking care of those living in the village and basically keep the Chefferie running.

In the past month, the bounds of my perspective have been stretched miles away from my comfort zone. Everyday presents a new challenge and a new vantage point from which to view the world.  The stretching process has been sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, and always rewarding.

Check out the Royaume de Batoufam at www.batoufam.org
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Celebrate!

Happy Youth Day from Cameroon! We have been here two weeks and have learned MUCH… One of the central lessons is that cultural adjustment is fun, exciting, and really difficult. Almost every social cue and cultural assumption I hold from the US must be reexamined and reworked to fit this world and way of life. Simple things like hygiene in the kitchen and no trash cans in the house and the normalcy of public urination … The list goes on and on. Sometimes these differences are invigorating and then other times they are really overwhelming; I am still working on striking a balance… The home stay, the Cameroonian program staff, and the other study abroad students all make this big adjustment much easier.

Last night was the African Football Cup final- Burkina Faso vs. Nigeria… As you can probably imagine, the city of Yaounde was buzzing with excitement. Many cheered for the obvious front runner, Nigeria, but my host mother and I were rooting for the underdog, Burkina Faso. As I began to open my computer to do some work while watching the game, my homestay mother, Cecile, said, “Lily, do not do work during the match. This is a celebration!” When she broke out the unopened brandy I knew she wasn’t kidding. She gave me money to go to the bar across the street to get the “plus grand bouteille” of Coke to mix with the celebration brandy… And so began an intense ten minute adventure.

I crossed the dirt road to get to one of the many neighborhood bars and discovered almost a hundred people in two open air rooms; one room with dozens of men all the watching the football match, and the other with all of the women yelling jokes at each other and passing around babies. As I waited to order my American Coca Cola, a woman reached out for my hand and said “Bonsoir mon amie!” We then began an amazing conversation about the beer and whether or not I had a boyfriend. Watching these women laugh and celebrate together was so affirming. This moment reminded me that although some days are difficult, the rich spirit, stories, and perspective found here are worth it all.

My friend Sonia's host sister, Gloria... She is the definition of adorable.

My friend Sonia’s host sister, Gloria… She is the definition of adorable.

 

Hello from Cameroon!

IMG_3474Bonjour from Cameroon!  I have been here for one week… it has been incredible and overwhelming.  There are 10 of us Americans here now with one to come soon.  As Sonia and I walked to school this morning we were accompanied by hundreds of petits etudiants…  I still can’t believe we are in Cameroon, living with Cameroonians.  For the most part, this week and weekend have been dedicated to learning and adjusting to this life.  Some things I have learned:

1. Carry hand sanitizer

2. Check if the taxi driver’s picture matches his face.

3. Know how much you will pay for the taxi and where you want to go.  They honk at you and you yell out where you want to go. If he is going there too, then you hop in. If not, he keeps driving.

3. Stock up on clean, bottled water.  You never know when your water will be shut off or for how long.

4. Don’t cross your legs in front of adults. It’s rude.

5. Be prepared to eat more plantains than you want to.  Families offer more than you can eat generally.

6. There is only one trash can and it’s a bucket outside.

7. Guys on the street will follow you and try really hard to be your boyfriend all the time.  This happens to all the girls. Just keep walking.

Our classes are about development and social change in Cameroon, so there will be many posts to come about the amazing change makers in this vibrant country. I am so grateful to be here. À demain!

 

“She is Equal”

Today marks the beginning of President Barack Obama’s last term in office.  After taking his oath in front of millions, he delivered a speech which set the tone for his ambitious final term by promising to tackle gun control reform, immigration reform, and more comprehensive climate change legislation; however, the most memorable moment for me was when he referenced the reality that millions of girls face in our country .

“We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”  

I appreciate President Obama singling out the status of the girl, and I think this reference indicates that our country is poised to solve our country’s girl crisis.  Millions of kids in this country are faced with a bleak reality: poverty, homelessness, abuse, failing public schools, and discrimination whether due to skin color or gender.

Here’s why I believe the solutions are at hand: White men will no longer be the majority of the Democratic caucus in the House as several of the seats have gone to women and minorities; congress has a record breaking 20 female senators, one of whom is the first openly gay senator in history; and a record 78 women now serve in the House of Representatives.   I believe that with the increased presence of women and minorities in our legislative bodies will come a new perspective and fresh commitment to issues effecting women and girls.

Record number of women elected to the 133th Congress

Record number of women elected to the 133th Congress

I am hopeful for the positive impact government can have on the status of women and minorities in this country, but I know that most progress towards equality is enacted by local organizations.  Last week I had the pleasure of touring one of the most effective and inspiring organizations working locally in the U.S.: the YWCA of Central Alabama.  The Young Women’s Christian Association has been advocating for the rights of women and for the elimination of racism since its founding in 1858, and has been established in Central Alabama since 1903.  Guided by the visionary leadership of Suzanne Durham, the YWCA has become the go-to organization in Alabama for women and families in crisis– whether homeless, abused, unemployed or otherwise, the YWCA offers women and children hope and a home.  As I walked the historic halls of this YWCA with Ms. Durham, my hope for the future of this community and country were vindicated as I watched at-risk women and children able to claim their power and potential through the effective, evidence based programing and services offered.

As Ms. Durham lead me through half a dozen state-of-the-art classrooms, the grim reality that faces at-risk children was evident: most live amongst chaos and suffer trauma.  The YWCA offers a place of peace and stability so that these children can thrive. You can learn more about the work of the YWCA of Central Alabama here.

Kids of the YWCA Central Alabama

Kids of the YWCA Central Alabama

Ms. Durham has led the YWCA of Central Alabama as director for more than 30 years, and has also served as the national YWCA board chair.  Under her leadership, the organization has been selected as the 2013 winner of  a national Planning Excellence Award for “Advancing Diversity and Social Change” in the Woodlawn neighborhood.  In 2007, 43% of families in Woodlawn were living below the poverty line.  The YWCA responded in force and has established a Family Resource Center, an interfaith housing center for the homeless, and a 58–unit housing initiative.  They are actively empowering this community and helping thousands rise up out of poverty.

Suzanne Durham: transformative leader, trailblazing feminist, compassionate advocate

Suzanne Durham: transformative leader, trailblazing feminist, compassionate advocate

With the YWCA, Ms. Durham has impacted countless lives in Alabama.  Sitting in her office full of tributes to powerful feminists who have come before (including her “Gertrude Stein” and “Virginia Woolf” pillows), I felt the power of those brave women and men who fought for my equality, and was humbled to be speaking with an integral member of that legacy.

Gertrude Stein on the left, Virginia Woolf on the right

Gertrude Stein on the left, Virginia Wolfe on the right

On this historical day, I am grateful for leaders like President Obama and Suzanne Durham who boldly envision a more equal world, and who are working everyday to see their vision turned into reality.

Strength, Not Size

Saturday night was the Miss America pageant, and watching some of these extremely thin contestants strut down the runway in next-to-nothing made me, in the words of Leslie Knope, “feel a lot of feelings about myself.”  So let’s talk about it.  Like many women and men, I have struggled with body image, self-confidence, and weight my whole life.  I remember only a few blissful windows of time when I was not worried about whether or not I was overweight.  I do not want this to be my reality.  Lately I have been asking myself questions like, “What is a healthy weight for me?” and “How can I gain confidence in myself?”  I am now on a journey of developing self confidence and self worth, despite what the scale says.  It was quite a treat viewing the Miss America pageant while processing these questions…. It seems to me like the pageant operates under the assumption that they have a monopoly on “ideal womanhood,” which threatened to exacerbate my feelings of inadequacy and “overweightness.”

Leslie Knope

Leslie Knope

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What started in 1920 as an Atlantic City advertising campaign to keep tourists on their boardwalk after Labor Day has evolved into a competition to determine America’s “queen of femininity” (as the theme song went).  The Miss America pageant has changed over the years as standards of womanhood and femininity have shifted, but one thing that has stayed the same throughout the years is the swimsuit portion of the evening.  In this competition officially guised as a “scholarship pageant,” women are expected to strip down to two pieces of fabric to display their “fitness” as determined by their tiny waist, flat stomach, and firm legs.  The hosts of the program continued to rationalize the swimsuit competition by saying, “This is how the judges see if these women take care of their body.”  Really?  Does strength mean skinny?  Why not feature the contestants in a fitness routine?  I want to see them flip a tire, do twenty push-ups, then run a mile.  That would be really impressive.  The truth is that there is a billion dollar industry that runs on the objectification of women, even women in this “scholarship pageant.” This was painfully obvious in the swimsuit category as the camera zoomed in on every other contestant’s butt.

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Sure, Miss South Carolina may be “fit,” but her “fit” is definitely not my standard of health or beauty.

I commend these 52 women for making it to the national competition.  All are pursuing some sort of higher education, have defined goals for their future, and have identified a cause they are passionate about.  I admire their determination, ambition, and passion, but the question remains, why do these women have to strip down to inches of fabric to win an academic scholarship?

In my opinion, this “scholarship pageant” is begging for a makeover.  I want to extinguish the idea that women have to be “Miss America-Bikini-Ready” to be beautiful or confident.

One Miss America boldly refused to conform- Yolande Fox Betbeze.  As Miss America in 1951, she refused to “appear in a swimsuit in public unless she were going swimming.”  In response, the “spurned” bathing suit sponsor, Catalina, left the Miss America pageant and went on to create the Miss Universe competition.  Betbeze wanted to be recognized as a serious opera singer, not as a national sex symbol, and because of her nonconformity she is credited as the catalyst of change in the pageant’s shift away from an exclusive beauty pageant.

Yolande Betbeze Fox

Yolande Betbeze Fox

In 1968 a group of feminists took Ms. Betbeze act of protest even further by demonstrating at the Miss America pageant, waving signs that said “NO MORE BEAUTY STANDARDS- EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL!”

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After years of sporadically counting points, then calories, on-and-off exercising, crying over the scale, then literally, loudly cursing out the scale, I have come to a place where I want to feel confident, strong, and smart no matter what the scale says.  That’s where my truth lies now.

Melissa McCarthy wins the Emmy for her show "Mike and Molly."  A truly funny, beautiful woman.

Melissa McCarthy wins the Emmy for her show “Mike and Molly.” A truly funny, smart, strong, beautiful woman.

What a champion.

What a champion.

“College Students Tackle Gender Inequality”

This is a post I wrote for the Catapult blog and for the Impatient Optimists blog of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  I am inspired by the work of both these incredible organizations and was thoroughly honored to write this post.

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“For as long as I can remember I have been passionate about the empowerment of girls and women.  I am a junior at Millsaps College (a small school in Jackson, Mississippi), studying international relations.  When I entered college, I was overwhelmed like many other freshmen. But I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to make an impact, but didn’t know how to impassion my community.  I wanted them to see what I was seeing: that our world is in a girl crisis.  Girls all over the world are dying because they are seen as less valuable. I had to act immediately, and I needed to bring my 900 classmates along with me to make the most impact.

I became a Campus Ambassador for the Half the Sky movement and started to plan our campus premier of their recently released documentary.  Although I was raising awareness on campus, I wanted to do more.  I wanted to send girls to school, and Catapult made this possible.

More than 200 students showed up to our Half the Sky screening in early October. That incredible evening began a ripple effect that enveloped our campus. We formed a Catapult team to raise awareness and money for the education of girls in the developing world, and decided to fund the project “Scholarships for Girls” through the Afghan Institute of Learning. Students at my school learned about the oppression of girls around the world with Half the Sky, and were able to take action because of Catapult.

Together at Millsaps we were able to create a movement of informed, generous students.  On October 11, the UN’s International Day of the Girl, we set up rows of ribbon hanging from the ceiling of our cafeteria with dozens of facts attached about the oppression of women and girls. I was inspired by Catapult’s mission to make giving fun, so we made that our mission in fundraising as well.  While I blasted the Spice Girls, Beyonce, and Florence+ the Machine, I invited my peers to hear how they could make a difference for communities around the world – and then gave them free chocolate.  I had so much fun dancing around all day, sharing my passion and seeing student’s desire to make change.  Once students understood that we were determined to make a difference and to have fun, many more joined in. Faculty, staff, and students started joining our team on Catapult and then donating online.  Our awareness building and fundraising went hand in hand, and for such a small campus we were really successful.  We raised $1,200 for “Scholarships for Girls” in less than three months.

I know it can be really difficult to engage college kids…. We are bombarded every day with new responsibilities and new ideas.  And college can bring a new awareness of the world. Many of my peers had no idea that there were girls in the sex trade, no idea that girls were denied access to school because of their gender, no idea that such oppression even existed. All that awareness can lead to a type of brain-freeze, and that was the reason I was afraid to share my passion with my campus.  These are big, scary issues that have many, varied (and sometimes confusing) solutions.  Catapult makes solutions to these big problems more attainable by breaking them into small, fundable projects.

I am confident that the movement on our campus will continue to grow, and I’m so grateful to Catapult for making it all possible.  Catapult and I truly believe, as Sheryl WuDunn said, that “women are not the problem, they are the solution.”  So let’s fund them!  Let’s amplify their voices and help them in creating this brave, new, equal world.

Join a Catapult team or create your own today!”