Sunday, March 30, 2014

Play Hard, Work Hard

Recently I realized that all I post about is food and parties and adventures. Maybe you're all thinking I'm here on an extended vacation on US taxpayers' money? NOT SO! Here is what I've been up to in the less-adventurous part of my life...

Kinder's House Banock
Run by an NGO called AFFAMIR, Kinder's House is a private bilingual maternal and primary school with about 400 students (slightly more girls than boys). They have an incredibly high exam pass rate and an incredibly low drop out rate, making this school a success story in the Cameroonian education system. Still, they could use some help...

  • I have taught sexual health and puberty classes to the oldest group of students, aged 11-13. Sex is a taboo subject in this country and most parents never discuss the changes of puberty or how to stay healthy to their kids, so it's important that they learn it in school. 
  • I am helping to organize their library and start arts & games classes. The mandatory curriculum demands memorization rather than encouraging critical or creative thinking, so teaching kids young to read, do art, and play games might encourage that spirit. Unfortunately, it's really difficult to get art supplies for kids or children's books in French.
  • I am going to paint a mural: a map of the world and a selection of the universal children's rights. Unlike in the US, children are free labor; they work in the fields, they sell at the market, they clean their own classrooms and schools at the end of the day. They should know that they have the right to food, to security, to clean water, to health - that they're not just petit workers. 
  • I'm helping the school administration to get more latrines built. They currently have 2 latrines for 400 kids, and as you can imagine, that doesn't end well! 
Lycée Bansoa-Mbri
This is a public high school right by my house in Bansoa Chefferie. They have about 1100 students, but many students drop out every year due to poverty, early pregnancy, and other problems. 
  • I'm running a girl's empowerment club called Club FORTES that teaches sexual health and life skills. We've talked about subjects like goal-setting, role models, decision-making, reproductive anatomy and pregnancy. It seems to be pretty popular; 60 girls showed up last week, and they fight to keep the boys out of the room! 
  • I'm continuing A2Empowerment, a girl's education scholarship program run by a returned peace corps volunteer and her friend. Many of the girls who applied have lost a parent and are struggling to pay for school fees, books, notebooks, the uniform, and other school supplies. This program tries to promote girls' empowerment by keeping the young ladies in school and educated! (If you're interested, you can donate here.)
Research Institute for Development 
Located in Baffoussam (the regional capital of the West) RIDEV is a local NGO that works to create strong youth, strong women, and strong communities.  
  • I'm helping the RIDEV employees like Anne to run an after-school program called Youth For Change. This program aims to encourage civic/community engagement in youth by giving them the knowledge (on leadership, health, environment, and issues facing youth) and the skills (public speaking, goal setting and planning, and self confidence) necessary to create change in their own communities. As part of the program, they actually pick one of the issues covered in class and then plan and implement a project to address it in some way. This is one of the programs I am most excited about, and next year I am hoping to expand it to other high schools in the area! (If you're interested in helping out, you can donate here.)
  • This summer, we will put on the second edition of Camp FORTES to train youth women as peer educators. It's a six day sleepover camp that brings together girls from different villages, some of whom would never have the opportunity leave their home towns. 
Peace Corps
Volunteers have a lot of opportunities to get involved in running Peace Corps programs in Cameroon! I just joined the Youth Development Steering Committee. We meet about 3 times a year in the capital Yaounde. We are currently improving the training program and resources for the next group of YD volunteers who will arrive at the end of May. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

International Women's Day: Party to Forget

Since I had been away from village, International Women's Day (IWD) started for me on Thursday, 6 March. Since I have never celebrated this particular holiday in the U.S. - or even heard of it, as far as I recall - I had no expectations. Since I have celebrated 2 other holidays Cameroonian-style, I had expectations. They were all met. 

That Thursday, the Soirée de l'Excellence, featured a Round Table and the equivalent of a grown-up talent show, though they called it a Socio-Cultural Event. All capitals. (Side note: I'm not sure why nothing is simply "cultural." Why is it always socio-cultural? What does socio-cultural even mean? Can something be non-sociologically cultural? But I digress). The round table was interesting, centered on this year's theme: Challenges and Realizations of the Millennium Development Goals for the Woman and the Girl Child. Topics covered indicators of the MDGs and Cameroon's progress in meeting them, the importance of girls' education, and the necessary role of men in the empowerment of women (given by a man! this alone could have made my night). Despite my interest in the subject and the relevance of the topic, observing five panelists actually read their papers and watching them literally turn page after page… Well, an hour and a half in, it was difficult to remain focused. Even the officials around me were muttering, They're talking too long! Far too long! Unfortunately and fortunately for me at that point, I was obligated to go home. So I missed the talent show, but I have been assured that it was absolutely fabulous… and lasted an additional 3.5 hours. As I said: expectations met.

Friday was the day of volunteering, by women for women. Many women, including my community host and work partner (and also the President of my arrondissement's Women's Network) Delphine, got together to sew kabaas out of official women's day pagne and hand them out to elderly or widowed women throughout the community. They spent all day working at this, and although Delphine was tired the next day, she seemed very satisfied with what they had accomplished. 

The Sous-Prefet's Wife, (lil ol me), President of the Women's Network - in our kabaas
Then the official day arrived: March 8th, huit mars, la journée internationale de la femme, 29th edition. I got up early and put on my own official women's day pagne dress on and marched outside, wondering how I was going to get from Bansoa Chefferie to Bansoa Ville - names which give a deceptive idea of their proximity. They're not close, not at all. But as usual, I got lucky, things just worked. I spied a van overflowing with women wearing the same pagne as me. I walked up, wished them all Bonne Fête, and climbed right in. When I met Delphine, she told me how beautiful I looked in my shapeless, oversized kabaa - a sentiment completely incomprehensible to me, but echoed by multiple Cameroonian ladies throughout the day. I always say, always take the compliment. So I did. And it was a good thing my dress was big and billowy, because I was fed not once - not twice - but SIX times before the day was through. It's very rude to turn down any invitation or offered food in this culture, so I ate every single time. And I don't think my marching in my very first parade counts as enough exercise to work that much food off… And all this was topped off by a Gala in the evening, offering my last meal and lots of dancing (I would never have guessed so many Cameroonians enjoyed salsa! Though I was informed by the young man who placed himself next to me that only old people like that dance. Maybe that makes me an old fart at heart!)

Madame la Présidente giving her speech
Karate performance during parade festivities
Doesn't this sound great? Women's cultural performances, women's empowerment, food, parades, dancing, new clothes! Excitement! Celebration!

But the real situation of women in Cameroon is not quite so festive.

On IWD, some men cook for their wives and some women go out to the bar, turning traditional gender roles on their heads for the day; but some women forget what the day means and take it as an excuse to get drunk and take off their kabaas (or so I'm told). If Cameroonian women cannot remember what the day stands for, how can they expect men to do so?

Then there are those who don't even know about the holiday or cannot celebrate it. Many women - especially rural and elderly women, those most in need of the development that IWD claims to promote - cannot afford to buy new pagne, or travel to celebrate, or even take the day off from housework and farming to march in a parade. 

One female delegate in Bafoussam is quoted as asking:
Les femmes camerounaises fêtent quoi ? Elles fêtent quel évolution ?
"What are Cameroonian women celebrating? What evolution?" I don't want to be depressing - but she has a point. In the Cameroonian constitution, the rights of women are recognized and discrimination against women is forbidden. However women are, for the most part, not equal or empowered or developed - they are marginalized. Although it is hard to generalize because of the incredible diversity of Cameroon, women here generally have a low status in almost every area of life, from government representation to legal protection to control of money to important family decisions. 

This is linked to high levels of gender-based violence. And that violence is breath-taking. Women marry young, give birth young, and are likely to die giving birth. Female genital mutation still exists in multiple areas of the country. Rape is common, misunderstood, even laughed at, and almost never punished. Marital rape is not acknowledged as existing, either legally or culturally; neither is battering of women by their husbands. Prostitution and human trafficking are widespread, especially in areas of the country populated by employees of foreign resource-exploiting companies. And some young girls at the onset of puberty are forced to undergo breast ironing: a process by which burning-hot stones or other objects are pressed against the chest in an attempt to flatten developing breasts. And it is usually the mothers who force this awful, painful mutilation on their daughters - to protect them from unwanted male attention and rape. When mothers are this desperate, there must be a problem. 

When another of my work partners, Théo, confronted someone in the Ministry of Health about this situation, she responded: Les OMDs ne sont QUE des objectifs. (The Millennium Development Goals are ONLY goals.) As in, we're not overly concerned with achieving them, we're not evaluating our progress, we're just touting them because it looks good. Théo was shocked. 

Of course, there IS hope. The education of girls is indeed improving, as the ratio of girls to boys in schools rises in some areas of the country. According to UNICEF, the literacy rate for female youth is nearly equal to that of their male compatriots (85.9% compared to 88.4%). UNICEF also points out that women live longer than men. And UN Women pointed out that the most recent national elections, held in October 2013, increased the proportion of women in the Cameroonian National Assembly to 31%, more than doubling the previous ratio. And that man on the round table argued passionately for more men to take part in empowering women. All evidence, I think, that there is something we can fête.

So while we American ladies are arguing about Leaning In or Leaning Out or Reclining or whatever catch phrase they will come up with next... at least we're at the table. Cameroonian women are still sitting in front of the cook fire, eyes burning from the smoke, hands so hardened that they can take the pot straight off the fire with no protection. 
"In too many instances, the march to globalization has also meant the marginalization of women and girls,
And that must change." - Hillary Clinton
And it is changing and it can change! So for those who do celebrate International Women's Day, let us resolve something for IWD 2015: to be thankful for what we have, remember those who have less, and act to make a difference. 
"The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world."
- Charles Malik
"Who run da world? Girls."
- Beyoncé Knowles
I'm right there with ya, Yoncé. As the Cameroonians say: Nous sommes ensembles. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

STORY TIME: History of the Bali People

... not to be confused with the Bapi people. 

This story starts with Kate, Colleen, and I walking down a road in Bamenda, feeling cooped up after a week and a half in the same hotel with the same people doing 8 hours a day of training. Even though it was a nice hotel with good food and hot, running water showers, we could only spend so much time sitting in one place without getting a bit stir-crazy. I suspect this is the case with most Peace Corps Volunteers. We see a bar marked MOONLIGHT HOTSPOT, so of course we wander right in. 

Kate & Colleen admiring the moonlight.
- Do you have cold drinks?
- Yes, we have all these drinks, very cold! replies the bartender, gesturing towards a wall lined with different beers and sodas.

Well sign us right up! We each got a beer and sat down on the bench outside. Well, Kate and Colleen sat on the bench and I sat on the table so I could see them while I talked to them, instead of staring at cars and motorcycles zipping by. After 40 minutes of sitting in a new place and chatting, a very tall, fit and well-dressed man walks up. 

- Do you know what my people believe?! he asked me while walking up the stairs into the bar.
- ...What? I asked cautiously, knowing this could well be something I don't want to hear.
- If you sit on the table you will not grow tall like me! 
- That's okay, I don't want to be any taller, I shrugged. 
- But in my culture, it is good to be very tall. Men should be very tall and strong!

And then he bought us all beers. Turns out, this man - this man in a sailor cap and navy blue suit jacket and sparkly white and silver tshirt and dapper black dress shoes - is a FON (the equivalent of a chief in the West or a lamido in the Grand North). His uncle (or maybe his wife Morine's uncle, family connections can be very confusing here) owns the bar and that white car is his and we should come see the Palace of the Fon in Bali.