Throughout my entire life, I’ve been surrounded by women who have provided me with new perspectives, inspiration and wonderful examples of what it means to love your neighbors (literal and global). Woman, all around the world, continue to be leaders and agents of change in their communities. However, in some areas, debilitating gender norms stifle their potential. These areas are often times what we classify as “developing” and one of their barriers to being developed is the untapped resource of half their population. Slowly, governments are realizing that the key to their emergence lies in the mobilization and education of their entire population and to achieve this they must enlist women.
Governments and development organizations alike have re-focused their work on women for educating a woman means education a family. Cameroon is among these actors recognizing the importance of women (in theory). Every March 8th, Cameroon celebrates International Women’s Day. Stores sell a special “8 Mars” pagne (fabric) for women to buy and wear on the day. This year’s pagne showed women farming, using computers and graduating college with a tagline about women being actors in the emergence of Cameroon. Paul Biya, the president of Cameroon, has a strategic plan for Cameroon culminating in 2035. The Women’s Day theme for Cameroon this year was, “Autonomiser les Femmes Rurales pour Eradiquer la Faim et la Pauvreté” (Empower Rural Women: Eradicate Hunger and Poverty.” While a huge Women’s Day parade (tractors and all) went on in Yaoundé under First Lady, Chantal Biya’s watch (and hair), rural women around the country were celebrating the day with mini-parades, dances and all-female soccer matches.
In honor of this year’s theme and Women’s Day, I want to write about the rural women in my community who have inspired me:
- Hadija: Hadija is my best friend in village. I feel like Cady Heron, who cannot believe she’s hanging out at the cool table with Regina George, except replace Regina George with someone amazing like Elle Woods (chick flick movie references for a Women’s Day blog post). But in all seriousness, I am fortunate to have found a friend like her. She is patient with my language ability, explains cultural notes to me and is always up for a good conversation about everything from the petty, like clingy men in village to the meaningful, like how poverty is found “chez vous” (in the United States) as well. Hadija is the wife of a nurse at the health center (who also happens to be my landlord) and a mother to three adorable and well-mannered girls (Aissatou, Fadimatou and Mariamou) and most recently, a baby boy, Mamadou. One of the most touching moments I have had in country so far has been holding her baby within the first hour of his life while sitting next to her. I asked her about how she spent all of the 8th of March (she gave birth on the 9th) out with me without being too uncomfortable. She told me that at points she was uncomfortable, but that it was my first Women’s Day in a new town and that friends support friends. That night I began to think seriously about how I can better support my friends.
- Marmi: Marmi, like Hadija, is a mother of four children, but she doesn’t live with the father of her children. Instead, she lives with her two sisters and their children – making it a very lively household, always filled with children and opportunities for good conversation. Every week, I cook dinner with Marmi and her family and every week, I am amazed by her energy. Her main source of income is through farming her cassava fields, which she does between maintaining a house, cooking for ~20 family members and being an active member of her church community. She is one of the strongest women I know – I’ve seen her lift and carry water basins on her head heavier than what most men can bench at the gym and while I have much to still learn about her, I have a feeling her strength is not bound to physical outward displays, but to something much deeper that holds her family together.
- Mariamou: Mariamou is my 12-year-old neighbor who helps me with my laundry, among many other things. During my first week at post she showed up at my doorstep with a bucket of water and a rag in hand insisting that I needed help cleaning my floors because they were entirely too dusty (she was right). At home, she lives with her grandparents and in many ways keeps the household in order, by helping her grandmother cook and clean and making sure her little sister is taken care of. I sometimes think that my friend, Marmi, was much like Mariamou when she was a girl and that Mariamou’s work ethic and maturity have been adopted at such an early age in preparation for her future as a mother. While her maturity is admirable, my favorite “Mariamou moments” are when I see her being her 12-year-old self – chatting with girlfriends, trying on different hair clips, coloring and smiling.
- Teachers at the Primary School: Behind the students in Lokoti, like Mariamou, is a group of teachers who have come from all around the country. In Cameroon, all government/public sector employees (teachers and health workers included) are affected to posts for a specific amount of years. This means that teachers who grew up and went to school in the West region of Cameroon could end up living in the Adamaoua region, for example. In addition to having to settle into a new environment, meet new friends and learn a new patois, female teachers are also faced with integrating into a predominately male workplace. In many ways, I feel a certain kinship with these women. I also love seeing these women around town with their children because I think it shows their female students (along with the rest of the town) how they can pursue a career without having to sacrifice having a family.
- Mothers at Nutrition Day: Every Saturday, women from the Lokoti Health Center’s health area (including 14 villages, the furthest one away being 35 kilometers) come with their babies to be weighed and measured at Nutrition Day. If a baby is malnourished the baby is entered into a monitoring program and given supplemental food provided by the World Food Programme and UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency). Nutrition Day corresponds with market day and for some of the women, it is the only day during the week that they are allowed to leave their concessions. Some of them are Fulbé, some are Gbaya, some are new mothers and some are bringing their 9th child, some are older than me and some are younger, some are Cameroonian nationals and some are refugees from the Central African Republic, but they are all tirelessly committed to keeping their babies alive and doing whatever they can to feed them in less than ideal circumstances. I find myself wanting to take a snapshot of these women and their babies because it would remind me forever of what perseverance means.
If Cameroon keeps their promise in investing in their women, women like these, then in 2035 this country will indeed by a better place.