Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Four-letter Word for "Thief"

Given the countries I’ve lived in over the past five years, my time abroad has been remarkably free of crime. Much of this can be attributed to an overabundance of caution that borders on paranoia and the rest to just dumb luck. Expats seem to be especially targeted in many incidents, as the expectation (not incorrect) is that foreigners tend to be much better off than the local people and often are more careless about how they protect that wealth. Given my inability to blend in with any crowd, this makes my unblemished record for protecting my valuables all the more miraculous.
Cameroon seems to be particularly eager to separate expats from their francs. Based on the stories I’ve heard from my fellow volunteers here, I would estimate roughly half to two-thirds have been victims of theft or attempted robbery. Thankfully, most of the incidents have been without violence, beyond the shock of suddenly losing one’s bag, camera or wallet. The majority of the losses come from the usual grab-and-go purse snatchings, but some stories seem straight from action films – robbers working in tandem on motorbikes, with one jumping off the back to grab a computer bag and mounting the moving bike again to zip off with their bounty before the target can react. Others, such as the taxi scam that I mentioned in my post last year, are complex enough to warrant a certain amount of perverse admiration, provided you’re not the mark, of course.
Much of the crime seems to be centred on the capital city of Yaounde, which makes sense, given the number of foreigners living and working there. My own city of Bamenda seems to have fewer cases, though the aforementioned taxi scam does seem to be something the city can proudly claim as its own invention, as I’ve only heard of it happening here. Regardless of the location, two times of the year have been repeatedly highlighted to me as the worst for theft: the beginning of the school season and Christmas. Parents desperate to cover school fees and materials for their kids will steal to get them what they need, conveniently skipping that day’s lesson on morality. And Christmas is known as the season of giving, whether the chump wants to or not.
My trip to Limbe was at the end of October, safely nestled between the two expected crime waves to give me the comfort that comes with kids already being In school and the yuletide robbers still to realize their need for some last-minute mugging. The plan for our travelling quartet of friends was to enjoy a relaxing long weekend in Limbe prior to the departure of one of our number to South Sudan with MSF. Limbe is a quiet seaside town popular among expats for its beaches and seafood. Getting there from Bamenda is no small trek – eight hours on average, on a bus that would test anyone’s determination to see the ocean. This particular trip turned out to be anything but average, with two flat tires and a driver who liked to support the local economies by stopping every half hour to buy vegetables. As a result, our journey ballooned into a ten-hour marathon that drained us of the initial merry mood that had boarded the bus with us that morning. Of greater concern was the fact that we lost the daylight on our way, meaning that we would land in Mutengene in darkness on a Saturday night, not a welcoming prospect.
Limbe and Mutengene are two towns joined at the hip that couldn’t be much more different. Cinderella had more in common with her stepsisters. But as a transfer point to get to Limbe, Mutengene is inescapable, so travellers approach it as the last obstacle between them and a cocktail on the beach. Since Limbe is such a haven for tourists, it is well-known among the locals that foreigners will be dropping in to Mutengene as well, like so many antelopes at the watering hole. And where there are antelopes, there are bound to be a few predators.
When we finally pulled in to the bus stop, it was well past eight o’clock and Saturday night was in full swing in Mutengene. As Elton sang, it is a night alright for fighting. And drinking. And checking out the new group of people arriving in town.  We unglued our sweaty selves from our seats and stumbled off the bus on shaky legs that had fallen asleep hours ago. All of our bags had been carefully packed away on top of the bus and identifying them in the dark became quite a guessing game. As we stood there and waved off the numerous bags that likely weren’t ours, one fellow made the rounds, shaking hands with the passengers and greeting them. After twenty minutes, all of our bags were in hand, so we made our way to cross the street to catch another bus for the last leg to Limbe. I followed the others, adjusting my backpacks as I went. From behind me, I heard someone yell, “Excuse me, please!” and I turned around to find the same man who had greeted us earlier. I was about to ask what he wanted when he jammed his hand into the front pocket of my shirt and grabbed what was in it. Pausing a second to enjoy my shock, he smiled at me and then ran off into the crowd before I could do anything.
Given what had just happened, I was remarkably unshaken and just shrugged it off. As I continued on to meet the others, I did a mental inventory of what was in that pocket. Travelling on a bus as cramped as we were, a shirt pocket is a valuable storage space, and through the day, I had carried my mobile phone, some cash and my bus ticket there at various times for easy access. But as we had approached Mutengene, I had put all of those things away in my backpack for fear of losing them. So, what had the thief managed to steal? The only thing I hadn’t bothered to put away – the crossword puzzle I had been working on during the trip. I laughed as I told the story to the others, as I could imagine the look on his face when he finally stopped running to check out his loot. And I wished him well with it, because it was one tough puzzle.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Widowhood Rights Workshops

Over the course of five days in five different locations, we met with over 250 members of the Nsongwa community. Our purpose was to listen to and record the discussions of the people in the community as they exchanged their thoughts regarding widowhood rites and how they might best be changed in the future. These ideas will form the basis of our future discussions with the community leaders and those who may choose to become advocates on behalf of the widows.

Each session began with a brief introduction to the topic of widowhood rites and rights. Sometimes, some improvisation was needed, as on the first day, when we needed to use a junked car as our backstop.

After the introduction, the participants in the workshop were divided into five groups.
Each group had a specific question related to widowhood rites
and were asked to come up
with a series of responses to share with the larger group.

Those chosen as group leaders would record the ideas of their group members for sharing later.

Each group then presented their responses to the larger group and
further points on each question were discussed and debated.

The last day of the workshops was held
at the Fon's palace, where we were
 able to interview the Fon on his thoughts regarding widowhood rites.

The next steps will be to review and analyse
 the wealth of information that came from
these sessions and to prepare for the next stage of discussions with the community.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The PhotoVoice Experience

The first stage of the Widowhood Rites project was a pilot phase implemented in the Fondom of Baba1 last year. In order to judge the impact that the project has had on the Fondom, a group of VSO and MUSAB volunteers visited the Fondom this past week to do an evaluation through a series of interviews with those involved in the project. We met with the Fon, or traditional ruler, of Baba1, as well as other leaders in the community and those who have been involved in the advocacy groups working on behalf of the widows. We also spoke with widows themselves to see how their lives have changed since the advocates began working with them.

An important part of this evaluation was the PhotoVoice initiative. Past participants in the project and current members of advocacy groups were given cameras and instructed on how to use them. They were then given three days to go into the community to meet with the people there and take pictures to show the impact of the project and the challenges that remain for widows. What follows are my pictures of how the PhotoVoice workshops took place.

Prior to receiving their cameras, past participants met with VSO and MUSAB volunteers to discuss their views of what has happened in their community over the past year with respect to the experience of widows.

Cameras were then provided to pairs of people who would work together over the following three days.

A workshop session was then held with the participants to teach them how to use the digital cameras.

Those of us wth experience using the cameras then worked with the group members to ensure they were comfortable using them. Zachary was one of the participants that I helped.

Other methods of evaluation also took place during this time.
Here, Mandy talks with
Mallam Ali regarding his own experience of working with widows.

After three days, the group reassembled and the pictures were put on laptops. People were encouraged to tell the stories behind their pictures and the changes or challenges that exist for widows.

Participants were asked to select three of their pictures to share
with the group and also could pick ten pictures for themselves
that will be printed and provided to them at a later date as thanks for their participation.

Each member of the group then took a turn to show and discuss the pictures that they had taken.

The pictures and stories told were by turns inspiring and heartbreaking, as we learned about how much the situation has improved for widows and how much is still needed to be done.

The daughter of one of the group members kept us all entertained during the sessions.

The assembled team of PhotoVoice participants.
It was a great experience to work with so many people
who are passionate about helping their community.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Harvest Ceremony in Chomba

A village on the outskirts of Bamenda, Chomba celebrates the contributions of the women in its community through an annual harvest ceremony. Women from the village bring a portion of their harvest to the palace of the Fon, and in return, they are given food and drink and an audience with the Fon if they have concerns to share. As one of the Fondoms being considered for the Widowhood Rites project, a group of VSO and Peace Corps volunteers had visited with the Fon the previous day and we were invited to return to participate in the harvest ceremony.

The Fon of Chomba on his throne.

Preparing the food to be shared with the community.
Beans, corn, chicken and eggs were on the menu.

Palm wine being prepared. Very strong - I limited myself to two glasses.

VSO volunteers Mandy and Marja
and Peace Corps Volunteer Ben enjoying their meal.

After the meal, the Fon gave a speech and went
to the monument that represents women to pay his respects.

The ceremony ended with all of the women coming together
 in a traditional dance.The Fon and the volunteers also joined them.

More of the dancing.

One of the dancers encouraging the volunteers to join in.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Attendance at this year's fair is expected to reach an all-time high.

I wanted to go in, but I wasn't sure if they would like me as a customer.

For some reason, sales of Masarch seem to be off.

For those who thought pliers were their only option.

The good doctor's techniques were rumoured to be somewhat invasive.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Replacing Rites with Rights

A lifetime in Cameroon is not a long time. By Western standards, the life expectancy for a Cameroonian is shockingly short – forty-eight. Whether ended by accident, illness or just general poor health, the lives of most Cameroonians are brief. This high rate of mortality itself qualifies as a tragedy, but it still doesn’t capture the full scale of the misfortune experienced, for it is often those left behind after a death that continue to suffer on a scale that can’t be as easily measured. Widows, in particular, are a group that are subjected to practices that add to the hardships they endure in the wake of their husbands’ deaths.

Known as widowhood rites, these practices subject the widows to treatment that amounts to abuse. I’ve copied the following description of the widowhood rites to capture the disturbing nature of these practices:

Culture demands that the widow undergoes certain traditional mourning rituals before and after the burial of her spouse. These traditional mourning rites are expected of the widow and are born out of the contention that she is impure and contaminated – and thus needs purification – in some cases she is actually blamed for the death of her husband. Some of the mourning rites include seclusion and general isolation in which she is confined and all her body hair (including her pubic hair) and that of her children is shaved using one ‘razor’ (could be a piece of broken glass), and she is not permitted to go to market, farm, or talk with anyone outside kin family.

The widow is also deprived of attending to her personal hygiene. She can only wear one dress, usually sackcloth throughout the mourning period which lasts from three to six months or in a few cases up to a year.

She must always sit on the floor and has to eat with unwashed hands and from a broken dirty plate.

If the family of the deceased see her secretly attempting to attend to her personal hygiene, she may be whipped, spat upon and scolded that she is trying to beautify herself to attract men and they may even accuse her of being responsible for her husband’s death. She is required to swear on the corpse of her husband that she is innocent and afterwards, drink the corpse’s bath water.

Throughout the mourning period, between 5am and 6am the widow wakes up the family and neighbourhood with strenuous early morning crying and wailing, recounting to the hearing of the entire village how much her husband used to do for them.

In most traditional Cameroonian societies the extended (and not the nuclear) family owns the body of the dead person and exercises complete control over the corpse – so, the widow is expected to submit to the dictates of her husband’s family. The period offers an opportunity for any member of the husband’s family, who has been aggrieved in the past, to get even. Such persons are free to scold her on the pretence that she did not treat her husband well when he was alive.

After the burial, the widow may be stripped of all assets, property (and even children on occasion) by the kin family leaving the widow homeless and destitute.

Since most rural Cameroonian marriages are traditional marriages (and sometimes polygamous) with the initial payment of ‘Bride Price’, the widow is seen as the “property” of the kin family. When the husband dies she can be given to her husband’s brother or other male relative, without her permission, where she may be expected to carry out the sexual and other duties of a wife.

Cloaked in the guise of “tradition” and “custom” as a means of providing a rationale for such brutality, the widowhood rites have been practised in Cameroon for centuries. Changing such a long-standing set of cultural behaviours is no small task, but there has finally begun to be movement in that regard, and VSO is now a part of that. I’ve been asked to lead a project team that will seek to expand a pilot project that successfully advocated for the abolition of widowhood rites in one of the Fondoms, or tribal chiefdoms, of Cameroon last year.

The implementation of this project will adopt the methodology of the pilot and look to replicate its success in five more Fondoms in Cameroon. Phase One will consist of a one-day workshop, to be held in each of the five quarters of a Fondom on five consecutive days with a focus on the identification of stigmatic and discriminatory practices in relation to women. Fifty people will attend each session, with the result that 250 people from each of the five quarters of the Fondom will receive training. Each workshop will include the following: participatory identification of gender issues focusing on the practice of widowhood rites and dispossession of land and property; awareness raising of women’s rights and civil law; and the identification of possible community resolutions.

Phase Two will take place two months after the first phase and will consist of follow-up workshops for three days that will be set up as follows:

• Day 1: Traditional Leaders Day

This will provide the opportunity to discuss community concerns identified in Phase 1 with the Fon and traditional leaders and negotiate for the agreement banning widowhood rites and the dispossession of land.

• Day 2: Community Day

On this day, participants from Phase 1 will meet and an evaluation conducted of how peoples’ lives have changed as a result of the workshops. Testimonies will be received and community-selected representatives will form the new Community Advocacy Group to ensure the sustainability of the advocacy efforts.

• Day 3: Advocacy Training Day

Basic Advocacy Training will take place with the new Community Advocacy Group – training will include such activities as the knowledge and use of active listening, open question techniques, influencing and negotiation skills and how to source knowledge and information needed for effective advocacy.

Phase Three will be the ceremony for the signing by the Fon of a community agreement banning widowhood rites and the dispossession of land. Subsequent to this ceremony, the legalising of this agreement with a notary public will be finalised to ensure its permanence.

This project promises to be a very important initiative to eliminate the abuse and cruelty inflicted by the widowhood rites. I hope to be able to provide you with regular updates as the project progresses through its different phases.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Canada Day in Cameroon

With a healthy number of Canadians in the Bamenda area, we decided that we couldn't let Canada Day pass without celebrating our country. A party with an emphasis on Canadian food, customs and quirks was organized and our fellow volunteers and Cameroonians were invited to participate. Feasting on poutine, nanaimo bars and a reasonable substitute for Screech, everyone enjoyed the visit to Canada for a day. The following pictures provide proof that on July 1st, everyone was a Canuck Amuck:

The Stanley Cup Air Hockey Tournament was intense.

In order to give everyone an experience unique to Canada, we organized a Screech-In to make those "from away" into honourary Newfoundlanders. As the closest person we had to a Newfoundlander, I volunteered to be the MC for the event, with the help of a very kissable Cameroonian cod.

After a successful Screech-In ceremony, the new Newfoundlanders
 celebrated by dancing a jig  to "I'se the B'y".

The Canadian anthem was sung proudly and mostly in tune.

Guessing which Canadian icon one was proved puzzling in some cases.

The assembled guests showing off their red and white colours.

All of the Canadians standing in front of our flag.

No Canada Day party is complete without a bonfire.
And no one can start a bonfire like a group of Canadian women.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cameroon Meets the Philippines

There is a common saying among VSO volunteers that VSO stands for "Valentine Service Overseas", as many volunteers find romance either with other volunteers or with the people they meet in the countries where they live. And once again, this has proven true, as Kareen, a VSO volunteer from the Philippines, met her partner, Emmanuel Victor, during her placement in Cameroon. On Saturday, they were married in a ceremony presided over by the Lord Mayor of Santa. It was truly an international affair, with friends and family from the Philippines and Cameroon joining with the VSO volunteers from around the world to help the happy couple celebrate their big day