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.