Saturday, March 27, 2010

What went down on Women’s Day

March 9, 2010

My wedding

Today the most powerful traditional authority in our department, the Lamido, proposed to me. That was after I’d spent an hour telling him about how different womens’ roles are in the United States, and how thoroughly he’d offended me when I first met him a year ago. (Angry five-sachet blog entry on that!) The Lamido hadn’t remembered our single previous encounter. He also could not seem to remember my name, even after the proposal, and his earnest entreaties that we “develop a friendship…”

Some days I feel miserable when I think about how slowly women’s conditions here change. Other days, I am hopeful. March 8 was International Women’s Day, and it gives me an opportunity to step back and realize how I see things differently from this time a year ago.

To his credit the Lamido, my wanna-be husband, does believe in educating his daughters. I didn’t have a chance to ask him if he equally supports the results of such an education—the freedom to have a job, and perform it effectively, without outside intervention from a husband. For example, in the past year, the Minister for the Promotion of Women and the Family was supposed to travel overseas to represent Cameroon in an international conference. Her husband said no; he didn’t approve. She didn’t go. And this is who represents the women of this country.

There is currently a law in the Cameroonian Penal Code that says if a husband deems that his wife’s work outside the home is interfering with her domestic responsibilities, he can force her to stop the outside work. A neighbor of Thea’s recently had his wife arrested for “abandoning the home.” She can’t exactly be useful around the house while sitting in prison either, but he didn’t seem to take that into consideration.

March 8: International Women’s Day Round Table Discussions, where I want to flip the table over.

For the recent March 8 festivities, Thea and I were asked to participate in a round table discussion at the city hall. This year’s theme was “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities.” At the discussion, a local government official went on record saying that the Cameroonian laws are ideal regarding women, and even a model for other African nations. Ideal from the man’s perspective? Ideal from the women’s perspective?

Among the things I find the most frustrating is that it often seems to be women who are our own worst enemies in terms of advancement. A Cameroonian woman’s power comes from playing by the rules, dutifully fulfilling her traditional domestic duties, being “a good woman.” If she steps outside the system, she loses this credibility and risks getting financially cut off by her husband, on whom she is dependent. Recently, I’ve heard more progressive ideas from men. Although they do have something to lose in terms of their positions of power in the family, the men will still eat—nobody will withhold money from them for having a different idea. I’ve met so many Cameroonian women who are very proud of the fact that they do all the cooking and child-care before heading to work—they find a way to combine the old responsibilities with the new. Yet, they refuse to believe that I would refuse even this option. They don’t want to allow it. I’ve noticed an attitude among many older women that seems to say, “if I had to suffer, so do you. It’s tradition. Or maybe I’m just more capable than you are…?”

Another example: in a planning meeting for the March 8 events, women were debating potential locations for the annual excursion, a day trip. One proposed option, the town of Lagdo, is a five-hour drive from here. The wife of the Préfet, the highest-ranking departmental official, spoke to us from her position of power on the stage in front of us. She said that to make the trip we’d have to leave at 3am. Since she has to have her husband’s breakfast ready for 7am, she just didn’t see how it would be possible. And if she made the breakfast before we left, then it would get cold by breakfast-time. Alternatively, we could leave later, and spend the night in Lagdo. But that would require us to “abandon our households for two days instead of one. That would be too much.” Having someone else cook your husband’s meal was not considered as an option. If this is the voice coming from a woman of such influence, dictating the behavior of a “good wife,” it’s hard for your average village woman to break out of that mold.

But back to the round table discussion. I was specifically asked by a member of the audience what I thought this year’s theme, “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities,” meant. I responded that I thought it meant that we should all have the same choices. This was revolutionary. On one side, if a man wants to stay at home to watch his children, he should have that option, free from the mockery of society. On the flip side, if a woman wants to travel outside her home for work, without being forced to receive her husband’s permission, she should have that option. I gave the example of my sister Camille and her husband. Camille’s a doctor. Her husband is an IT wiz. Given that Camille has the greater salary potential and has invested in more years of study, they made the decision together that he would decrease his work hours to watch over children. At this, the Cameroonian crowd laughed out loud. My sister was accused of being uppity. I had to clarify that I was not advocating unilateral action by my sister—that would be equally unfair to her husband. They made a decision, together. As equals, as partners. What I advocated is a compromise where both parties give a little, as necessary to get the best common end result, and that both parties are open to sharing responsibilities.

At the round table, I questioned the firmly held Cameroonian belief of the man’s role as the chef de la famille, the head of the family. This seems to be one of the most widely held and universally accepted notions in Cameroon. I said that as long as the man is considered the head of the family, there will never be equal opportunity for women, because he will always have the option to crush her. As we’ve sadly seen, even Madame the Minister for the Promotion of Women and the Family, the most powerful advocate for Women’s Rights in Cameroon, is not immune to the decisions of her husband—chef de la famille.

A few Cameroonian women made contributions that encouraged me. My friend Rosine gave a great example about how some cherished traditions are changing, and that’s not a bad thing. She spoke of inheritances—where previously women were largely excluded and left destitute, helpless when their husbands died. Since husbands are typically a good 10+ years older than their wives, and they are considered the owner of EVERYthing—land, house, tools, children, so every old widower is ****ed. Now, Rosine mentioned, we’ve questioned that tradition, and old widows are better off for it. Another woman in the crowd supported the idea that men are capable of learning to look after their children. She noted that women aren’t necessarily born with that ability; we’ve learned it, too.

I was feeling hopeful after these contributions, when the mike was passed back to the President of the round table committee. This woman had proofread and enthusiastically agreed with my presentation for the round table discussion. She’s a vice-principal at the local high school where I teach, and someone I’d consider forward-thinking, an ally. She went on to take the mike and clarify, “We need to understand that women will NEVER be equal to men. Their place is next to their husband, submitting to their husband.” This was the closing argument, the final word of this year’s round table discussion. I felt completely blind-sided.

I looked up in disbelief across the table to Thea, to see if I’d heard correctly. We’d spent the past two hours battling for women’s equal opportunities, and I’d thought this woman, the president of the committee, was on our team. We gently approached her after the round table discussion to ask about her comment. I told her I didn’t understand—what she said in the last minute of the discussion seemed to undo all the work we’d done over the previous two hours, undermining ourselves, negating everything, and this coming from the President of the round table committee. She told me I’d misunderstood, “we’ll never be men, is what I meant…” I checked with a few Cameroonians afterwards… they had all understood as I had. It makes me second-guess whether these women really believe in what we’re advocating or if they’re just going through the motions because someone told them to. I was so miserable afterwards, I couldn’t even drag myself out of the house to go play in the soccer games organized as part of the fête.

Back to the Lamido

So if you’re still wondering what I told the Lamido in response to his marriage proposal, it was specifically, “That will never happen. I’m not interested and I’m not available. I don’t want you to waste your time. I just want you to treat me like you would a man, someone with whom you collaborate for work.” The only other time I’ve been in the Lamido’s palace was a year ago. I’d sat quietly as he repeatedly reminded Thea and me of our inferiority. I was new to town and had resisted the urge to let him know what I thought, for the sake of not getting myself kicked out of Mokolo. Now, however, with five months left of my service I have much less to lose. While a part of me dreaded accepting the Lamido’s invitation to visit him today, the other part of me has seethed enough that it was time to have an honest discussion. We spoke for over an hour, as I gently outlined some of the differences in gender roles in America, and why I could never submit to a man, solely based on his gender.

The Lamido sees it as a service that men here take their wives into their households, away from her family and loved ones, as opposed to creating a new household together. The woman is then indebted to her husband. The man I marry will not ask me to do or give anything that he’s not equally willing to give. I won’t need the man I marry’s money. I have my own. And the Lamido would never never cook a meal for one of his wives. (And did I mention I would have been lucky wife number 3?)

Later today at the MC2, I told the story to my co-workers, who immediately cut me off to ask, in all seriousness, “Well did you accept!?” My co-worker Hamidou suggested that I give the Lamido conditions, along the lines of, “I’ll marry you if… you leave your palace, you come to the U.S. with me, you cook for me as much as I cook for you, and you help me take care of the kids.” Of course the Lamido would never hear of that. Hamidou, however, immediately offered to fill these conditions. Then, upon really considering it, he said, “No, that’s too much work. I don’t want some woman telling me what to do. No, I’ll just stay single. It’s better that way. White women are a lot of work.”

My co-worker Catherine truly doesn’t understand why I’m not interested in marrying a Cameroonian. I’d explained it to the Lamido the same way I explained to Catherine, “Where I’m from, we’re brought up and told that we can do whatever we want as a career, nothing or no one should constrain us. And then I come here and I’m told that no, you can’t do what you’d like, if it doesn’t please your husband. So I feel like a prisoner. I’m suddenly stripped of my rights, and my options to make my own decisions. But what is my crime? What am I guilty of, for me to lose the ability to make these choices?” Catherine tells me, “You’ll adapt!! You’ll get used to it!” Her telling me that makes me more angry than I anything else I’ve experienced in Cameroon. Again I explain, “Who’s the head of my household now? It’s me. I pay my bills—water and electricity—my rent; I buy my food; I pay my medical expenses. If I were to marry, do I suddenly become more stupid? Do I suddenly become less capable of completing these tasks?”
(As a side note, Catherine was going to be the employee in charge of the pilot program I’m trying to start at our MC2, a daily savings collection program, where she’d go from stall to stall in the market to collect participants’ savings. Her husband decided it’s not appropriate for her to walk around in the market for work, so the program has been stuck in limbo. He, incidentally, was in a moto accident a couple of years ago after a night of drinking. He hasn’t worked since, and Catherine is the sole supporter of the family. Yet he still has the ability to dictate and incapacitate her work.) It seems that many men give lip-service to women’s rights… as long as they the men are still in control, and can decide just how much she gets to advance. They can always yank back the leash.

To end on a positive note, I observed some new things yesterday. After the parade for March 8, Fleur and I were having a juice with members of a women’s group she works with. I was surprised to hear how many of the woman wanted to cap the size of their families at 3 or 4 children, relatively small by local standards. They spoke of being better able to invest in the education of their children, and the advantages of being less tired all the time, with fewer children. Then later that night, one of the women invited us to dinner at her house. Her husband was in town that weekend. (Husbands sometimes work in different cities and only see the wives and children occasionally.) This husband was clearly the typical 10-20 years older than his wife. He came and spoke with us, his wife’s friends, and played with the children. I was surprised and impressed by both of these unusual gestures. He seemed loving and respectful. In that brief glimpse of family life, I could see how it would be hard for a Cameroonian woman to bite such a gentle hand that feeds her.

The greatest frustrations I’ve ever felt as a Peace Corps Volunteer come from the heavy cloud of oppression that constantly hangs over women, and the women’s overwhelming willingness to accept it. I’ve truly been thinking recently of looking for work when I return to the U.S. that deals with women’s advancement and economic development. I don’t want to leave here bitter and angry on this subject. If I could channel some of those frustrations into fueling a career that advances the cause of these women, then it might not all be for naught.

And turns out, I’m not the only one on the Lamido’s proposal list. I was teaching my friend Rosine to ride a bike this afternoon and telling her the story. Turns out she got her marriage proposal about a year ago when she first arrived in town. Too bad, we could have been lucky co-wives numbers 3 and 4!

Et finalement, voici quelques photos
from Women’s Day, 2010!

Women lining up to parade :

This years official pagne (fabric) for March 8 was UGLY!! I’ll only wear it around you in the states if I really want to embarrass you. You can see it to the right in all three glorious options: pastel yellow, pink, and seafoam!

We ran into Catherine while out after the parade and the “Group of Women whose husbands are from Gouzda” So the Gouzda’s men’s wives served us lots of unidentified meat that I was so grateful Fleur ate all the meat (?), while I took care of the sauce and bread! The woman to the left of Catherine’s has baby on the lap, beer in the hand!

Catherine and me. I didn’t wear ugly pagne during the parade in protest since so many neighborhood women have said that they didn’t think they could participate in the March 8 events if they couldn’t afford the pagne. So the fête effectively turns into a fête for the haves, and not the have-nots.

At the bar, these women chased away the men who came to celebrate with us! If women are fighting for inclusion and equal treatment, then it doesn’t make sense to me to exclude men! I think the struggle for women’s rights is much more effective when we’re all implicated together.

So I did finally don my official Ugly Pagne that evening. The woman on my shirt is holding up the world. I am holding up a whiskey sachet.

And lastly, “the club,” hoppin with whiskey sachets and Ugly Pagne. :)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Village Savings and Dancing

Bonjour from the big city of Ngaoundéré! I came here to help my friend Michelle put on a training seminar for representatives of the Village Savings and Loan Associations she works with. The women were really dynamic, leaders of their respective associations.

I like this quick little video cause it captures a very typical meeting dynamic here. The women were debating the ideal monthly interest rate and it quickly evolved into a classic everyone-shout-over-everyone bruhaha!

At the end of the seminar they burst into spontaneous song to thank Michelle for all the work she's done for them! I loved it that one of the women who'd been half-asleep for most of the seminar was breaking it down the most!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Biiiiiicyle! Biiiiiiiiiiiicyle!

Recently a few willing friends and I took off on our bicycles for five days of dirt roads, chafing, and sunshine, visiting the posts of a few other PCV friends here in the Extreme North province. We usually rode about two and a half hours a day, as there are so many of us volunteers packed into this distant but densely-populated nook of the country. It was great fun to see other volunteers’ posts, and I’m reminded of how vastly different each of our experiences is. We also got spoiled like crazy—everywhere we arrived, our hosts pulled out the stops! Chocolate cakes, tuna salads, fish (not easy to find in our semi-desert!) And let me tell you I can eat half a chocolate cake after two and a half hours of biking. (Hell, I could eat one right now.)

So, here are some scenes de l’Extrême Nord.

It was market day in one of the villages we rode through, so the roads were unusually crowded.

Crossing a dried river bed, riding into the market.

In the village of Kolofata, Brianna had arranged a great collaboration project for us, which I will use to justify the entire bike tour :) Cara and Brianna, health volunteers, showed a local women’s group how to make mango juice, and talked about vitamins! Cara shows off her mango skills (hidden in the pot.)

The women built a traditional fire on which to boil the juice. The pot balances on the three rocks, logs go underneath. Cara is the Task-master!

Then I did my song and dance routine. Actually, I just talked about calculating profits on an activity such as this: how much did the mangoes cost, and for how much can you sell the juice? Then they can decide if it’s worth it—a lot of times folks here don’t calculate costs of all their inputs and hardly realize they’re not even making a profit. So we went inside to do a little math on the chalkboard. The women were so receptive and had lots of great ideas—so much fun to work with!

Note: the below picture is reprinted with the permission of Cara. We’d just arrived at our friend Ehab’s house in Mora, after biking from Kolofata. Not only is Cara displaying her lost liter of liquid, but if you look at Matt’s jersey, to the left of the little red stripe by his shoulder, is a parallel stripe-o-sweat, that kinda crusty lookin thing. Matt didn’t wash his jersey during our entire five-day tour. He was hoping to have it stand up all by itself at the end. Mmmm. (He got pretty close! And the only reason there’s not a disgusting picture of me here is that I was the one with the camera. Better luck next time, suckers!!)

Beans and beignets for breakfast in Mora with Ehab.

Everyone just looks like such a badass here that I couldn’t help but include this picture: Matt, Cara, and Annee, in Meri. Yes, I’m still learning the different color settings of my camera. I can’t tell if I was getting those looks cause I wouldn’t stop taking pictures, or if it was cause we’d all just been offered tea that no one really wanted but that politeness dictated we couldn’t refuse. (We strategically poured most of it onto a pile of rocks when our generous local host wasn’t looking.)

This little guy also helped us out with the tea drinking.

Scenery in Meri. I swear, I did not photo-shop myself into this picture, I think it’s just the way my camera focused. And yes, I have been making that same ballerina pose since I was 3. Tiny in the background behind me to the left, is a woman sitting outside her hut preparing dinner.

The last leg of our ride, from Meri down to Maroua.

That’s all for now! Hope everyone’s doing well aux Etats-Unis!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What do you do again?

My business class students at the local high school.

I realized that most people have no idea what I do in Cameroon, besides hosting visitors, downing whiskey sachets, and unsuccessfully dodging motos. When my sister visited, we weren’t even out of the taxi from the airport when she asked me, “So you know, I don’t even really have any idea what you do…”

So, allow me to enlighten you. :) (If you are not my immediate family, feel free to stop reading now for fear of boredom. Job descriptions: woopee.)

Yesterday was the most alarmingly productive day I’ve had in ages, so I can use it as a bit of an example… a day in the life!

I was out the door by 7:45 to stop at my favorite roadside mama for my breakfast beans, mmm.

From there I headed to a meeting with a women’s group. They’ve asked me to come so I can present to them the idea of a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA). It’s a great project for those who aren’t quite ready for formal financial services—a place to safely save their money, and then they take loans from their pooled savings. Astonishingly, all the women were there when I arrived. (This is rare, and it is probably because I’d threatened not to have the meeting if they did not have at least 10 participants. Any less than that and it’s too difficult to mobilize sufficient amounts of savings from which to take loans.) Even better, the women decided to go ahead with the proposed VSLA project, so we “fixed” the dates for the required five training sessions. After downing the tea and beignets they offered me, I was on my way.

I stopped next at the Delegate of the Ministry for Small and Medium Enterprises, with whom my Peace Corps Program works most closely. I chatted briefly with the delegate—the government is always a little curious as to what we nassaras are doing wandering around their country! Another success: he relinquished to me his sole copy of a book recently published by his Ministry—a how-to guide for setting up businesses in Cameroon—fun!

I stopped by Thea’s, incredulous at how much I had already accomplished in one day. It was hardly 10am! From there to the MC2, my microfinance institution. I found my counterpart Bouba surprisingly available; he rarely has free time for me, which is my main frustration in working there. (Ahhh, but he wanted something from me.) We reviewed a presentation I had previously written and set a schedule to give the presentation to several women’s groups who are looking to take loans from the MC2. The presentation is basic: why you have to repay loans, what interest is, how to use an income statement, and specifically, using it to estimate and decide which projects will be the most profitable.

Still at the MC2, Bouba gave me the go-ahead to move forward with a pilot program we’re hoping to launch in Makala. I’d made a trip to the Northwest province last June to study some profitable programs they have in an MC2 there. One program is the Daily Savings Collection, in which an MC2 employee makes a tour of the main market everyday to collect people’s savings. The minimum one can contribute, if he’s going to contribute on a given day, is 200 F (or about 40 cents—enough for a hearty breakfast of beans and beignets.) It allows the MC2 to better get out of the office and into the community. (What microfinance is supposed to be all about, right?) It’s also great marketing and a way to reach clients who are otherwise too intimidated to come to the bank. My fingers are crossed that this project will go somewhere! I printed up some materials I’d created to make the booklets that each participant will use to note his savings. It’s all a little homemade-ghetto-fab for now, but we have to start somewhere!

As I walked home at about 1pm, I realized just how much my work affects my mood—it’s astronomically correlated. I was so happy from having gotten so much done already in one day! Why? Well, the project with the VSLA is something I have been pushing around town since October (4 months ago). Next, getting a document from a government employee on the first try is nearly unheard of. The project at the MC2, as I mentioned, is something I have been trying to instigate since summer of last year (7 months). That afternoon, I still had to head to Lycee Bilangue, one of the government high schools to teach the 7th in a series of 12 business classes. I began organizing those classes in September of last year (5 months ago). So you can see that Cameroon is not a land of instant gratification, but rather the perfect training/punishment for the twitchy and the impatient! I so often feel I have terribly little control of my work here… because I don’t. If it were up to me, I’d like to think I could have implemented the Daily Savings Collection program within no more than 2 weeks—tops—once the original research was done. We are going on 7 months. Maybe it will happen before I leave. I hate the idea of minimizing my expectations, but I feel it’s what I have to do to stay sane here, and I’ve learned to take pride in and be grateful for small steps. I’ve also learned some stuff about myself. I’d never considered myself that “Type A” personality, (that’s for some other members of my family, ahem! :) but just to counter the seeming chaos that I find around me here, I think I’ve drifted in that direction. I realize how much I hate not being in control. I think one of my favorite projects is my business classes because for once I do feel in control—they start on time, they end on time, and basically, I’m the boss. :)

So in sum: here’s what I do:

1. Work at the MC2—helping the staff learn how to use Excel to facilitate their reports, meeting with clients to ask questions about their loans and offering my observations to the committee that grants loans, putting together analysis of our defaulted loans and clients, or generally attempting to be useful and facilitate the employees’ work without taking over their role or responsibilities.

2. Teach Business classes! I started with a couple rounds at a local church, and am currently on a second round at the high school, and hope to do one or two more rounds through the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises before I leave. A friend was visiting me and caught this fun picture.

3. Start-up the VSLA programs. This is just starting to take off, but it’s very gratifying and something that I hope can be sustainable after I leave. I like how the women debate and set their own rules and really take ownership of the project—I’m only there to train and facilitate.

4. Offer independent advising to small businesses or GICs (Common Interest Groups). This usually consists of helping them create budgets, understand whether they are making a profit or not, and set up basic accounting systems. I like the one-on-one contact because you can really follow up on your work. I’m really enjoying working with the Union of soy-producing GICs of the Extreme North to set up their accounting systems. They’re a main supplier of soy to one of the biggest producers, Camlait. But they are farmers, not accountants. I’m learning as much from them as I hope they might gain from me. Just you wait—I’ll soon be conversant on all things soyyyyy! This will really woo the guys.

So it’s not all peaches. Like I said, I’ve realized how wildly my mood is connected to my work. Why? Because I came to Africa, yes, for the cultural experience, but also to work. In an American office, you can know what to expect, and work is less of a huge question mark. Just from village to village, our work as Peace Corps Volunteers varies drastically. It most often comes down to just a few local individuals—if you can find those individuals in your town who are connected and have initiative, they can make things happen for you. If those people don’t exist or are hard to find, it’s a whole other story, and your initiative will be tested in entirely new ways.

As for those moods, I was at business class yesterday afternoon, talking about customer service and marketing. Of course I was annoyed when one of my favorite students said that good customer service was “pretty girls.” I did wait a bit… before throwing my chalk at him. Sadly, he was entirely serious. I had been going for a response more along the lines of, “welcoming, polite, prompt service, knowledgeable about products sold…” Then we went on to talk about how good customer service is always treating the customer right, even when they annoy you, and knowing how to apologize when necessary… woops! So I don’t always practice what I preach! Still working on some of those finer points… maybe I’ll have it down by the time I go in five months. :)