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. :)


Amanda Myton said...

Thanks for the thoughtful commentary, Kate. Amy K sent me your blog since we both traveled on the F-H trip this summer.

I had a very similar experience when I stayed with my host family in Bafoussam. When I arrived, I got to spend some quality time with the father while everyone else hid. Among the things that shocked him were the arrangements that exist in my marriage. He was shocked that my husband often cooks dinner and picks up my daughter. And now he takes primary care of our daughter while I travel for work.

But the really sad part? I meet dozens of Americans who are equally as shocked.

Caroline said...

Kate - great blog entry. It's kinda funny how my March 8th experiences were so similar to yours and I can start to feel all anxious and worked up again just reading about yours and remembering mine. But I played in the soccer game and was so glad that I did cuz it brought my spirits back up. This year's fabric doesn't seem so ugly to me - I really hated 2008's.

In all seriousness, I'm also looking for a career working for women's economic advancement. On est ensemble.

FLORENCE said...

Hi Kate ;
Courage to you and the other peace corps who come and share your time and talent . It is amazing that Women are still treated like properties in Cameroon. Please I will like to contact you and Amy K. by email if possible I live in Boston Mass. My email is Again and thanks for all your work.

fladroma said...

Hello my fellow Peace Corp Volunteer. I hope this message finds you well. My name is Farfum Ladroma and I am an education volunteer in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. I am writing to you all today because I need your help! My students and I at GPS MATAMAKA (an outer-island Government Primary School in Vava’u) are pursuing a “POSTCARD PROJECT.” I am asking for other PCVs outside of Tonga to please send us a postcard from your host country. We are trying to collect as many postcards from around the world, especially in countries where Peace Corps is currently operating. This project will help enhance my student’s understanding of other cultures and share what Peace Corps volunteers do all across the globe. I will keep a running list of all the postcards received with their origin on my blog at: You may check if your postcard successfully makes it to Tonga. This will be a great cultural exchange for everyone involved and a lot of fun. Please help out if you can and tell everyone you know (even your friends and families back home)! I would greatly appreciate your participation. Thank you very much and malo ‘aupito mei Tonga.
Please send postcards to:
c/o Peace Corps
P.O. Box 136
Neiafu, VAVA’U

-Farfum (aka Feleti)

Mbele said...

Hello Kate,

I just stumbled across your blog, and I really love it. I am the guy who wrote the book, "Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences," which you have on your list.

Your observations are a treasure. Your mother's account of her visit to Cameroon is delightful. She is a very good writer. And yes, she is right: traveling on many of our roads is not for the faint-hearted :-)

Prince Hamilton said...

This is what you get when you travel only in one part of the country. The North behaves like that because of Islam too. Islam has never given a high standing to women. Women are not treated as property in every part of Cameroon. Check the Cameroon penal code. You will need to travel more to see for yourself. It is like me saying that all American women are prostitutes because I went to Vegas and I saw prostitution as an acceptable profession. Or perhaps let me say all American men cheat because I see cheating as everyday street song in the media.
Cameroon is very complex; it has 286 languages with about 260 ethnic groups. All these groups do not treat women the same way.
However, I do agree that women have acquiesced and permeated their own servitude as they are willing participants. Last year in Nigeria, women marched in an attempt to force the government to accept polygyny.
Nonetheless, it is a wonderful blog and I wish you God’s protection. I know when you come back, your priorities will be different, and your worldview will improve.