In some villages in Cameroon, there is no such thing as a natural death. Traditional beliefs dictate that bad spirits – or bad people – must be behind the passing. Particularly, it seems, if the deceased is a man.
So when Esther Buh Nah’s husband met his demise, she fell under immediate suspicion. Only time-worn rituals, many believe, could determine whether she was responsible.
Her clothes were taken away, her head shaved. She could not eat with anyone else in her village for six months and could only use one bowl. She couldn’t bathe.
“And I was made to drink the water my husband’s body was cleaned with,” says the widow, clutching her government-mandated I.D. card like a talisman, proof that she continues to survive.
If she fell ill from the death-ceremony water or general lack of hygiene, it meant she was guilty. Fortunately for Esther, she made it through the ritual period.
Unfortunately for her, and for countless other widows, the ordeal did not end when she returned to some semblance of normal life in her village near Bambessi in Cameroon, a culturally and geographically diverse country that sits at the crossroads of West and Central Africa.
That’s because her husband’s land – her land, the soil she toiled to grow food for subsistence and, if it was a good year, for cash sales – was seized by her brother-in-law.
“It’s often greed disguised as ritual,” says Christiane Bossé, a volunteer from Ottawa working as a women’s rights advisor for several community groups in Northwest Cameroon.
“Women are second-class citizens in the eyes of many, so why not take their land?” Unsurprisingly, rites are far less harsh and humiliating for widowers, who are often encouraged to remarry as soon as possible.
Christiane’s youthful appearance makes her age hard to place. She is at the opposite spectrum of Esther and the other widows she is talking to on this day. The faces of those women are etched with an earned weariness that also makes age hard to gauge.
In Cameroon, as in most countries, even those struggling with pockets of extreme poverty, there is a richness in culture, community and ritual. It’s what makes a place unique and offers strength to its people. But, there are some traditions that are simply inhumane.
From widow rites to widow rights
Christiane is volunteering with the group Musab Cameroon, and she and her local colleague Patu Baku are changing widow rites – and asserting widow rights. They are working on a project in five Fondoms – areas that can encompass many villages headed by a traditional king or ‘Fon’– to identify harmful rituals and redress the worst of the practices.
They begin with a series of educational workshops that also serve as grassroots needs assessments. “Woman can be seen as property, and lose access to their house, their land, even their children…unless they marry the brother-in-law,” says Christiane, who holds a Masters in international human rights law, and who previously volunteered in Tanzania with the UN Criminal Tribunal that dealt with the genocide in Rwanda.
“But there are some laws on the books in Cameroon that offer protection to widows. If the women know their rights, they can help themselves.”
Patu and Christiane are holding one such workshop in Bambessi, inside a large community centre near a school. In preparation, young girls are sweeping the dirt floor, the eddies of dust twisting in the morning light.
The session starts in chaos. Fifty people were invited, but many more show up, all claiming to be from the village the workshop was to focus on. And not just women, but men, children, peddlers selling boiled groundnuts…they had heard that money for lunch would be provided.
It’s the beginning of the planting season – and by extension, the end of food stores from last season.
Throughout, Christiane stays efficiently calm, but with a watchful eye to Patu, who quietly but forcefully reins in the crowd. The rest of the day goes as planned.
After a workshop identifies the worst of the problems, Christiane, Patu and the participating groups get to work implementing solutions. “One thing we’re doing is encouraging the writing of wills, and also legal marriage certificates,” says Patu. “Many women can’t read,” she adds, “so that’s why our organization also supports literacy training.”
And they are meeting with traditional leaders, encouraging Fons to make pronouncements against widow rites, and ensure the women retain access to their land. “We hope to have agreements in five Fondoms by next year,” says Christiane, who is also training advocates who will lobby at the village level on behalf of widows.
“Two Fons have already signed agreements, banning things like shaving of heads, of women having to sleep on the floor, of women being removed from their land,” says Patu, “so we’ve been encouraged by that.”
Minding their businesses
But asserting their rights is just one side of a difficult reality for widows. They still have to feed their children, they still have to make a living. It was hard enough before their husbands died.
In several villages in Northwest Cameroon – a region of the country fringed by the barren but scenic Mandara Mountains – local community group Santos Development Organization are helping women, including widows, start or grow their own small businesses.
On the streets of the Babungo market, women in colourful dresses are framed by the sanguine-brown mud brick walls of stalls capped by corrugated tin roofs. One of these market women is Agnes Magoh, a widow who too faced humiliation and hardship following the death of her husband.
“You should have seen her face when I first met her,” says Renie Gnos, a Cameroonian volunteer, “it was gloomy.”
Renie is part of a team of local volunteers who offer training and small business support to women, including widows. “We do basic business training with rural women, women with low literacy and numeracy. There’s five days of training, one day a week over five weeks. We then follow-up after six months.”
“We first go over the basics of business, and introduce them to market research. From that research we determine if their business idea is worth investing in,” says Renie. Other training sessions include costing, book-keeping and customer relations.
“And we sit down with them, one-on-one, to help them develop a business plan. We go over how much they need to bring in to pay off the loans.” The women are given a half-loan, half-grant cash infusion, with six months to pay back what they owe. As loans get paid, the next woman on the list gets support.
The face of hardship, the face of potential
Sifting corn in the murky light of her small shop, Agnes smiles when asked how business is going. “My business is doing very well,” she says. She buys raw corn and beans, dries and prepares the staples, and sells her product to a growing list of customers.
“It may surprise you that Agnes paid her loan back in four months,” adds Renie.
Volunteering alongside Renie is George Harding, a former teacher and manager of the John Howard society in Prince George, B.C. “These women, most of them have no options,” he says. “Life is very, very hard.” George admits they can only help a modest number of women. “It’s a drop in a very large bucket. But enough drops make up a cup at least.”
Market research is very important, he notes. “I do ask myself ‘how many bananas do you have to sell to survive?’ There is a lot of competition in the market and on the street corners.” Some women raise chickens and cook them, some make dresses, some have stalls selling a variety of staples – which in Cameroon can include mobile phone SIM cards, shoes and soap.
“There aren’t too many value-added products yet,” George says, “made from Cameroonian resources. That’s a challenge in Africa – getting the capital, training and machinery to add value to raw products. How do you compete with a cheap product imported from China?” Many a business in North America asks the same question.
Yet so far the program is working well, the volunteer says. “We thought we’d be happy with a 75 percent success rate after the first six months, but it’s much higher.”
And no one is happier than Agnes. Life has been hard, but she beams as she makes a sale.
“Look at her face. She is bright and shining,” says Renie, pointing at Agnes.
“Because we have learned very much, very much,” Agnes calls out, while scooping up another bowl of corn, in a shop she can call her own.