Inheriting a Better Future: Death & Life in Cameroon

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.

Their Day in Court: justice for kids in Jamaica

Keisha (not her real name) was worried that what happened to her would happen to her siblings. So the slight 10-year-old made the walk alone – even her mother didn’t know – through the alleys and streets of West Kingston to the closest police station.

Past the cinderblock houses capped with corrugated tin, past the tiny corner snack shops, past the local betting shop.

“I had to go because my dad did something bad to me,” she reveals in a soft voice. The young girl says she was raped by her father when she was six, and again when she was nine.

Keisha lives in Jamaica. While tourists may know only one side of the Caribbean country – the turquoise seas, rum and reggae – it is a diverse land ranging from bucolic rural rhythms to blue mountain vistas to edgy urban beats.

While Jamaica is rich in culture and history, it struggles with poverty and crime. With a population approaching three million – 30 percent of whom are children and youth – it has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Much of the violence takes place in Kingston, the nation’s political and industrial capital. It’s a colourful collage of modern buildings, colonial architecture, and the creative chaos of inner-city communities immortalized in the songs of music legends Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. These neighbourhoods can be dangerous, scarred by social problems and poverty of opportunity. And it is one of these so-called garrison towns that Keisha calls home.

Courting change

The alleged assaults against Keisha (the case has not yet gone to court) would be terrible enough, but the girl’s journey into the Jamaican justice system can also be traumatic. Too many cases fall apart when youth are too frightened to testify – and the children usually go back to the same community as their now-freed attackers.

“Children in Jamaica are, frankly, treated as just another witness, and they are often intimidated and don’t get through their evidence very effectively,” says Judge John McGarry, a retired superior court judge from Ontario who volunteered in Jamaica with Cuso International, a Canadian development organization.

“I sat in on a case, and I saw this 12-year-old sitting outside. Sitting across from her was the accused. There she was, having to go in and testify against the person who was staring right at her. She lasted about 15 minutes before she ran from the court room crying.”

During his volunteer placement, Judge McGarry worked with the office of the Chief Justice of Jamaica to learn about the situation of children in the court system, and make recommendations on how to better support youth. His ideas included children giving testimony on video, or at least behind a screen so they don’t have to look at the perpetrator. The suggestions have helped shape a new Evidence Act that will help make the process more child-friendly.

The government has also set up the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse, a one-stop destination for child victims. “They can go there with police, be examined, meet with a social worker, give their initial testimony by video,” says Judge McGarry, who has returned to the Caribbean at the request of the Jamaican government, to head the Justice Reform Implementation Unit. “I wish we had centres like it in Canada.”

A safe space

School is over for the day, and Keisha is at the West Kingston satellite office of the Victim Support Unit, in a cement building with no sign outside to let on what is happening inside. Her orange school shirt tucked neatly into her blue skirt, she sits in a small room with comfortable chairs. A plastic kitchen play set is in one corner, and in another two small cloth dolls – a mom and a dad – peer from behind a stack of books.

Keisha is talking to Jhodi Ann Bowie, a counsellor who offers emotional comfort. “You know that when your Dad is in court, he won’t be able to hurt you, right?” reassures Jhodi, a calm, warm but in-control presence.

“Because everyone there is watching me to keep me safe,” replies the girl, holding a pillow tightly in her lap.

“That’s what we’re all there for, the police, mommy, and me, we’re going to be there to protect you and to support you so you don’t have to feel as scared. And remember, anytime you’re feeling nervous, just take some deep breaths.”

In the past, there was little or no support for children like Keisha, so the Jamaican Ministry of Justice’s Victim Support Unit, the Office of the Children’s Advocate, Canadian agency Cuso, and Unicef created the ‘Children in Court’ program.

“We give the children emotional support through counselling sessions,” says Jhodi, a trained social worker. “We don’t coach them, we don’t tell them what to say, we just answer their questions and try to make them feel comfortable so they can give their best testimony.”

She gets out the wooden model of a court room, different coloured pegs with velcro on the bottom standing in for the judge, lawyers, police, defendants and witnesses. “So do you remember who this person is in the court?” Jhodi asks the young girl.

“The judge.”

“The judge, that’s right. And these are the police officers, they are the ones that will come outside the court room and call out your name. And one of these lawyers…”

“…is going to be with my dad.”

“That’s right, and the other one is working for Jamaica to try and show that your dad did what you said he did.”

Giving a voice to the voiceless

Onyka Barrett, originally from Trinidad & Tobago, is working with the Ministry of Justice, helping implement and standardize the kids in court initiative across Jamaica.

“You’re seeing how depressed children can get,” says Onyka, “you’re seeing how it’s affecting them because they no longer have self-esteem, they no longer have confidence in themselves. That’s why we support them, why it’s necessary to help orient them. To tell them what to expect.”

“And once they know that, it reduces the level of fear that they feel, and they are better able to speak and give their evidence in court. Having a program like this gives the witness a voice in justice being served in their best interest.”

For Tarik Perkins, a Jamaican community worker, justice in his country is also a development issue. “You can think of access to justice as the enabling environment for economic and social development. The poor need to have confidence in the system, that they can make a living and know there is recourse if they are robbed, or are victims of corruption.”

“With no security, no justice, it’s hard to start a business or to grow a business. And we need youth involved in the economy, that’s why we have this focus on children and young adults.”

Speaking in Trench Town, with Bob Marley’s old house on one side and a community reading centre on the other, Tarik sees potential in the children that are playing in the street. “When you think of poverty in Jamaica, you think of places like this…lack of educational opportunities, limited healthcare, depressed economy, crumbling physical infrastructure. But look around, there is a community library that is an oasis for children, a cultural tourism business, a greenhouse.”

“People are working hard here, there is an entrepreneurial spirit. You can feel the hope.”

Back in West Kingston, just a reggae beat away from Trench Town, Jodie is saying goodbye to the young girl after that day’s counselling session.

“Once you’ve finished in court, you are going to feel so relieved, because you will know that you don’t have to go back and you did your best and that’s all that matters. Do you feel nervous about going?”

“A little,” replies the girl, who hopes to be a doctor someday. “But I’m getting stronger already.”