A Voice For the Voiceless


The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

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Colonial Legacy

Helah Robinson | Posted June 23rd, 2009 | Africa

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Workdays here are characterized by a lot of waiting (for people, for electricity, for internet…), giving us a lot of downtime and ample opportunity to have many interesting conversations. Every conversation I’ve had in the past 2-½ weeks, it seems, has included a mention of corruption in one capacity or another and has shown me just how aware and engaged the people I’m working with truly are. Many of these problems, complicated by a colonial past, permeate Cameroonian society and directly influence UCOMAS.

Now, before I get into the meat of my post, I have to make a disclaimer:
*The following is based off of personal conversations and opinions, and is not meant to be taken as hard fact or with any political or partisan intent. Just read it for what it is— a glimpse into how problems, circumstances and history are perceived and understood by the people I’ve met.*

From the scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, through WWI, II and the Cold War, to modern day capitalist intervention, formerly occupied regions have struggled to find stable and independent ground, and Cameroon is no exception.
Even after the wave of independence that swept through Africa in the 1960s, and despite appearances of subsequent reparation and recompense, the controlling influence of the West has not been and can never be fully removed. Among the most common problems Eric, Johanna and I have hashed and rehashed is the degree of foreign presence in Cameroon’s economy and culture.

On the economic front, primarily French and American corporations have mastered the art of exploiting natural resources in Cameroon, exporting loads of raw materials without cultivating a manufacturing industry in the country. Eric gave us several examples, one of which was eerily (or expectedly) similar to the well-known Firestone controversy in Liberia. I say eerily because at the time of this conversation, I was reading This Child Will be Great, the memoirs of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In her book, she documents the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company’s extensive exploitation of Liberian land and people, exposing how corruption, intimidation and pressure gave the company so much leeway, and the right to continue as-is until 2025. Although Firestone was not a product of colonialism, its treatment of Liberia reflected the colonial mentality of western imposition and exploitation of Africa. The example Eric described was that of an American company that extracts rubber from Cameroon’s ample reserves, but as he explained, the tires are made in China. It’s reminiscent of the same colonial dynamic, only justified through new means.

Colonialism left its mark on culture as well. Last week Johanna and I attended a conference at the Centre Culturel Francais (CCF) on the Rights of the Child in Cameroon. When we told Eric about the event and what we heard, he offhandedly made a comment about how it was the French cultural center that was conducting a seminar on Cameroonian issues. Commendable, yes, but he found it upsetting that the CCF is very well known in Douala, as is the German cultural center, but no one is aware of a small Cameroonian cultural center in Yaounde— the French and German organizations are much more popular.

Furthermore, the languages spoken in Cameroon expose another relic of colonialism. Of course, French is the dominant language spoken in Cameroon, directing business and government. However, the country’s colonial past left it with a bizarre and complicated mix of Anglophone and Francophone regions. As a minority group, English speakers in Cameroon are marginalized and excluded from services as a result of a language barrier within their own country. Citizens of the same state are separated along linguistic lines, making communication between countrymen and women exceedingly difficult.

Woman Trader in Sandga Market: Douala, Cameroon
Woman Trader in Sandga Market: Douala, Cameroon

Such barriers are prevalent in Sandaga as well. The market, which is separated into sectors according to product, service or other factors, has one sector allocated specifically for merchants from Anglophone Cameroon (mostly from the city of Bamenda). The woman pictured above is an English-speaking trader in Sandaga, and while women already confront numerous constraints in the market, the Anglophone workers have the added language barrier making communication that much more strained.

Interviews with Members of UCOMAS Executive Bureau
Interviews with Members of UCOMAS Executive Bureau

Janet Atam (above), the secretary of UCOMAS, was born in Limbe, an Anglophone village only 40 minutes outside Douala. During UCOMAS’ General Meetings and at each executive board meeting, Janet has to take extra time to clarify and translate points made during the discussions. I’ve noticed that some other members become frustrated when Janet asks follow-up questions, but everyone knows it is absolutely necessary, both for Janet’s knowledge and for transmitting the information to the other women in the Bamenda sector. Despite their efforts, though, Janet’s ability to contribute and participate is hindered by her native language, making UCOMAS face this obstacle in addition to all the rest.

Because the varying languages are an accepted aspect of day-to-day life in Cameroon, the problems they create are easily dismissed. However, in an effort to give UCOMAS the best possible future, such problems must be identified, understood and addressed.

Besoin d’un soutien

Helah Robinson | Posted June 14th, 2009 | Africa

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I am struck each day by the unbelievable courage, strength and power of the women Johann and I have been working with in Douala. For nearly a week and a half, we have listened to their stories, learning about their lives and the obstacles they face everyday.  I hope this post does not come across as over-the-top, but what the women here are struggling to do deserves every bit of it.

Because one of our objectives for UCOMAS is to produce a documentary that presents the purpose, need and future of the market women’s association, we have been conducting interviews with each of the members of the UCOMAS executive bureau. Even though we ask the same questions to every woman, (Describe your typical day at work. What constraints do you face in the market? What obstacles do you encounter as a woman? In Sandaga, in general, how are your interactions with the men? And so forth…) each perspective is different and each response gives me a new found appreciation for what these women are attempting to accomplish.

Interview with Therese Leukeng, member of UCOMAS executive board
Interview with Therese Leukeng, member of UCOMAS executive board

Interview with Therese Leukeng, member of UCOMAS executive board

During a typical day, they wake up at 4 AM, spend 12 hours in the market, then go home to clean, cook and take care of their children and families. That stripped down and shallow depiction alone is worthy of enormous respect. However, the conditions for women in Sandaga market are much more complex and daunting. Officials from the Communauté Urbaine, for example, abuse their positions of authority to manipulate the commerçantes, making women pay almost 8 times the legal amount in taxes and other fees. Sanitation is non-existent—no potable water, no toilet facilities, and no way to conserve their produce or keep their sectors clean.  Rapport with the men is also harsh, oppressive and at times dangerous. The market women are generally perceived as inferior to their male counterparts, and are treated as such. They are given the less desired places to set up shop in the market, are victims of verbal and physical abuse, and are often harassed.

When we asked why UCOMAS was created, the women were very clear. And very strong. As many of them described, they are coming together in solidarity and together, with one voice, standing up to defend their rights and themselves. This is not an easy task, and they have already confronted much resistance. The environment in Sandaga is not accustomed to such a show of force and UCOMAS is doing something groundbreaking. During one of our first interviews with Adelaide Foute Tega, the president of UCOMAS, Adelaide discussed the barriers the association has already faced and candidly said something pretty striking in response. We had asked her if she had any ideas for UCOMAS’ future and her answer was powerful— if they have support, someone who can defend and help THEM, UCOMAS has the potential to be very, very strong.

UCOMAS has much to do and a lot of potential, but they are still in development and need help.  Adelaide is not the only person who recognizes this weakness; AMA manager Eric Dongmo has been preoccupied with the same problem. At the beginning of the fellowship, AP requires that we solidify a work plan, which outlines what we hope to accomplish by the time we leave. When Johanna and I covered our work plan with Eric, he was extremely interested and persistent on going over our plans to outreach to other international organizations for financial and structural support for UCOMAS. It has become increasingly clear to me that one of Eric’s biggest worries is the financial and long-term security of UCOMAS; they desperately need continued help and they are counting on our communication support to find more opportunities. I am determine to do the best I can and hopefully leave UCOMAS stronger than I found it.

Also, upon request–Check out our progress via Flickr photostream at:


Fellow: Helah Robinson

Vital Voices in Cameroon


-1 Advocacy Project AMA Women Project Cameroon Cameroun Chiefs Child Trafficking Culture Douala Helah Helah Robinson HIV HIV/AIDS market Nkumu Fed Fed Pan African Women's Day Sandaga Traditional Rulers UCOMAS Vital Voices women women's rights




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