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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Posts tagged Cameroon

Women of the North West: Part III, Njinikom

Helah Robinson | Posted August 10th, 2009 | Africa

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III. Njinikom

Of the 64 women’s groups in the Njinikom sub-division (of the Boyo Division in the North West Province), 10 had sent representatives to NFF’s HIV/AIDS awareness workshops. Last week, Johanna and I made the hour long trek to meet with some of these women, as well as representatives of the Fon of Njinikom and sub-division Quarter Heads who had also attended the trainings.

Meeting with Participants in Njinikom
Meeting with Participants in Njinikom

The majority of women trained in Njinikom were teachers and thus had direct access to spreading the information among the youth. In addition to taking the program to their schools, one woman trained, Mme Therese Ngung, attended a youth conference where she spoke with 164 children about what she learned from Nkumu Fed Fed. Engaging the youth was a central component to the Njinikom groups’ efforts and a key recommendation they had for NFF was to include representatives from youth groups in seminars the next time around.

The women at Njinikom represented an interesting portion of the North Western population, which contrasted with the women from Nkum.  Deeply rooted in Christian faith, the Njinikom women made clear that in addition to enlightening their young people on the cultural practices NFF outlined as hazardous, they included education on abstinence— and abstinence only— as a method for combating the disease. This supplemental information was not part of NFF’s initial intent, but was a key component to the Njinikom outreach efforts. Should its program continue, Nkumu Fed Fed must decide how it wishes to approach such issues, clarify the intent of its sensitization trainings with workshop participants and follow-up on trainings with these key stakeholders.

Mme Helen Magda Bajia, Njinikom
Mme Helen Magda Bajia, Njinikom

Mme Helene Magda Bajia (left) was kind enough to open her house to NFF for the Njinikom training, as well as our follow-up meeting.

Including fon representatives was another crucial aspect of NFF’s project, a move that had concrete and influential results. As Mr. Joseph Bajia explained, he learned during the NFF trainings that certain cultural festivals, such as the Njumba Market, were facilitating the spread of the virus. Beginning in the evening and lasting until morning, these celebrations brought too many people together in an unhealthy environment. After attending the NFF seminar, Mr. Bajia recommended to the Fon of Njinikom that the Market Day should begin in the morning and end by nightfall, reducing the risk of promiscuity during the night that had previously characterized the event. Since the discussions with the traditional council, the Fon has already implemented the suggested time shift and the now the Njumba Market Days take place under the protection of daylight.

There is still much to do in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but with the small steps NFF trainees are taking, the North West Province of Cameroon is on the path towards a safer and healthier future.

Women of the North West: Part II, Abongjam

Helah Robinson | Posted August 10th, 2009 | Africa

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II. Abongjam Women’s Group

Nkumu Fed Fed, meaning “Bali Sisters,” is composed solely of Bali women and wives of Bali men. Though they have 6 branches across Cameroon and 3 internationally, all official members of NFF have familial ties to the village of Bali in the North West Province. Including women from the Abongjam Women’s Group in their training was, then, a natural and almost necessary step for NFF’s HIV/AIDS campaign. Based in Bali, the Group provides vocational and financial support for women in the village both by providing farming materials and through an NFF supported microfinance fund. After sending 3 representatives to the NFF HIV/AIDS training in Bali, the Abongjam Women’s Group had much to say regarding the advocacy project.

Abongjam Women's Group
Abongjam Women's Group

Their headquarters are located on Nkumu Fed Fed former president Helen Gwanfongbe’s family compound. Ties between the two groups run deep.

Grace Nina, the president of the Abongjam Women’s Group, was quick to praise Nkumu Fed Fed for all of its work outside HIV/AIDS awareness and particularly for breaking the barrier of what was once a taboo topic and opening dialogue on the disease. Mothers now discuss these issues with their families and children, sharing the knowledge with a most critical population—the youth. The women also made good use of the printed material, carrying the posters during the International Women’s Day march and posting them around their many compounds.

Talking with men, however, proved to be more difficult. “Men are more difficult to be convinced,” Grace explained. “With them, it’s a struggle.” Although men in their society would listen to the information offered, they were not ready to allow ‘women to take the lead.’ As a result, the men refused to attend large meetings where women led trainings or discussions. Instead, the Abongjam women organized smaller home meetings, getting in touch with men, while allowing them to ‘save face.’

Through the Abongjam Women’s Group’s hard work and resourceful solutions to problems faced, NFF is starting to make head-way in its hometown of Bali.

Media Outreach

Helah Robinson | Posted August 3rd, 2009 | Africa

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Last week, Johanna and I sat down with Emmanuel Bah Tokoh, the Chief of the New and Information Ministry at the Cameroonian Baptist Convention. Trained during Nkumu Fed Fed’s HIV/AIDS advocacy campaign, Mr. Tokoh broadcast what he learned in several NFF sponsored programs on CBC Radio. As part of their advocacy project, NFF wanted to produce informational radio programming in both English and Pidgin to reach rural areas that did not have access to the workshops—collaborating with Mr. Tokoh and CBC Radio made this objective possible.

CBC Radio
CBC Radio

Working with CBC was a natural partnership for NFF. Three years prior to Nkumu Fed Fed’s program, CBC had learned from a National AIDS Control Committee workshop that North West Cameroon had the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the country and that women in the region were the hardest hit. As a result, the Convention began working on HIV/AIDS related radio that challenged the harmful cultural practices enabling the spread of the disease.

This first attempt, however, had several problems and the NFF training helped clarify and craft appropriate solutions. Initially, the CBC was too aggressive when addressing the issue with its audience. With NFF support, however, the CBC analyzed the content of its programs and reformed its methods. As Mr. Tokoh stated, CBC had been working “out of passion, not profession,” and NFF’s sensitization training led to a more professional, and thus more effective system. CBC-NFF radio shows were no longer confrontational, understanding that changing cultural norms takes time and would happen gradually.

Though NFF helped improve the Convention’s efforts, Mr. Tokoh still had some very good input on how NFF training could advance. Speaking “as a communicator,” Tokoh proposed the idea of carrying out “public outreach programs.” These programs would get out into the country, mobilize the people by creating community-based seminars and use traditional tools (singing, dancing, etc.) making it a truly indigenous initiative. His idea was to then record the proceedings, bring them back to the station and broadcast it, standing in contrast to the typical discussions which were aired directly from the recording studio. By getting the people involved, such workshops would engage the entire community, be received in a much better light and reach a much wider audience.

Some food-for-thought for Fed Fed!

Working Through it—Vital Voices Training in Cameroon

Helah Robinson | Posted July 27th, 2009 | Africa

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July 18, 2009.

While Vital Voices Global Grants Manager Melysa Sperber was on her way to Douala, Cameroon, her bags were en route to Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso— presumably never to be seen again. Among her many lost possessions was a suitcase filled with training materials (information packets in both French and English, presentation supplies, voice recorders, etc) needed for the planned Vital Voices leadership training in Cameroon, constituting the first of many obstacles I have come to learn you face in the field.

Last week, members of Vital Voices came to Douala to conduct a four-day training for their four Cameroonian based projects, and Johanna and I were invited to participate. As it turned out, the program fell right between our two placements—we were on our way out of Douala, not quite settled in Bamenda, and ready and willing to help facilitate the seminars. Running from July 20th through the 24th, the presentations and activities were meant to build each organization’s capacity, encourage networking and cooperation between the associations and give them the tools they need to ensure sustainability and stability of their programs.

Vital Voices Global Partnership Training in Cameroon
Vital Voices Global Partnership Training in Cameroon

The participating organizations and participants themselves came from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines: representatives from UCOMAS, Nkumu Fed Fed (NFF), Women in Alternative Action (WAA) and the Cameroonian Businesswomen’s Network (CBWN) included doctors, lawyers, business managers, market traders and even one fashion designer. The organizations were very different as well— UCOMAS is a women traders’ association in Sandaga Market; NFF, as an international network of women’s groups, works to empower rural women and end child trafficking in the northwest region; WAA is committed to addressing discriminatory laws and government practices; and the CBWN brings together businesswomen from across Cameroon to strengthen women’s status in the economic sector and expand their access to economic opportunities. Having participants from all walks of life and activities contributed greatly to the quality of the training; everyone brought their own unique perspective, experience and opinion to the table. It was also this diversity, however, that presented certain obstacles that Vital Voices and the participants had to overcome and work through.

Coming from such different sectors, regions and backgrounds presented numerous complications. Among the most challenging problems were the language barriers and the lack of interpreters. The majority of Vital Voices staff did not speak French and communication between the Anglophone and Francophone participants was strained. Furthermore, they were unable to secure enough interpreters in time for the training, rendering a smooth process exceedingly difficult. Secondly, the groups were all at varying levels in terms of development: UCOMAS and the CBWN are both in very nascent stages (3 and 6 months old, respectively), while NFF and WAA have years of experience, extensive national networks and numerous international partners. As a result, each organization arrived on-site with vastly differing needs, and the training had to cater to each level. Finally, The participants came with various levels of education, resources and knowledge, meaning some were more familiar with development concepts and more equipped to follow technical jargon than others.

Vital Voices Training in Douala, Cameroon
Vital Voices Training in Douala, Cameroon

I thought making the training useful for all participants would be close to impossible, given the barriers they faced. The drive and determination of the women in the room, however, proved me wrong. Those who spoke both languages became instantaneous career translators, trainers presented practical information using several different approaches and everyone took the time to clarify technical concepts and theories. Most importantly, all parties went to great lengths to highlight links between the organizations— where they could partner and support one another and how they could build a strong network for the future. What at first appeared to be an odd mix of people and organizations, which had little in common, actually came together in the end and made sense. Each association saw how it could benefit from working with the rest, what it could share and how it could effectively express its goals to others. Despite the many obstacles along the way, everyone worked hard to push through it— and they did a great job.

Melysa losing her bags was disappointing to say the least, yet it was neither the only nor the most challenging setback faced this week. But, the resourcefulness, commitment and perseverance of all involved made sure the week turned out a success, quand même.

Action Phase: The Creation of UCOMAS

Helah Robinson | Posted July 8th, 2009 | Africa

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Spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 5 weeks with one person can have one of two results. You either begin to morph into one being, or you both end up dead. Thankfully, Johanna and I seem to be leaning towards the former, which explains this week’s posts. As our time in Douala comes to an end, we decided to present a brief, yet comprehensive view of what we’ve been up to and what UCOMAS is all about. In two parts, our posts excerpt the documentary we produced while working with the union.

Johanna’s blog entitled “Assessment Phase: Understanding Women Traders’ Needs” profiles the women of the Sandaga Market, the problems they encounter and their need for more representation. In the face of “intimidation, manipulation, blackmail, and scams, [and] verbal, physical and sexual harassment,” as an opening sentence from the documentary explains, “they (women traders) must fight to secure the functioning of their commercial activities in order to improve of the conditions of their lives and those of their families.”

In the video below, I present a short introduction to the story of UCOMAS and its future. Vital Voices Global Partnership, a DC based NGO, partnered with Mme Kah Walla to launch the AMA Women Project whose goals were to empower the women traders and bolster their efforts at improving market conditions. After participating in the AMA Project’s leadership and advocacy trainings, the women decided to come together and “speak with one voice” to make change. Thus, you have: UCOMAS

We have also set up a Google site for the organization. Please check it out and give us feedback!


Profile: Eric Dongmo

Helah Robinson | Posted July 8th, 2009 | Africa

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Eric Dongmo is not, of course, a member of UCOMAS. He is, however, an integral part of the union and indispensable to its success. As a co-manager of the AMA Women Project, Eric has been involved with l’Union des Commerçantes du Marché Sandaga since its inception and is as committed to its future as any one member of the executive bureau.

Eric Dognmo, Co-Manager of the AMA Project
Eric Dognmo, Co-Manager of the AMA Project

From the first day, stepping off the airplane and being greeted by a big sign with our names splashed across it, Eric, and his big smile, has been a constant presence in my and Johanna’s lives in Douala. He is always first at the market, working all day everyday with the women traders, helping get UCOMAS off the ground. As the primary contact between the director of the AMA Project Mme Kah Walla and the women of UCOMAS, Eric is not only aware, but also sincerely dedicated to every aspect of the association’s goals. He has been the primary resource for all UCOMAS trainings, has spearheaded each project (both enacted and planned) and has guided UCOMAS’ growth from the very beginning. But even more impressive than Eric’s devotion to his work is his genuine interest in promoting this cause and empowering the women in Sandaga.

Over the past five weeks it has become very clear that Eric is not just a strong supporter and facilitator of UCOMAS, but is in fact the CORNERSTONE of its stability. As I mentioned in a previous post, the creation of UCOMAS was a pragmatic decision. Academic theory aside, it was understood that better treatment of women, who are large contributors to the Cameroonian economy, would only serve to benefit society as a whole. Although he is a man and not a trader in the Sandaga Market, Eric fully appreciates the worth of investing in women and ensuring equal access to opportunity.

Eric Dongmo, Co-Manager of the AMA Women Project
Eric Dongmo, Co-Manager of the AMA Women Project

I don’t want to give the impression that Eric is an extremist, constantly ranting or rambling about the issues. To the contrary, he is a very clam and collected individual who is just very aware. It’s incredible to see the relationships he’s developed with the women of UCOMAS and, while asking for nothing in return, he continues to work tirelessly for a better future for all.

Sur le Terrain~ On the Ground (Part 2)

Helah Robinson | Posted June 28th, 2009 | Africa

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The second installment of my 2-Part post concerning the importance of being sur le terrain, or in the field.

Part 1 was a general reflection on the critical missing link between on-the-ground situations and development agencies’ headquarters. This second partie is less a discussion of the work, but more of the life “on the ground.”

Part 2: Living It

First, the women of UCOMAS, from the executive board and general members alike, are taking real ownership of this association. While young, the Union is not just an idea for them, it is something concrete that they know has real potential to succeed. Two weeks ago I attended the General Meeting of UCOMAS, which was my first opportunity to meet UCOMAS members outside the executive board. What was striking and so impressive about this meeting was how it compared, or really contrasted, to réunions I have participated in in the US. At work and at school I have been to numerous staff and club meetings that have the same routine: lots of discussion that may or may not result in decisions, many of which are of little consequence. The point of such gatherings are typically just to touch base with colleagues, make sure everyone is on the same page, or because club charters mandate it.

UCOMAS General Meeting
UCOMAS General Meeting

With UCOMAS, the tone, atmosphere and intent are completely different. Here, members actively participate, presenting their own ideas and combating others. General Meetings are viewed as opportunities to make real change in the association and are used as such. Members see the potential UCOMAS has to improve their conditions in the market, approach each meeting with a pragmatic eye and will debate each detail, no matter how small, until the point is resolved, decision made and put into practice.

UCOMAS General Meeting
UCOMAS General Meeting

Second, day-to-day life here teaches you things that would otherwise be isolated to the classroom. In our interview with UCOMAS president Adelaide Foute Tega, she talked about the significant, but unacknowledged impact women have on the greater Cameroonian economy. She continued with a very matter-of-fact discussion on the importance of girls’ education and the need for UCOMAS, not just for the current traders, but more importantly for future generations as well. When she made that point, there was no pretense in her voice. No theory. No fluff. It was fact: “I am doing this for this reason.” For Adelaide, improving living conditions, opportunities and equality for women and girls is practical, necessary and readily apparent. Just by living her life she came to the same conclusions as the Nike Foundation and their Girl Effect Campaign, or the World Bank and its Gender Action Plan (“Gender Equality as Smart Economics”), but she did it without a PhD in development theory or econometrics. This is not meant to discount efforts made by the international community in addressing gender equity. To the contrary, development theory has now thoroughly addressed and accepted the vast importance of advancing girls’ opportunities to improving general living conditions. But it took years of varying economic theories and programs, years of trail and error, to come to that realization. Adelaide and the women of UCOMAS know it because they live it. It just makes sense; it’s truth and very much needed.

Initiated by the women of Sandaga to work for the women of Sandaga, UCOMAS is the result of people who, aware of their surroundings, were willing to come together, stand up and make change. Below is a short introduction to UCOMAS— to some of the women who made it happen and why.

Sur le Terrain ~ On the Ground (Part 1)

Helah Robinson | Posted June 28th, 2009 | Africa

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The meaning of the title of this week’s post is two-fold—While my intention was to write solely about the immense importance and utility fieldwork has for development, I ended up reflecting on workingsur le terrain,” as well as living it. As a result, I offer you both in two parts.

Part 1: The Work

Last weekend I was with some colleagues who work at STRATEGIES!, the marketing consulting firm that created the AMA Women Project, and had a lively conversation with one girl, Marilyn, who is very passionate about development and the future of her country. We were discussing methods different international institutions use for development work and she could not emphasize enough how critical she felt being on the ground, or ‘in the field,’ was to the success of any development program. ‘Fieldwork’ is a buzzword I’ve heard since I began development studies in school, but it wasn’t until I got here that I realized how vital seeing it really is.

Perception is everything.
From an objective point of view, working with UCOMAS is an exceedingly small, focused endeavor. For example, locals outside of the market and the AMA Project, namely those I’ve met at the Catholic Mission, view Sandaga and the women who work there as relatively unknown, menial and negligible in Douala.

Additionally, in the larger scheme of development work, UCOMAS appears narrow and overly specialized. Vital Voices, an organization that works in Africa, Latin America, Eurasia and the Middle East and North Africa promoting human rights, women’s business networks, women’s political advocacy and female health care, gave grants to 31 projects in 13 countries across Africa through one of several grant programs, the Bill & Melinda Gates Pan African Women’s Advocacy & Leadership Fund. One of those 31 grants went to Mme Kah Walla, director of STRATEGIES!, to launch the AMA Women Project, which intended to train and empower the women of Sandaga Market. L’Union des Commerçantes du Marche Sandaga (UCOMAS) was an outgrowth of the AMA Project, coming together to defend the rights of women traders in the market. In other words, one project in one region funded through one grant program sparked the creation of a women’s association in one market in one city of Cameroon.

Conditions in Sandaga Market
Conditions in Sandaga Market

When you’re here, though, the view is much different. I can’t put it any other way than just that there is so much to do. The obstacles the women face in the market are daunting. Just to name a few, they are manipulated by market officials, harassed by their male counterparts, deal with deplorable working conditions, have no access to toilets or potable water and are forced to waste large amounts of produce at the end of each day. In an effort to confront all these issues and more, UCOMAS has already drawn up plans for numerous activities, including the construction of toilets inside the market, a cleanliness program that will equip members with brooms to clean their selling spots, installation of a refrigeration unit for conservation of their fresh produce, and several technical and advocacy trainings— again, just to name a few.

Conditions in Sandaga Market
Conditions in Sandaga Market

To add to the difficulty, the Vital Voices grant is nearly depleted and the contracts enlisting Eric and Annick’s help with the Union end on June 30th.  First, Eric and Annick  (the managers and facilitators of the AMA Project) played intricate roles in the creation of UCOMAS and are indispensable to its future success. They have taken on so much responsibility and offer so much outside knowledge and expertise that it would be impossible to transmit everything they know to the members of UCOMAS, or even just to the executive board. The association is still in its very beginning stages and without Eric or Annick its future is very uncertain.

Johanna and Me with Eric Dongmo
Johanna and Me with Eric Dongmo
Johanna and Me with Annick Nganya
Johanna and Me with Annick Nganya

Second, as Eric has remarked time and time again, UCOMAS desperately needs long-term investment to help it get off the ground. One of the largest problems plaguing the world of development aid is lack of sustainability, and I fear UCOMAS will be a clear example of why. A short-term grant, while well-intentioned and appreciated, is not sufficient to start a new organization up from scratch. The dangers of offering such help are the repercussions of false promises; because a smaller grant is not enough to create and stabilize a new association, it instead brings in the ideas, expectations and hope for change without adequate means to accomplish it. Then, in the face of disappointment, people become disillusioned and resistant towards future help. The brevity of the UCOMAS grant is not the fault of Vital Voices or the AMA Women Project. In fact, both Vital Voices and AMA achieved what they intended to and then some. However, the fragile state such success has left UCOMAS in is indicative of a disconnect between aid-granting institutions and circumstances in the field.

As Marilyn said, “il faut être sur le terrain,” (It is necessary to be on the ground). And she is so right.

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:


First Impressions

Helah Robinson | Posted June 4th, 2009 | Africa

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I’m going to try to make this first entry from Douala short and sweet. However, because I’m still reeling from all the activity of the past two days, and because I want to share as much as of this experience as possible, I make no promises.

First, just a fun story:
The day before leaving D.C. for Douala (via Newark and Brussels, which turned into a wonderful 23 hour trip), Johanna and I had yet to secure our visas. We’re on top of things, I know. Our flights were for Tuesday afternoon, and we were at the Cameroonian Embassy at 3:00 PM Monday waiting for our passports to be processed. Thankfully, the embassy had our visas waiting and we were out the door within 15 minutes. Now, for anyone ever leaving the country at any point in the future, here’s some advice: always, ALWAYS check to make sure your documents are in order. On our way out, I was scanning the last few pages of my passport to check out the visa for fun, which I discovered had been issued two weeks before I had arrived in D.C. and was meant for someone visiting family. Since I have no family in Cameroon to speak of, I flipped to the front page and saw a 43 year-old African man’s photograph staring back at me. The embassy had given me the wrong passport, and I can only imagine the fun that would have ensued had I shown up at customs with it the next day. I’m sure THAT would have made a great blog entry!

I have many, many more stories and thoughts from the flights, the airport, my first dinner in Cameroon, and more, but that would make this post far too long (feel free to ask). Instead, I wanted to talk a bit about the AMA Project itself—what I learned on my first day, what the expectations are and what I hope will come from our time here.

Today began with logistics—finding the ATM, buying a local cell, etc.—but we spent most of the day with Eric, a director at AMA, getting a handle on the context, mission and status of the project. There are around 1,300 commerçants et commerçantes (traders or merchants) in Sandaga market, the largest public market in Central Africa, 800 of whom are women. Despite their overwhelming presence in this workforce, only 2 women have ever been a part of the 42-member ASCOMSAD, the currently operating association for workers in Sandaga. Not having adequate representation, however, is only part of the problem. The market women encounter severe barriers and obstacles on a day-to-day basis: sexual harassment, discrimination and theft are common occurrences, and the majority of the women do not know their rights in the marketplace or the laws that govern them. As a result, community officials are able to manipulate and take advantage of the women, forcing them to pay double or triple rents for example. AMA’s main objectives are to create an association for the market women—to be called UCOMAS (Union des Commerçantes du Marché Sandaga)—and to empower the women of Sandaga, teaching them the laws and regulations of the market, equipping them with ability to defend their rights, and developing further leadership skills. AMA’s central purpose is to identify the most pressing challenges facing women in the market, and to work with them in crafting feasible and effective solutions.

AMA Business Training Workshop in Limbe, Cameroon
AMA Business Training Workshop in Limbe, Cameroon

AMA Business Training Workshop in Limbe, Cameroon

AMA has made progress—on April 22 they elected 10 women to the executive board of UCOMAS, and they have reached 250 women through business training workshops. Unfortunately, the association is still in the nascent stages; it does not have a sustainable flow of income, a finalized constitution or a solidified plan of action. The women have many ideas with much potential, but lacking resources and definition continue to threaten their growth, reach and success. Our work plan, then, is to lay a foundation and international identity for AMA, through the creation of an AMA website, a brochure that outlines AMA’s purpose and role, and a documentary that will detail its goals, projects and future.  It is going to be very interesting, as well as challenging, to help build an organization, and a movement really, from the ground up.

As Vital Voices’ Global Grants Manager Melysa Sperber commented, AMA really is an idea that now needs to transition into concrete action.

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




2013 Fellows


Benan Grams
Meron Menwyelet
Mohammed Alshubrumi
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Andra Bosneag
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Jasveen Bindra
Kelly Howell
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Sujita Basnet

Middle East

Mona Niebuhr

2012 Fellows


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Latin America

Amy Bracken
Catherine Binet

Middle East

Nikki Hodgson

North America

Sarah Wang

2010 Fellows


Abisola Adekoya
Annika Allman
Brooke Blanchard
Christine Carlson
Christy Gillmore
Dara Lipton
Dina Buck
Josanna Lewin
Joya Taft-Dick
Louis Rezac
Ned Meerdink
Sylvie Bisangwa


Adrienne Henck
Karie Cross
Kerry McBroom
Kate Bollinger
Lauren Katz
Simon Kläntschi
Zarin Hamid


Laila Zulkaphil
Susan Craig-Greene
Tereza Bottman

Latin America

Karin Orr

North America

Adepeju Solarin
Oscar Alvarado

2009 Fellows


Adam Welti
Alixa Sharkey
Barbara Dziedzic
Bryan Lupton

Courtney Chance
Elisa Garcia
Helah Robinson
Johanna Paillet
Johanna Wilkie
Kate Cummings
Laura Gordon
Lisa Rogoff
Luna Liu
Ned Meerdink
Walter James


Abhilash Medhi
Gretchen Murphy
Isha Mehmood
Jacqui Kotyk
Jessica Tirado
Kan Yan
Morgan St. Clair
Ted Mathys


Alison Sluiter
Christina Hooson
Donna Harati
Fanny Grandchamp
Kelsey Bristow
Simran Sachdev
Susan Craig-Greene
Tiffany Ommundsen

Latin America

Althea Middleton-Detzner
Carolyn Ramsdell
Jessica Varat
Lindsey Crifasi
Rebecca Gerome
Zachary Parker

Middle East

Corrine Schneider
Rachel Brown
Rangineh Azimzadeh

North America

Elizabeth Mandelman
Farzin Farzad

2008 Fellows

Adam Nord
Annelieke van de Wiel
Juliet Hutchings
Kristina Rosinsky
Lucas Wolf
Chi Vu
Danita Topcagic
Heather Gilberds
Jes Therkelsen
Libby Abbott
Mackenzie Berg
Nicole Farkouh
Ola Duru
Paul Colombini
Raka Banerjee
Shubha Bala
Antigona Kukaj
Colby Pacheco
James Dasinger
Janet Rabin
Nicole Slezak
Shweta Dewan
Amy Offner
Ash Kosiewicz
Hannah McKeeth
Heidi McKinnon
Larissa Hotra
Hannah Wright
Krystal Sirman
Rianne Van Doeveren
Willow Heske

2007 Fellows

Johnathan Homer
Adam Nord
Audrey Roberts
Caitlin Burnett
Devin Greenleaf
Jeff Yarborough
Julia Zoo
Madeline England
Maha Khan
Mariko Scavone
Mark Koenig
Nicole Farkouh
Saba Haq
Tassos Coulaloglou
Ted Samuel
Alison Morse
Gail Morgado
Jennifer Hollinger
Katie Wroblewski
Leslie Ibeanusi
Michelle Lanspa
Stephanie Gilbert
Zach Scott
Abby Weil
Jessica Boccardo
Sara Zampierin
Eliza Bates
Erin Wroblewski
Tatsiana Hulko

2006 Interns

Laura Cardinal
Jessical Sewall
Alison Long
Autumn Graham
Donna Laverdiere
Erica Issac
Greg Holyfield
Lori Tomoe Mizuno
Melissa Muscio
Nicole Cordeau
Stacey Spivey
Anya Gorovets
Barbara Bearden
Lynne Engleman
Yvette Barnes
Charles Wright
Sarah Sachs

2005 Interns

Eun Ha Kim
Malia Mason
Anne Finnan
Carrie Hasselback
Karen Adler
Sarosh Syed
Shirin Sahani
Chiara Zerunian
Ewa Sobczynska
MacKenzie Frady
Margaret Swink
Sabri Ben-Achour
Nitzan Goldberger

2004 Interns

Ginny Barahona
Michael Keller
Sarah Schores
Melinda Willis
Pia Schneider
Stacy Kosko
Carmen Morcos
Christina Fetterhoff
Stacy Kosko
Bushra Mukbil

2003 Interns

Erica Williams
Kate Kuo
Claudia Zambra
Julie Lee
Kimberly Birdsall
Marta Schaaf
Caitlin Williams
Courtney Radsch