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

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Posts tagged Helah Robinson

And That’s a Wrap!

Helah Robinson | Posted August 21st, 2009 | Africa

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And That’s a Wrap!

Being my last blog, and coming at the end of a summer during which Johanna and I produced a documentary film, I felt the urge to use an appropriately movie-related, concluding and cheesy title. My work, however, is far from over.

For our last week in Cameroon, Johanna and I returned to Douala and spent the remaining days with the women from UCOMAS. We After spending two days with Eric, Adelaide, Mamma Frida, and Janet I am suddenly very aware of how much I am going to miss the people I have met. I did not have to say my final goodbyes when I left UCOMAS the first time around, and I am not prepared to do it now—not knowing when I’ll be back (when not if) is not something I’m quite willing to deal with just yet… In fact, it has only been four days since I left Bamenda, but already I am dreading the coming weeks and months when I won’t be with Eunice in our cramped closet-office, waiting for Emmanuel to go on the next unpaved, 7-hour road trip, or at Helen Fohtung’s house thanking her for her kindness, warmth, hospitality and (thanks GOODNESS) medical expertise. I feel I have known members of UCOMAS and Nkumu Fed Fed for a lifetime, and yet the summer seems to have flown by.

I say my work is hardly ‘wrapped up’ because I refuse to let this be the end. Even from abroad, Johanna and I are committed to continuing the work of our two partners, doing whatever is needed to help sustain what they have struggled to accomplish. (Speaking of: Anyone in the San Francisco area late October or early November, keep your schedules open for the UCOMAS fundraiser we are planning at a local Senegalese restaurant. Details to come for those interested!)

This summer has been an incredibly humbling experience and I am in awe of what these women are able to do with what little resources they have. The women of UCOMAS have overcome daunting environmental and social obstacles, and continue to fight each day to move forward. I have immense respect and admiration for the members of Nkumu Fed Fed as well, who sacrifice their time, skills and even money for the betterment of their country while asking for nothing in return. It will be difficult to leave, but I am forever grateful for the lasting connections and friendships I have made with the people and places of Cameroon.

I would like to end by saying thank you.

Thank you to Vital Voices for giving me the opportunity to meet and work with some of the most dedicated and inspiring people I have ever been lucky enough to know.
Johanna, thank you for being there for (and putting up with) me through thick and thin, for the late nights of MASH and A Mighty Wind, and of course, teaching me to cook. Lonely does not begin to describe what this summer could have been had you not been around.
To the women of Nkumu Fed Fed, thank you for your hard work, dedication and selfless commitment to bettering the lives of those who need it most. Helen Gwanfogbe, you made our stay possible and I cannot thank you enough for all you’ve done. Emmanuel, despite not being an official member for Fed Fed, you were there nonetheless to help us each day. Thank you for guiding us through the twists and turns of the North West, all the way to Kumbo and back. I must thank you, Eunice, not only for your generosity, but for your company as well (by which I mean your friendship, not Make IT for Africa. Though the cyber helped immensely, to be sure!). Last, but certainly not least, Helen Fohtung, thank you, thank you, thank you for welcoming us into your home in times of need, for your endless generosity and for making our stay in Bamenda the wonderful experience it was.
I cannot leave without saying goodbye and thank you to the women of UCOMAS. Your perseverance, strength and determination are truly extraordinary. To the women of the executive bureau, thank you for letting us into your lives and offering instantaneous trust. Madame Kah Wallh, thank you for being the inspiration, support and guide of UCOMAS. Annick—all would have been lost without you. What you have helped create will continue to improve the women’s lives for years to come. Eric, I cannot tell you how much you have meant to me over these past two months and know that UCOMAS is blessed to have you.
And finally, thank you to everyone who supported me throughout the summer, for following our work and keeping me sane. Without you, this experience would not have been possible.

Though I am leaving Cameroon and don’t know when I will be coming back, I assure you all—you have not seen the last of me!

Request for Nkumu Fed Fed

Helah Robinson | Posted August 14th, 2009 | Africa

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Just wanted to send out a quick request: we have set up a Google site for Nkumu Fed Fed that will serve as their main organizational website for the time being. It is, of course, a work in progress that the women here will be consistently updating, but please check it out and send us your feedback!



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.

Women of the North West: Part I, Nkum

Helah Robinson | Posted August 10th, 2009 | Africa

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Though long overdue, the following series of posts document meetings Johanna and I have had over the last few weeks…

The North West Province of Cameroon is separated into 7 separate divisions, and NFF reached out to each during its HIV/AIDS awareness campaign. Drawing women leaders from the many groups across the province, NFF trained key stakeholders in each community calling on women to take the lead in addressing the rampant spread of the disease.

What we learned after sitting down with representatives from a few of the divisions, in three parts:

I. The Women of Nkum

Women of Nkum
Women of Nkum

Two weeks ago, Johanna and I traveled to Tatum, the council seat for the Nkum division, to meet with the Deputy Mayor who had been trained at an NFF workshop last year. Taking what he learned from the sensitization seminars back to his division, the Deputy Mayor passed on the information to several leaders of women’s groups across Nkum. Among them (grant me some leniency with the spellings) were Fajimatou and Ngoram Salaamatou from the Salaama group of Tatum and Miro Dodo, representative from the village of Mboscuda (Women pictured above, left to right respectively). Aja Salaamatou, from the village of Kuvlu and who also attended the Deputy Mayor’s training session, joined us later.

The women from the Nkum region represented a unique sector of Cameroonian society—the Muslim population. Primarily Fulani women, connecting with them during the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign was critical to addressing the varying cultural differences present across the province. During our discussion, the women outlined how the training played out, what they learned and their ideas for improving the program.

Aja Salaamatou from Kuvlu
Aja Salaamatou from Kuvlu

Following their training session with the Deputy Mayor of Nkum, the women traveled back to their proper communities and shared their new knowledge. They also gathered women from neighboring villages to disseminate the information to regions that had not had the opportunity to send representatives to the Nkum training. In this way, the NFF sensitization workshops had widespread and exponentially increasing coverage as both trainers and trainees extended their advocacy base. At their meetings, the Nkum representatives encouraged rural women to go for regular check-ups and testing, cautioned against continuing widowhood inheritance practices* and advised them to bring their own tools when visiting traditional healers (who commonly use and reuse blades to pierce skin and draw blood).

Women of Nkum
Women of Nkum

As far as improvements for the trainings were concerned, the women called mainly for expanding the program’s reach. First, they noted that children need to be well informed and future workshops should reach out more to youths. Additionally, they needed more advocacy materials (i.e. posters pictured above), which would have been that much more useful translated in local languages, namely Pidgin.

Tackling cultural practices and believes is a difficult endeavor and will not be done overnight. The efforts Nkumu Fed Fed has put into motion, reaching far into the North West Province with the help of these women of Nkum, however, is starting to make change.

* Traditionally, the brother of the deceased will ‘inherit’ the widow, taking her on as a new wife. Problems arise when, for example, the cause of death is unknown and the widow risks bringing the disease into the new marriage.

Fons of the North West Province

Helah Robinson | Posted August 1st, 2009 | Africa

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Nkumu Fed Fed’s HIV/AIDS awareness campaign attempted to combat the disease by identifying harmful cultural practices and training women to take the lead in changing those norms. Tradition, however, is engrained in society and is not challenged easily. Understanding that alone, women would face considerable obstacles, NFF reached out to the traditional chiefs of the North West Region. Called Fons, these rulers a more than just spiritual guides for their people, governing their fondoms as the primary and final voice on all matters—political, social and cultural. They are heavily respected in their societies and because no decisions are made without passing through them, as the sub-chief of Bali explained to us, cultural evolution will not happen without their cooperation. During its HIV/AIDS advocacy project, NFF sensitized a number of regional Fons to the dangerous effects certain cultural behaviors have on their communities. Over our two weeks in Bamenda, Johanna and I have had the opportunity to meet two local leaders who participated in the NFF training and get their thoughts on the subject.

Us with the traditional sub-chief
Us with the traditional sub-chief

Above: Johanna and me with the sub-chief or sub-fon of Bali.

Our first interview was with the sub-chief of Bali, a traditional leader and guide of several clans in the region who answers directly to the Fon of Bali. Before arriving at the palace, our project director Emmanuel Ngang briefed Johanna and me on appropriate behavior when meeting the chief. We were not allowed to touch him, could not cross our legs in his presence, and could not enter his home empty handed (we had to bring a gift or offering of some kind). Furthermore, we had to follow proper protocol during our meeting. For example, when he offered specially made fresh palm wine, the correct way to accept the drink was to approach him, bow and extend out your glass using your right hand while bowing. Though I am not a member of his clan, nor can I personally relate to the system of fondoms, I felt his authority nonetheless.

The chief explained that “in these areas…where traditions are still very much in tact, you cannot have access to the people without passing though the traditional rulers,” and that “every activity needs to pass directly through [him] to get to the people,” meaning his approval and involvement in the campaign was pivotal to its success. He was a surprisingly forward thinking, stating that culture is not static and that while “our fathers, their fathers and their fathers’ fathers” may have practiced a particular tradition, it may no longer work in the present day context. Cultural jamborees (large dance festivals that tend to include drinking and sexual promiscuity) for example, have become extremely dangerous in an environment with a high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. Presented with hard facts concerning the health and security of his people, this ruler understood that continuing certain cultural behaviors would unsustainable and damaging, to say the least.

With the Sub-Chief and His Men
With the Sub-Chief and His Men

Above: Us with the Sub-Chief of Bali (center) with a nobleman (far right) and his traditional healer (second from left)

The second traditional chief we interviewed thus far was Emmanuel Muam Bong, barrister at law and Fon of Bu. Though he was older than the sub-chief of Bali and more subdued, Mr. Bong was equally outspoken concerning the cultural practices that have the potential to seriously harm his people. One such practice NFF highlighted as a main facilitator of the spread of HIV/AIDS was polygamy, yet all fons continue to be polygamists… save one: Emmanuel Bong of Bu. Despite significant outside pressure for him to take a second wife (or more), the Fon refuses to endorse what he believes to be an unnecessarily risky cultural tradition.

The fons trained during NFF’s advocacy campaign are truly doing something groundbreaking and awe inspiring. They are challenging cultural norms that have characterized their societies for centuries and are doing so for the good of their people. What is even more incredible is precedent they risk setting. They acknowledge that culture is dynamic, constantly changing and adapting to social evolution, but once progress starts, where does it stop? Combating tradition is remarkable, particularly coming from these rulers whose status and livelihood depend on culture and tradition. Once you start challenging the status quo, it has the potential to open the floodgates for social change, which can be threatening to their position. The fact that they are still willing to stand up against the disease, risking their own self-interest, is truly remarkable.

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.

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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