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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.

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.

And So it Begins!

Helah Robinson | Posted May 27th, 2009 | Africa

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It hasn’t really hit me yet that I’m going  to West Africa or that I’ll be there for three months. The closer departure dates comes, however, the more real it becomes and the more nervous I get.

Douala, Cameroon
Douala, Cameroon


The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, planning and travel. During the hustle of graduation, moving out and making last min visits, I have also been in the last phases of confirming the logistics of the upcoming trek to Cameroon. Buying the ticket, talking to on-site contacts, securing a visa and lodging in Douala… most of which I have at least a handle on. But it wouldn’t be worth it without some last minute confusion, right?

I’d like to thanking you for all of your support and generosity. You’ve been so wonderful and I know you’ll keep me going all summer! While it hasn’t quite sunk in just yet, I can’t explain how excited I am to begin working in Cameroon. I’ll be traveling with another AP Peace Fellow, Johanna Paillet, and we will be splitting our time between two Vital Voices sponsored NGOs in Douala. The first half of the summer will be with the Sandaga Market Women’s Association (AMA), an organization committed to the promotion and advocacy of an improved taxation framework and HIV/AIDS sensitization for women in the market place. We will be working with Nku’mu Fed Fed for the second half, a program devoted to breaking cultural barriers and misconceptions of HIV/AIDS and advancing disease awareness.

Having worked with Vital Voices Global Partnership, a women empowerment and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., since October, I have heard about the progress AMA and Nku’mu Fed Fed have made in Cameroon from a distance. Now I have the opportunity to go work in the field with people I have only read about, and I can’t wait!

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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