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 HIV/AIDS

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.

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!

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.

Global Education & Environment Development Foundation (GEED)

Helah Robinson | Posted August 1st, 2009 | Africa

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As part of their Vital Voices supported HIV/AIDS advocacy campaign, Nkumu Fed Fed (NFF) held sensitization workshops on the harmful effects of certain cultural practices, training representatives from 70 other women’s groups. Each representative was then able to take the new knowledge back and share it with other members from her own organization. One woman, Clotilda Andiensa, attended the trainings on behalf of the Bamenda based Global Education & Environment Development Foundation, or GEED. Last week, Johanna and I had the opportunity to sit down with Clotilda and three other members of GEED to discuss their own mission and activities, and how effectively the NFF campaign played out.

Sit-Down with Women from GEED
Sit-Down with Women from GEED

Above: Clotilda Andiensa speaks with Johanna and me at our meeting with GEED. In the background are two HIV/AIDS awareness posters produced by Nkumu Fed Fed. These materials were critical components to NFF’s advocacy campaign.

Established the same year as Nkumu Fed Fed, The Global Education & Environment Development Foundation has been working to change the conditions for women in Cameroon since 1996. Over the past 13 years, GEED initiatives have reached out to women and young girls, providing education on health, leadership skills and conflict management, to name a few. Using a gender sensitive approach, GEED promotes social justice and development by fighting for and defending human rights.

Inviting GEED to participate in the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign was a natural partnership for NFF, given their common interests (see previous post I fine for sabi for NFF’s mission and vision). During our meeting, Clotilda told us what she took away from Nkumu Fed Fed’s training and how she felt NFF could improve for the future.

The primary objective of NFF’s workshop was to sensitize participants on how specific cultural behaviors facilitate the spread of HIV/AIDS and, as the GEED women remarked, NFF hit its mark. They learned, for example, that polygamy increased the potential for new partners whose status is unknown to bring the disease into a marriage. Furthermore, the NFF seminar discussed the excessively lax attitude people of the North West (and all of Cameroon for that matter) have towards HIV/AIDS, not getting tested often enough or before getting married. The workshop then explained that cultural traditions cause major problems as well, such as the Njumba Market Days. During these Days, all the young people gather together in the center of town, finding various sexual partners. On the eve of a Market Day, wives go to the houses of their boyfriends while husbands wait at home for their girlfriends to arrive— a traditional, acknowledged and accepted spouse-swap, creating a dangerous environment and allowing HIV to “spread like wildfire in the dry season.”

As far as recommendations for improvements on the trainings, the GEED women had some very interesting insight. First, they mentioned that while training women leaders helped create awareness, the campaign would have had a far greater impact had NFF focused on training youth, in particular young girls. Additionally, NFF did make an effort to include traditional rulers (called fons) in the project, but as GEED pointed out, fons don’t work alone. They are individuals surrounded by a system and environment constructed to protect and enforce cultural traditions. Therefore, getting in touch with fons directly is an important step, but GEED discussed the need to train the enforcers of traditional practices as well (i.e. traditional councils, healers, etc.).

It is important to understand that changes in culture will come gradually, but with NFF’s efforts and GEED’s advice, the campaign is on the right track.

“I fine for sabi”~ It is good to know

Helah Robinson | Posted July 30th, 2009 | Africa

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“It is good to know what?” you might ask. Nkumu Fed Fed, that’s what.

The second half of our summer has begun, and with it came a new town, organization and work plan. While it was hard to leave UCOMAS, where we had spent the last month and a half working with and getting to know the women of the Sandaga Market, the change of scene and issue area has been an exciting shift. Johanna and I made the transition from heat and congestion of Douala to the fresh air in the mountains of Bamenda, where we will be spending the next month working with the Cameroonian human rights organization, Nkumu Fed Fed (NFF).

Below: A glimpse of the Northwest

Road from Kumbo to Bamenda
Road from Kumbo to Bamenda

What started in 1996 as a small association of Bali Nyonga sisters, Nkumu Fed Fed has since grown into an international network of women’s groups committed to eradicating poverty, encouraging sustainable development and empowering vulnerable populations in rural areas (namely women, youth and the girl child). Using a multifaceted approach to achieving its goals, NFF activities fall into 4 main program areas, including: Education, Secure Livelihood & the Environment, Gender & the Rights of the Child, and Health & HIV/AIDS. While their Education and Secure Livelihood campaigns have been comprised of a number of concrete projects, such as scholarship awards, school construction and the creation of a micro credit and financing scheme, NFF’s two largest programs have addressed the Rights of the Child and Health-HIV/AIDS.

On Rights of the Child: Partnering with the International Labor Organization in 2004, NFF began the “Support Program for the Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Victims of Child Trafficking in the Northwest Province of Cameroon,” its largest project to date. The immediate objectives of the campaign were to 1) withdraw 100 trafficked children, 2) provide education and professional training to support their reintegration into society, 3) develop income generating activities for families of victims as an alternative to trafficking, and 4) ensure sustainability of the project. As part of the NFF-ILO collaboration, Nkumu Fed Fed constructed the Gwan Multipurpose Centre in Bali, which has enabled the housing, education and reintegration of over 140 victims of child trafficking.

Below: Three victims of child trafficking learn practical uses of plant life at the NFF Gwan Multipurpose Centre, where they now live.

Outside Nku'mu Fed Fed
Outside Nku'mu Fed Fed

On Health and HIV/AIDS: With the help of a Vital Voices sponsored grant, NFF embarked on a yearlong HIV/AIDS advocacy campaign in 2008. Entitled “Advocacy Programme for Breaking Cultural Barriers on HIV/AIDS; Women Taking the Lead in North West Province,” the project used a number of approaches to combat the issue. NFF conducted informational workshops and produced advocacy materials aimed at changing cultural practices that enable and facilitate the spread of the disease. The workshops further documented the harmful impacts of specific cultural behaviors and trained both women groups as well as local traditional leaders, who are key actors for changing societal norms. Nkumu Fed Fed also produced and broadcast several English and Pidgin radio programs in an effort to spread the information to the widest audience possible. One such program, I Fine for Sabi, (Pidgin for “It is Good to Know”) broadcast on Radio Bamenda and Baptist Radio, took advantage of the numerous media outlets to reach rural populations and inform those who could not read or understand the printed materials. By training leaders of 70 other women’s groups across Cameroon, as well as reaching out to traditional chiefs and rulers, NFF’s HIV/AIDS advocacy campaign has started making substantial change in the way people understand the disease, bringing better health and a more stable future to the region.

Women from GEED
Women from GEED

Above: Johanna and me with women from the Global Education and Environment Development (GEED) Foundation, one of 70 women’s organizations trained during NFF’s HIV/AIDS advocacy campaign.

As Vital Voices fellows, Johanna and I will be spending the majority of our time in Bamenda evaluating the content, process and success of this project. By the end of our stay, we will produce a complete report outlining what worked, what didn’t and how NFF can reform the program or where they can go from here.

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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