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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.

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


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