In the front room of a large brick house in the village of Tole, surrounded by the tea plantations of South-West Cameroon, a group of women who call themselves Charity Sisters close their regular meeting with a special song. Music is in the lifeblood of Africa, and in a semi-literate society, the power of song to hold individual emotion and collective memory is underscored by its simple communicative power. The lyric of the Charity Sisters’ anthem, like the slogan on their plastic chairs – ‘Charity Sister’s Ass’ – is simple and direct. ‘Women have a role to play,’ they sing.
The song – and the group – encapsulate Africa’s Quiet Revolution: the empowering of women. The second verse celebrates the work of Omam Esther, Executive Director of the small Non-Governmental Organisation Reach Out Cameroon, whose work we are here to witness with a view to setting up a partnership under the Wales for Africa programme. Esther and her team work out of a humble office in Bakweri Town, a central district of nearby Buea (boy-ah), a university city of some 200,000 people and the administrative centre of the South-West, one of the Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions.
‘Reach Out have a role to play,’ the song continues, ‘we thank you God / for giving us Esther / Reach Out have a role to play.’ It is easy to understand why the Charity Sisters group, established in 1993, are overjoyed at their own partnership with Omam Esther’s NGO. Put simply, Esther is a force of nature, one of those strong women leaders who commands in all those she meets equal measures of admiration and trepidation. Her own staff, including daughters Lundi-Anne and Bibiche, call her ‘Madame Esther’ or, more usually, simply ‘Madame’.
Music is in the lifeblood of Africa, and in a semi-literate society, the power of song to hold individual emotion and collective memory is underscored by its simple communicative power
The day before our visit to Tole, we travelled with Madame Esther, under escort of the Cameroonian military’s Rapid Intervention Battalion (B.I.R.), to the disputed border territory of Bakassi, where Esther delivered a speech as powerful as it was audacious. Quoting Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ is perhaps the ultimate expression of hope for a better future, and despite that it might be bordering on passé in the West, its resonance at a Public Hearing for Women, in the presence of the Canadian High Commissioner, Benoit-Pierre Laramee, and Kofi Awity, head of the EU’s programme to support Civil Society efforts in the region, is more than clear.
Even the Cameroonians among our party feel privileged to be here. Bakassi is two days travel from Buea – by roads so poor and dangerous that even the journey is more a hope than an expectation. Few urban Cameroonians venture out into what are commonly referred to as ‘the hinterlands’. ‘NGOs,’ Esther informs us, ‘don’t go there.’ It is easy to understand why. Along with its inaccessibility, the oil-rich peninsula has for decades been a territory disputed between Cameroon and neighbouring Nigeria. The International Court of Justice deliberated for eight years, studying documents dating back to the Scramble for Africa and particularly Anglo-German agreements in the 1880s, before finally ruling that Bakassi is indeed a part of Cameroon. Their decision, on October 10 2002, was ratified by the UN, but peace has been fragile.
Although direct conflict between the nations has ceased, there are still huge residual problems in the area. Many Nigerians have found themselves unwilling citizens of Cameroon and Cameroonians have felt intimidated by the large Nigerian populace in the area. Already poor, much wealth creation that does happen in Bakassi benefits communities in Nigeria rather than the local people. Rapes and kidnappings are still frequent. If it wasn’t for the efforts of Reach Out – and, it must be said, the support of the Canadian High Commissioner – the people of Bakassi would be conveniently forgotten by the rest of Cameroon, let alone the wider world. Lombat K., the commander of the troops charged with our safe passage through the mangrove swamps of Africa’s inside corner, jokes that he would rather be fishing, like so many of the poor people whose basic huts line the muddy banks of the Akwegafe River, rather than ‘fishing out the Canadian High Commissioner’. The Commissioner laughs in agreement. It is, like in the aftermath of any conflict, a desire for the return of normality that dominates the thoughts of those concerned.
But things can’t be put back exactly like they were. As the day wears on, the unrelenting temperature and humidity sapping the last vestiges of our energy, it becomes ever more clear that the High Commissioner, the EU representative and even the military acknowledge that the answer to Bakassi’s complex problems lies partly in Esther’s simple solution, chanted like a mantra amid the chaotic din that greets our arrival at the public hearing: ‘Women working for women to build a sustainable peace’. We are, all of us, having made it through the forbidding, pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Guinea – which under Western eyes look for all the world like a scene from Apocalypse Now – to show support for Esther and her cause. His Excellency is the guest of honour; he makes a speech of his own, but when he does it is Esther who holds his microphone. It is an impromptu gesture of practical support, but in the pictures – and on Cameroon’s national TV network – it comes across as highly symbolic.
Set against song, the speeches seem a dry formality. Working tirelessly with women’s groups in this remote community, Reach Out Cameroon workers have taught the locals an anthem. ‘Women of Bakassi / woman is peace’ is its simple refrain – celebratory, inoffensive, but unapologetically political. It is also reminiscent of the Charity Sisters back in Tole. When the tribal elders and Sub-Divisional commanders take the floor they use the opportunity of meeting the High Commissioner to emphasise the importance of security, pointedly failing to mention women at all. Later, they are happy to throw money at the dancing girls whose raucous performances follow the speeches; it is a sight reminiscent of a lap-dancing club and underlines the present state of affairs. Where women seem mobilised to embrace a new mode of being in the future, the men who stand to lose most from such a quiet revolution doggedly hang on to the unsatisfactory past.
En route to Bakassi, despite the best efforts of the B.I.R. to steer a course through the dark shallows, we twice ran aground on the treacherous shelves of sand that lurk beneath the water. Everybody remained calm – charity workers, visiting teachers and the ambassador all waited patiently for the troops to do their job. The media attempted to film the delay and were firmly told to put their cameras away. Each time we stopped we were underway again in less than half an hour, but one could sense the tension among the troops. A silence descended that spoke volumes about the genuine danger we might have been in had the engines not been revived and the boats rescued from the more innocuous peril of low tides, as if the maximum security arrangements and the boxloads of heavy ammo had not already rammed the point home.
This is still a society riddled with rape, incest, child trafficking and other abominations, but a consciousness has taken hold.
But the fact we got going again after such an impasse in the circumstances seems somehow symbolic. As we make up for lost time, wind rushing through our hair as we speed through the maze of rivers that criss-cross the peninsula like veins, women are being empowered. Field studies show that female genital mutilation, once widely prevalent among the tribes of this area and described by one charity worker as ‘fashionable’, is in steady decline. This is still a society riddled with rape, incest, child trafficking and other abominations, but a consciousness has taken hold. Education is beginning to have an effect. And it is only by standing together that women can face down the perpetrators and those who would use the veil of conflict to turn a blind eye to such flagrant human rights abuses. It is thanks to the work of Omam Esther and Reach Out Cameroon that the women of Bakassi know they are not alone.
And it is not just within the high stakes world of international diplomacy that Reach Out Cameroon is having a quiet yet profound and measurable impact. Spending a day following Esther around Buea and its environs takes in the Father’s House Orphanage, run by Comfort, a woman living with HIV who had been ostracised within her community. Reach Out installed her at Father’s House, generating the double impact of a loving mother figure for vulnerable children and a new lease of life for Comfort herself.
From the orphanage we travel by jeep to the first of two Muslim women’s groups; the first meets at a humble dwelling in a nondescript neighbourhood of huts and shacks, the second in a large brick building across the road from Buea’s largest mosque, on the misty slopes of volcanic Mount Cameroon, whose hazy outline dominates the town. Muslims are a marginal minority in the predominantly Christian country, but Cameroon is characterised by a rare religious tolerance and despite Esther’s own unshakeable Christian faith, her drive to ‘reach out’ and work with society’s most vulnerable members means that she has forged as strong a bond with Muslim women as she has with their Christian counterparts. Love and respect are in evidence wherever she goes. Each group receives Esther and her party with its own brand of rapturous welcome.
Between visits, and the inevitable ‘chop’ that accompanies each (African culture demands that we are fed and watered at each stop along the way), Esther is constantly on her mobile phone, making and answering calls in a bewildering mix of English, French and Cameroonian Pidgin English. Her tinny ringtone is the somewhat incongruous ‘Boom Boom Boom’ by The Outhere Brothers. Pidgin, the local lingua franca, however, suits Esther’s modus operandi. A hybrid born of colonisation, its mix of English and local tribal languages is characterised by a vernacular directness and grammatical structures that to the untrained Western ear seem mangled out of all sense. There is no masculine or feminine distinction and a lack of euphemism; when a lady wishes to take a comfort break, the request is recycled as ‘He want piss.’
This directness runs right through Cameroon, a country with a life expectancy of 51 and an economy too small to accommodate its 20 million inhabitants; there is never enough money to go around and the marginalised are inevitably doomed to scratch an existence rather than a life. With the ever-present spectre of poverty, and death lurking not far behind (funerals are big business in Buea), life on the streets is vibrant and joyful. People live for the moment. Afrobeat pop blares from every window and doorway, speakers turned up so loud that sound quality is distorted; car horns and cockerels add to the cacophony of communities crowded with street-hawkers on the make and the ubiquitous humidity and dust.
Back in Tole, another group of women gather around a wooden table and offer us ‘chop’. This time it is doughnuts, dried fish and Coca-Cola. The doughnuts are the delicious result of yet another Reach Out training programme – the Keep a Girl Alive project – and part of a micro-business venture that the girls can call their own. Over and above the practical assistance, however, the ‘sustainable development’ now accepted as so crucial to any kind of aid work, the major benefit of the charity’s intervention is clear to see.
Afrobeat pop blares from every window and doorway, speakers turned up so loud that the sound quality is distorted; car horns and cockerels add to the cacophonous soundtrack of communities crowded with street-hawkers on the make
Visibly uncomfortable with meeting Western visitors asking questions about their lives, it is hard not to wonder how low-burning a sense of self-esteem can become before the flame flickers out altogether. Some of the girls talk vividly, passionately, extolling the virtues of the Reach Out project and the training they have received. Emotion runs high; the girls are clearly grateful. But even the relatively outgoing members of the group rarely smile. The quieter ones can barely summon a word in English or in Pidgin; only under duress do they whisper their all-too-similar tales of having dropped out of school at Primary level, their parents no longer able to afford the fees, and having ‘put to bed’ (Pidgin for giving birth) at ‘tender age’.
But somewhere in these whispered tales of lives still in process of being turned around there beats a louder drum. The KGA Girls’ stories are an echo of those we have heard elsewhere. For the first time in scores of generations, Africa’s women are being listened to – and being heard. In Tole, and in Buea, and in Bakassi, women are beginning to work for women – and to work for themselves. Africa’s Quiet Revolution will not happen overnight; it lacks the web-literate savvy of the Arab Spring and the media-friendly theatricality of Occupy, but it may well, one day soon, come to shape the twentyfirst century world more profoundly than either.