The Women of Fujwa

After spending years in various kinds of psychotherapy throughout my life, I decided to try and get a group of 6-10 women together to openly discuss their problems and frustrations. I needed the help of a woman who I could trust and communicate with, who spoke fairly good English to act as a translator and was as liberated as a woman could be in a rural community in a male dominated society like Cameroon. Her name was Olga and she worked for a local charity called BFF(better family foundation) The first time the group met was after a council meeting in the village of Fujdwa on the outskirts of Fundong. The Peace Corp volunteer and my sponsor Leo had spent almost two hours discussing health programs and tree planting that were available to community without charge.
After the meeting broke up , several women stayed for the womans group. I had to pry words out of the mouths of the eight women at the meeting. Women in Cameroon are afraid to speak up especially in rural areas where many of them stopped school by the age of ten and speak only pigeon English which is a mix of English and their dialect. If I pay attention I can get a rough idea of what is being said.
All of the women except two were over thirty years old and had at least four children, one of the woman had eight and had been left with ten more when her sister and then her brother died as well as their spouses. Whenever I ask what was the cause of death, the response is they were sick. I have been told that in northwest Cameroon, the HIV rate is about 11%. Most of the orphans in the infamous orphanage I wrote about are there because their parents have died but as I had been told, none from Aids. Recently when the Pope visited Cameroon he refused to approve the use of condoms to prevent HIV or family planning. Besides the problem of supporting their large families, most of the women in the group had the similar complaints and frustrations. They had no jobs, their husbands had no jobs and they had problems with the extended family, who usually lived in the same compound. The majority had a small farm, which produced small amounts of corn and vegetables, which they used as food and sold the remainder. The men rarely worked on the farm or sold in the market, the women did most of the work. The second time we met I suggested that it would be advantageous if the women who only spoke pigeon, took advantage of a free English class sponsored to my surprise, by the government. One of their main complaints was how to handle extended family. Their homes were open to any relative who wanted to visit any time. I told them to set boundaries, lock the doors when they wanted privacy and tell their relatives to come back another day. They all laughed and said you cant do that in Cameroon. I said if they want things to be different, they have to make changes. Each woman also complained that their mother-in-law was always interfering, starting arguments and trying to break up the marriage, the husband never supporting them in these situations. As I had learned many years ago from one of my anger management books, I suggested they leave the room or change the subject, instead of engaging in an argument.
We finally reached the most important topic; how to earn a living. I went around the circle asking each woman how old she was and what she wanted to do. Grace, the woman burdened with the eighteen children, was surprisingly attractive and trim at the age of thirty eight. She spoke mostly pigeon so I had to rely on Olga to interpret. Her friend Jeannette, early forties, tall and buxom, had five children and a disabled husband. The two women had worked together before making and selling yogurt but now they had no capital to start again. One of the other woman, fifty years old, wanted to be a seamstress but had no money to buy a sewing machine. A few said they wanted to be traders and sell something, again no capital to start. The two younger girls had their own stories. Felicitas, seventeen, had to leave secondary school when her father died because there was no money for tuition. I agreed to talk to the principal at the bi-lingual high school where I had been teaching the environmental club. Leo offered her a job in the nursery and after meeting with the principal, he agreed to let her return in September. Leo was thrilled that he had an assistant and even had considered helping her pay her tuition. The following day she surprised us both. She informed us she was leaving town to stay with her sister in Bamenda instead of working for Leo to earn money for school. She pulled me aside and asked if I could I pay her tuition and books. Marilyn, eighteen had accidentally had a baby two years ago at the time she was apprenticing as a seamstress. I asked about the father of the child but she was very vague and said he died. Apprentices have to pay 50,000 francs ($100) a year to the tailoring shop. She had no money like all the others. I agreed to go with her and talk to the shop owner to see if she could pay her fees later. The tailor was very happy to see Marilyn either because she had showed talent or she was the most attractive of all the girls in the shop. He explained the yearly fee was to cover supplies and careless handling of the sewing machines. They were learning a trade and paying the fee gave them more motivation. I mentioned to Marilyn that I could possibly put up 25,000 fr($50) to give her the opportunity to open an account in a micro lending credit union. I had Leo explain to her the next day the procedure and he advised she go and find out all the details. In the interim I decided it would be more useful to give an opening deposit to a group of women rather than one individual. We gathered the womans group together one afternoon and announced that I would contribute 25,000 francs so the group could open an account at the f2 credit union. It was necessary for the group to deposit over three months something equivalent to what I had given them and then they could begin to borrow several times the amount from the bank at a low interest rate; micro lending as we know it. On the motocycle ride home we met Marilyn who wanted me to give her 25,000fr without any intention of going to the credit union; we told her to join the group if she really wanted to become a seamstress. The woman Grace with the eighteen minors at home, took my advice and sent her two teenagers to see Leo about jobs at the nursery. He has agreed and told me that if the boy works out he will send him back to secondary school and pay the tuition . Only time will tell if they follow through with their commitment to Leo and if the women who are opening the credit account with my donation, are able to eventually borrow enough so all can start their businesses.
After i wrote this article the two teenagers from the family of eighteen came to the nursery once and worked for a few hours. Leo gave them some money and they never returned. Since that time one of the students,Antonio, at the bi-lingual high school who had helped me with the environmental club and was assisting the teacher as well,was hired by Leo to work part time and holidays at my suggestion.. It seems to be working out quite well.. The women of Fujwa opened the account with the money i donated and we will see what the result it..

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