Monica is my neighbor. She lives in a mud brick room and is still taking care of herself after ninety years of working in the fields and raising eight children. Her son Eugene is my landlord and the only one of her eight children that cared enough to put himself through school. Getting an education is a great achievement here since there is no free schooling and 80% of the population lives in poverty. Eugene, who is vice principal of a private Christian school, has paid tuition for many of his nieces and nephews. Curious as to how many grandchildren Monica actually had, I discovered that two of the daughters had ten children each, one son had six, the other four and the last daughter only two. Birthing children without having a thought to how they would support them is a common theme in this country. The two sons and one daughter have since died, leaving 12 parentless kids. Fortunately my landlord took the responsibility of sending many of them to school. Some are doing extremely well. But not everyone has an educated supportive family member. Most children who lose parents leave school forever.
When was the last time you heard of a man having 14 wives and 79 children ? One of my woman friends in the village is one of those 80 children. I was surprised when she said he knew the name of each child. But the most disturbing element in this story are the women who agreed to bear his children and be part of his harem. Olga and her sister, said he was a very rich man but when he died his younger brother took all the wealth for himself leaving the 14 wives and 79 children penniless. They keep telling me here that there is a strong sense of community?
I recently had a conversation with a young Muslim, twenty five years old and unmarried. He said he was waiting to marry until he had enough money to build a house for all his wives. He had already decided he wanted three wives. When I asked him why he needed three wives, he explained he wanted to go with other women but Islam considered it a sin to sleep with a woman who was not your wife. So his only choice was to marry several women and not defile his god. He continued his argument explaining men were doing women a favor by taking several wives since there were more women than men in Cameroon. In closing he added that he needed several wives so that when one or two were pregnant, he would still have his sexual desires attended to.
A woman from the Muslim community came to my house to ask my advice. She had six children and was the third wife of her husband.. He would not send the kids to school and she was fed up with him. But if she divorced him, the children would stay with him since she had no way to support them. She wanted to know what should she do and could I help her. It was clear she had come for money and not advice. Muslim women over thirty years old usually have never gone to school, and speak only the Foulani language . Up until very recently, these women were not allowed to make any decisions about their lives. Girls of ten and eleven were married off and the father collected a bride price from the husband’s family.
Finally some fathers have consented to send their girl children to primary and possibly secondary school. Unfortunately many drop out before graduating, having no idea about or interest in any subject except marriage. I doubt the concept of child support has been heard of in most countries in Africa. Here whether the women are divorced, or unmarried, none of the fathers of these children contribute anything to their support. There are no laws protecting women if they are raped, beaten by their spouses, or evicted from their home when the man dies. The law states the husband’s family owns the house. Another ridiculous law does not permit a woman who has been raped to abort the child unless there was a witness to testify. Since abortion is a crime in this country, doctors refuse to preform abortions as the woman and the person preforming the abortion can be sent to jail.
Women have few rights or laws to protect them. Property belongs to the husband and his family. Even if the woman is allowed to live in the house after the
spouse dies, it will never belong to her. Divorced or unmarried women have no way to demand support for their children from ex husbands or birth fathers. Most young girls are abandoned by boy friends when they get pregnant. Men refuse to use condoms and women are afraid of men, even their husbands. The Christian and Muslim religions dominate African life and don’t support birth control, with the exception of the rhythm method which became obsolete forty years ago in the developed world.
So what we see here are women with a baby on their back, a baby in their belly and a baby by their side. And the spread of HIV. Young people die here all the time, the diagnosis being they were sick. The stigma here is so great, people do not go for treatment and eventually die without a diagnosis. The only people getting tested are pregnant women at hospitals for prenatal care. Several years ago in the one of the villages, we met a young girl with a sick baby. We took her and the child to the Catholic hospital in Nginikom. We discovered that she had been diagnosed with HIV a year ago at the hospital when the baby was born. She was given medication and told to return in four months to check the baby for HIV. But she had no money so she never returned. Where are all the free anti viral meds from the Bill Gates Foundation?
Maybe the government here knows………….