During dinner last night at the home of the Catholic priest in Fundong, I broached the touchy subject of birth control and abortion. Eric, a Peace Corp volunteer suggested we visit the priest to discuss two of the fourth graders we sponsor at the Catholic school who cannot read or write. The school expounds a 100% success rating and the school fees are 39,000cfa vs 2000cfa for public primary school. Father Christopher and the two other priests were surprised more than concerned but we agreed to meet the following week at the school, observe the class and talk with the teacher.
Another issue that concerned me was the excessive number of pregnancies in the village. I mentioned how many teenage girls I had noticed since I arrived with new babies tied to their backs and young single women with two or three kids. Without hesitation I asked the three priests their opinion on birth control. They replied, as I expected, that the church only condoned birth control for married couples. Unfortunately that leaves a large percentage of the population with unwanted pregnancies and contracting HIV. Concerning abortion, the Welsh father relentlessly supported the church’s argument that life begins at conception regardless whether the woman was 15 years old, raped or living in a one room mud brick dwelling barely managing to feed herself and her numerous fatherless children.
The Cameroonian government, probably to appease the church, considers abortion a crime of murder. Last year Eric told us the story of a young Cameroonian girl, 21 years old, from the village of Njinikom, that had been raped and wanted to terminate the pregnancy. Since most of the hospitals are faith based and refuse to preform abortions, she resorted to an illegal one and died. Most women in this country who do try to abort, end up hemorrhaging and bleeding to death, afraid to go to a hospital for fear of being reported to the police or bringing shame on the family. After one of the priests explained that most women who survive an illegal abortion suffer guilt and pain ever after, I was compelled to share my own personal experience and rather my sense of relief not guilt. I don’t know how well this went over with the priests since a power outage and a torrential rainstorm created a major distraction.
This is my fifth visit to Cameroon and I am adamant that the problem of multiple pregnancies, teenage pregnancies and rape to be one of the biggest issues standing in the way of combatting poverty and ignorance. In the village my neighbor Vivian has four children with three different fathers. The last child is mentally challenged, the third child cannot read, write or add, the second does poorly in school. The first born, Remi ,is very bright and I have spent time talking with him about himself (which is rare in this culture)bringing novels, a short wave radio and introducing him to new foods and ideas. Sadly he has been diagnosed with a deteriorating eye disease but the medical community here has much to learn so I don’t know if this is accurate.. So many birth deficiencies and defects are a result of malnutrition and vitamin deficiency during pregnancy. Vivian, 32, went to school until the age of 12, can not read,barely writes and has lived in abject poverty all her life. Her father, a farmer has two wives and 21 children. Her mother gave birth to ten of them. Vivian’s twenty year old sister, a single mother at 15, finished primary school and now has three month old as well. She lives with her parents. Then there is my Cameroonian friend who is number 72 of 79 children. Her father had four wives, none of them went to school obviously busy making babies . She was born forty five years ago but this custom of polygamy is still very much alive today.
Since I first came to Fundong four years ago, I have funded several women’s groups with startup money for small ventures. But 80% of the time, since almost all have no math skills or problem solving capabilities, within a few months their capital has evaporated and they have no funds to purchase more merchandise. I have funded Vivian’s small donut business several times but if you gain in profit four dollars a day from a six dollar investment, how is it possible to feed your children, buy basic necessities and invest in the small business. There is no free medical care in a country where people live on less than fifty cents a day so one illness is catastrophic. This is the story all across Africa.
This is the reason we have started funding children to go to primary school and continue in high school. Only with knowledge and education can a change evolve, starting with this new generation.