Last summer, I began searching for an organization to volunteer with in Haiti. During my research, I encountered a request that involved working in Africa. The request was to help an NGO called CEFASE, Cercle Feminin Pour l’Action Sociale et l’ Entraide – Female Circle for Social Action and Mutual Aid, develop a domestic violence program for facilitators/ trainers in the capital city of Yaoundé in Cameroon. Upon, my return from Haiti, I reconnected with this invitation.
Being a lifelong dream, the opportunity to volunteer in Africa was at the top of my “bucket list “. I leapt at this new challenge without much information other than the brief description given above.
I began reading about this central African country with excitement.
The average Cameroonian family is large and extended. In the north, women tend to the home, and men herd cattle or work as farmers. In the south, women grow the family’s food, and men provide meat and grow cash crops. Cameroonian society is male-dominated, Both monogamous and polygamous marriages are practised. Violence and discrimination against women is common.
It sounded incredible.
After extensive research, I departed with culturally sensitive materials, program manuals and Herman; my turtle puppet assistant that children had loved when I did trauma work in Haiti last year.
The description of duties however was far from accurate.
Upon arrival I learned that the “organization of CEFASE”, is in reality it’s founder, Celestine Youonzo, who was to be my constant guide and translator, and “the program” I was supposedly to help develop was.. me!
The work was done in villages surrounding the capital city of Yaounde. After a day’s travel we arrived in the first village at dusk. Walking to the edge of the village to be greeted by the chief we were immersed in jungle noises of the rainforest, watched thousands of fireflies along the path and reveled at the star filled sky. It was everything I had imagined of Africa.
The villagers were all gathered in a schoolroom. Celeste, my translator and “organization woman” asked me how I was to proceed. I suggested that we split the men and women into two different groups. Since the men were already there and may not return, I opted to begin with them. There I was with 23 African men staring at me waiting for me to talk to them about domestic violence, with no preparation!
I proceeded to improvise my first session about domestic violence. Surprisingly, I was met with earnest and enthusiastic responses and a meaningful dialogue was quickly established with this group.
Men who initially thought I was there to “defend women” quickly became receptive and engaged when I presented the information with the concept of how to make “healthier families” rather than discuss “domestic abuse.” They readily admitted that most of them beat their wives to get what they wanted and were dumbfounded at the suggestion there might be different approaches. They questioned how it was possible to keep the women in line without beatings and I assured them my husband does not beat me and that is precisely why I wouldn’t give my phone number to those of them who proposed to me. They were impressed that perhaps catching bees with honey might be effective and all were committed to trying that tactic! The men craved more information and presentations. We addressed key issues such as oppression, rape, symptoms of trauma in children who witness abuse, strategies for nonviolence, the UN laws of human rights and other topics pertinent to abuse. It went so well that one of the men honoured me by giving me a banana tree as a gift. Although touched, I decided a papaya was more suitable!
The women’s group followed. Constructs of violence against women were taught. We discussed trends of abuse, strategies, and trauma. We reviewed the effects of violence on children, and shared values, feelings and visions of the future. Additionally safe house options were discussed. (Men in the groups came forth to assist with safety for women. These homes would be secretive retreats in neighbouring villages for the women who were fleeing from dangerous assault). Securing these homes will be explored and developed in the next stages of this project with Celeste and future volunteers.
I soon learned that mothers beat their children, teachers beat their students, kids beat each other and men beat everyone. Students and teachers were added to the itinerary. My presentations evolved with each village we visited.
Working with the children was also very rewarding. I introduced topics such as getting the “angries” out without hurting themselves or others, establishing a safety plan in their homes, relaxation techniques and communication skills. Upon review of the presentation, the children said that they learned that they didn’t need to hit each other when they wanted something. Needless to say, Herman the turtle was a big hit.
One day a teacher approached me to share that she told her children she was no longer going to beat them and would instead use dialogue and allow for choices and natural consequences. She reported that they were screaming and jumping up and down with excitement wanting to meet the person who suggested that they no longer be beaten!
The villagers were warm, friendly and appreciative. When introduced they would give a sincere greeting, and accompany the handshake with the gesture of toilet paper offering. They have learned that “whites” like their toilet paper so all members of the household approached me with a big smile, a bigger welcome and a roll of toilet paper.
My trip ended with sightseeing, a canoe trip, a wildlife sanctuary, and an ascent of Mt. Cameroon, a mountain of 4,000 m on the coast of the south Atlantic Ocean. The countryside was exotic, as was the experience. I hope to return for more.
Despite the rigours of third world living, the trip was a grand success. It is unfortunate I could not continue on to many more villages in Africa but CEFASE is looking for more volunteers. If you have any skill you would like to share, they would more than welcome your help.
I would finally like to make a note of thanks to the folks that helped make this trip a reality. Thank you Teck Coal Ltd., Isosceles Business Systems, Donna and Dave Mortar, Kerri Wall, and The Whitiefish Army and Navy Store.