Alexandra Bornac By Alexandra Bornac

Yaoundé is a beautiful city built around seven hills (namely why I call it the Rome of Africa). From any point of the city you can spot the peak of every hill: a green paradise. The problems lie at the base of this paradise. As the research I conduct here is targeted around HIV/AIDS, gender inequality, land and inheritance rights, I could not resist the urge of observing the living conditions and urban structure in Yaoundé.

It is understood that a clean house and a roof is necessary to safeguard one’s health and it is important in the moments of convalescence. It is not the case here where houses either have no roofs and the windows consist of a stack of old t-shirts stuffed in rectangle holes. Bastos, one of the richest neighbourhoods of Yaoundé, is filled with expensive houses and embassies surrounded by well-kept gardens. In between these imposing and well-built buildings, you find the native population who sold their lands to buy food. Yet, they kept small parcels where they built houses out of dirt which bent towards the ground at the slightest wind blow. They are not painted, nor do they have floors: they are built directly on the ground. The roofs are different pieces of metal put together simply to protect from the rain but there is never a guarantee that it will work.

The other consistent problem is the abundance of garbage lying on the streets or thrown in the rivers. Canals are built between the main roads and the pavement to divert the rain water, but instead they turned into intense smelling garbage disposals. I pass to work a complex of apartment buildings where the smells are impossible to handle for more than ten seconds and the mountains of garbage seem to have grown higher since I got here.

The rich build houses as wide as their parcel of land and as high as to cast a thick shadow on the small houses that the poor barely try to keep standing. The discrepancy is astonishing and the images are worth a thousand words. It reflects the true structure of the society: you are either very rich or very poor. The middle class is non-existent and the poor constitute the majority of the population. Those that have the money prefer to fund soccer fields, churches or private universities. Some will sometimes even pay for street lights in their neighbourhoods but the majority of the Yaoundé areas remain unlit at 7 pm when the sun is gone. Populated areas get their lights from the little bars on the side of the road or the grill fire that the street food vendors use.

Yaoundé is also filled with half-built house: people will start big projects and will stop mid-through due to lack of money. This gives squatters the opportunity to settle in these construction sites. One 5 story building I pass on my way to work every day stands there half-finished and you cannot be oblivious to the sheets attached to the ceilings which play the role of walls.

The saddest image I encountered was when I was walking towards to the biggest park in Yaoundé situated downtown. On my way I could not stop looking at the garbage lying around in front of the prime minister’s office. I tried to look the other way and I only met the eyes of a woman who must have been around 60 years old sitting in the seat of an abandoned car. She was smiling, but her eyes were sad as she was rearranging the sheets so that the rain does not penetrate in what was definitely her home.

A couple of weeks ago, the garden of the house across the street caught on fire in the middle of the night. It was a sort of apartment building with a kitchen outside. While nobody was actually aware of the fire until it reached the height of the house, neighbours gathered as fast as they could to try to control the fire until the firefighters showed up. Yaoundé is the capital and, thus, the traffic is unbearable at almost any time of the day. However, in the middle of the night, any movement by car should take a maximum of 15 minutes. The firemen took 30 minutes to reach the neighbourhood and, luckily, they arrived somehow in time (regardless of the fact that the neighbours had to tear down the wooden fence of the house before it caught on fire).

I can only imagine how long it will take for an ambulance to reach a dying patient. It is not about promptness, it is about the streets that are slowly turning into red dirt. If it rains for more than a half an hour, the streets turn into fast-running rivers (in which I have fallen repeatedly). Two way streets turn into one way streets when all the cars and motorcycles drive only on the good side. The red dust fills the air abundantly every day as the car pass by hurriedly through the narrow and unpaved streets. Each time I am told: C’est la réalité de notre pauvreté.

Parks are rare to be found and those made by the government demand an entrance fee and are barely the size of the law faculty. There is no way to escape the city and its pollution, no way to escape the life and the worries. The paradise is only to be found on top of those hills where the air is still clean, the lands virgin and the quietness is only interrupted by the sound of birds singing the day away.




Soit la folie, soit la femme décède

Alexandra BornacBy Alexandra Bornac

The first two weeks of my internship revolved around preparing a proposal for UN Women and working along with the CONGEH team for the organisation of an advocacy workshop aimed at raising awareness amidst institutional actors. CONGEH is a conglomerate of smaller NGOs that work under the platform of gender – habitat – HIV/AIDS. Its specific goals makes CONGEH not only a network of NGOs with an interesting view but also endows it with the daunting, yet successfully accomplished task of answering all the questions with a high degree of hands-on knowledge, specificity and accuracy.

The workshop was focused not only on raising awareness, but also on obtaining a clear set of answers, recommendations and solutions with regards to the stigmatisation of women and the violation of their rights. Undoubtedly, the presence of representatives of different ministries was more than a prerequisite, while the presence of members of CONGEH and other NGOs was the trigger.

Regardless of the research I conducted and the statistics that I familiarized myself with during the preparation period, it was during the workshop where I quietly, mindfully and critically learned more than simple numbers or a list of well-known causes. The clash of customary and state law seems to favour the traditional views and practices of the Cameroonian communities. Chiefs of different under-developed areas of Yaoundé presented the reality of these customs: women are discriminated, widows can be accused of their husbands’ death and words such as property and succession are rarely, or almost never, associated with women. Yet, the favouring does not necessarily spur out of a preference for customary law. It is the lack of knowledge of their rights and, thus, their non-claiming that put women in such a precarious situation.

Now, of course, the conversation also took the direction of religion, as Cameroon is a country with a fear of God, regardless whether the God is catholic, orthodox, Muslim, etc. English and French are the official languages for the purpose of standardizing, but there are other 250 languages spoken in Cameroon. Cameroon is called Africa in Miniature not only for its landscape but also for its mix of cultures. We usually say there are as many opinions as there are men. This is true.

The law is meant to help bring about these changes in a uniform, healthy and non-violent way. The government is expected to successfully develop tools in order to encourage these changes. Everybody agreed that the law has been drafted in such a way as to encourage the promotion of equal rights of men and women. Yet, the participants strongly disagreed on what the government through its ministries and projects has done up until now and what tools they offer for these women. Lack of knowledge is prevalent in Cameroon. While I have not had the chance of leaving the heart of Yaoundé, members of other NGOs insisted on the lack of resources offered to these women. Women suffering of HIV/AIDS do not acknowledge and have no means of reaching the places where the government put in place special areas to help. Nonetheless, while these tools are thoughtful and meant to only do well, their application in real life situations has not been done effectively. Their translation into practice causes most of the problems and the dissatisfaction of the people is immense.

CONGEH has conducted its own study on 2000 women suffering of HIV/AIDS in the communities of Yaoundé and has observed that stigmatisation, lack of knowledge of their rights, violation of their rights to property, succession and housing, all lead to unsanitary life conditions as these women are abandoned, kicked out of their homes or left in unimaginable living conditions that do nothing but worsen their already weak situation. While infected men choose to abandon their homes, women are removed from the households and find themselves homeless or turn into squatters. Living a normal life while suffering of HIV/AIDS is no longer a dream, but it demands access to treatment, clean water and decent living conditions: the lack thereof leading to a fast deterioration of both their physical and mental health. The stigmatisation of those suffering of HIV/AIDS knows no gender discrimination, but the acute predisposition of women to being discriminated with regards to their rights to ownership leads to a casting aside with repercussions unbeknownst to our imagination.

Education of the society, modernisation and dismissal of the discriminating practices were in the minds and on the lips every workshop participant.  If modernisation is the goal, and the removal of discriminating practices is the beginning, how will that work? What does modernisation actually entail? What effect will it have on all the Cameroonian customs? As newer generations are born changes are brought. Yet, each community wants to maintain its culture, while some even refuse compromises. Of course, the removal of discriminating practices is ideal and it is suggested, but how fast will it be done? And, do fast solutions necessarily mean realistic measures?

As I am typing this blog entry at my desk, I realize it takes more than a workshop and an exchange of words to draw the real picture. These are numbers, opinions and well-known causes that have yet to been efficiently tackled. Modernisation is thrown around as a word that fills no gap, heals no wound and carries no weight. I look forward to the days where I will sit around the table facing the women we have been talking about. Their stories, their sorrows, their concerns will teach me even more than the intense debate did. And, hopefully, with time, madness or death will no longer exist as options.

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