In follow up to the previous post…I had a conversation with a local spiritual leader before court started the other day and was informed that if I ever married a Cameroonian man (good thing I’m already married, eh?) I’d have to give up all rights to inheritance and property because I would be the mans property. Nice, huh? Something he mentioned made a lot of sense though in what partially drives this mentality–men do view provision of bride price as paying for and acquiring property. So it seems as though at least if you were to rid tradition of the bride price requirement it would be at least one step towards viewing women less as property and more as people. After finishing this conversation up (the man was a traditional spiritualist so his views weren’t necessarily surprising) I went to speak with the “collaborators” (I think they are the function equivalent of junior associates) in our law chambers about the issue. I fully expected them to be of the opinion that the traditional laws are counter to equality and natural justice (which make them, therefore, counter to national and international laws to which Cameroon is bound). These guys–relatively well off, highly educated, “liberal minded” young men–promptly told me that women will never be equal in any way, particularly in intellect, that we are too emotional, that we have an obligation to always be subservient to our husbands (thanks, Bible) and generally we have few rights. This was coming from the Chambers which CHRAPA retains to help represent women in disputes against traditional/customary law. Not a good situation. In light of all of this (and my raging “emotions”, which when the men experience they call “passion”) I’m going to work with CHRAPA to establish a legal training seminar for barristers and magistrate students (judges don’t arise from the ranks of lawyers here, they study to be judges. This creates a whole other set of problems that maybe I’ll get in to some other time). If nothing else, these professionals need to be aware of the proper interpretation of the law–according to both international agreements (CEDAW, as one example) as well as Cameroonian law (the Supreme Court here recently issued a decision that women cannot be denied inheritance b/c it is repugnant to equality). So depending on what all happens with that I may have more to report some time soon here.
Anyhow, today I thought I’d write about something else that arises from marriage and sex…kids. Lots and lots and lots of kids. 4.7 per woman on average, actually. To help put this in to perspective: there are approximately 3 houses in the area immediately surrounding ours. These three houses produce no fewer than 15 children (the actual number I think is closer to 20 or so, but I am never sure which children belong to what house since they are always running about randomly through the neighborhood). And the concept of babysitting here means that the community in general will watch the kids–read: they are free to wonder wherever they so choose, which means that very often you’ll see teeny little legs toddling along the side of the high way.
The kids here are adorable to look at, and some of them are in fact very sweet and cute and polite. However, some of the pickin (the pidgin word for kids) are horribly behaved. An anecdote: let’s start by referring back to the 15-20 neighbor kids. The range in age from about 2-15 but most of the bad ones are between 5 and 10. They get immense enjoyment by trying to sneak in to our house when we aren’t paying attention. Then they will steal our stuff. Particularly food stuff. We usually have breakfast sitting our our porch (bread with avocado, maybe cheese and sausage if we have it around). We used to have a few types of chocolate spread–basically bootleg nutella. However, last week when I ran inside to fix my coffee and left the breakfast supplies sitting on our porch table as per usual those pickin robbed all of chocolate spread. Little shits. I mean this literally…read on.
These kids also make a habit of trying to play in our trash pit. This is where all of our garbage goes–food waste (like some meat that had spoiled rotten when our fridge broke last weekend), plastic bags, old containers, and broken glass. Side note to the environmentally conscious: Sorry! there’s NO recycling here. there’s no waste disposal system in general so I mean, at least we put all of ours in to a pit instead of dumping everything into one of the streams, or into crop fields. Because who doesn’t love corn grown in heaps of poo and battery acid!? Anyhow, the kids that come up to play in and raid the trash actually come from just down the road (I think, but like I said it’s essentially impossible to tell what kids belong where since they are never with their parents or guardians or whatever). Whenever they don’t think we’re around or paying attention they’ll come and start to go through everything and tossing things around. Aside from the fact that they could totally hurt themselves (see the aforementioned bit about how there is broken glass in the trash pit) they make a horrible mess…as well as mess in the pit. By which I mean, one of the little ones (I would guess somewhere around 2 1/2-3 yrs) pooped in the pit in front of Lars. Lovely. The other morning around 6:15 am I heard some rustling outside my window, which has a gorgeous view of the trash pit, and rose to find the kids farting around in there again. So I don drive dem pickin away (I chased the kids away). This happens ALL the time. Lars has taken to going outside with a machete to scare them away. He’s also spoken to some of the parents at neighboring houses about the issue but to no avail. Let’s keep in mind that these are the same kids who will come up and sit and stare at you for as long as you can stand it because they want to be your friend. I’ve stopped being friends with them and the threat of white man ju-ju may be the next option for getting them to stay away from out stuff.
I was speaking with Aunty Jane about the situation with these kids (they are francophone) and she made the comment that the widely held opinion is that francophone children will do what they please and anglophone pickin will do what their parents and elders ask of them. I’ve gotta say that so far I have found this to definitely be the case. The kids in the compound down at the office are all adorable. Every time they see me they’ll call out “Aunty Mary! Hello! HEL-loooow!” and they’re politely inquisitive. If you tell them to stop messing with something, they will. They are also eager to please you, and will present you with drawings and stories and basically I want to pull an Angelina-donna and take all dem pickin back with me.
But seriously, there are a LOT of problems that arise out of having so many children, and several reasons that the birth rate is so high as well. Let’s get to the reasons each woman births so many children first. The primary reason is that infant and child mortality is high–8.23% to be exact (World Bank, 2008). The child mortality rate (which refers to number of deaths per 1,000 children under age five) is 13.11%. Compare these stats, respectively, with Ghana (5.101%, 7.61%) and the US (though, obviously there’s no comparison in levels of development here, I just want to give you an idea of why there are so damn many kids everywhere: 0.67%, 0.78%; the birth rate in the US is 2.1 children per woman by the way). To emphasize the above point: there are areas of Bamenda where families won’t even name their children until they’ve reached their second birthdays because so many of them die in infancy.
Another reason for having so many children is that many people here survive off of subsistence agriculture and tending farmland. It’s fairly obvious that the more hands you have to help you around the farm, the more work can be accomplished in a shorter period of time. However, this “solution” tends to be part of the problem with having so kids: more children=more mouths to feed. And when the family is barely making a living off of subsistence agriculture having more mouths to feed isn’t exactly convenient. Moving beyond just feeding the children…schools here are not free and require uniforms. Add school fees and uniform costs to the cost of providing food and shelter for that many people (roughly 7 people per family, though many families I’ve encountered are composed of many more than that) and you have an unsustainable situation. This in turn leads to increasing problems with maltreatment of children and trafficking–issues that we’re here to work directly with.
Yesterday I had a first hand opportunity to became very aware of the extent of the problem with the inability to provide for children and its subsequent repercussions. CHRAPA was called to participate in an intervention for a possible case of child trafficking (the details of the case were published in local news media on Saturday, and have been discussed on other media programming, including local BBC affiliates so there is no breach in any confidentiality issues here). Basically the facts are as follows: a woman was intercepted on a bus heading towards Bafoussam (about 3 hours from Bamenda, and Mbessa, the village where this matter initiated) with eight children in town. She had transport certificates (basically bus tickets) for only three of the children. Those three turned out to be her own offspring. She didn’t even know the names of the other five. They ranged in age from 6-15 years old. The woman was subsequently detained. The government social services representative (more on him shortly) called in CHRAPA and another local organization that deal with many cases of child trafficking to participate in the “intervention.” Uncle Joe called me along to join him at the justice station (ie police department, detectives office) and the following transpired:
The childrens relatives were present to claim the kids (that they had sent off to be transported across the country to work) and take them back home. They were questioned by the lead detective, state representative, Uncle Joe and Laura (the woman from the other NGO) to try and establish what sort of care the parents normally provide for the children, if the parents rely on the children to provide farm labour, if the children receive education and whether or not the parents knew what was going on. To say the parents were evasive and untruthful is an understatement (Ex: Farm work here starts no later than 5 am–ANYbody here can attest to this–and extends until 3 or 4 in the afternoon at the earliest. The families claimed that they work from 7am until noon. And that the children are simply there to watch). The parents admitted to sending their children away, but claimed ignorance to the fact that shipping your children off to provide forced labor is illegal. This part I actually do believe–the locals participating in the intervention repeatedly referred to the village as primitive (very poor, with very low numbers of educated people). This detail came to be very important when we went to the magistrates office for him to determine whether or not this was a case of trafficking (ie if he felt like it should be prosecuted).
So after this interrogation process was completed we were off to the magistrates office. On the way there, the government representative from the social services office called a friend of his at the radio to tell him that he was going to try and bring all eight children in so they could speak about their experience on air. Remember how I said these kids were between the ages of 6 and 15? Add I think we can all deduce that they were victims of some form of neglect if not trafficking (this was a clear cut trafficking case, according to Cameroon’s law, just by the by…if we’re going by facts and evidence and what not. Not that those things actually matter to the way this law is implemented here). Anyhow, to me (and according to the law, as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Cameroon is party) this was a GROSS violation of the privacy, interests and general treatment of these children. Needless to say, I became VERY vocal with Mr. Government Social Services about the fact that to force the children to go to a radio and talk about their ideal was a HORRIBLE idea, not to mention illegal and completely unethical. He responded that it was to help sensitize the public about the problem. Right. It was quite sick really. Thank god it never got to this point…unfortunately the reason is that all of the children were released to their parents b/c the magistrate thinks there are too many problems with Cameroon’s child trafficking laws.
Really? REALLY?!?! Mr. Magistrate…your law provides for three elements which, if met, constitute trafficking. The magistrate informed all of us, however, that if they were really to apply these laws that everybody would be guilty of trafficking because there is such a community mentality behind caring for children here. So, although the facts of this case (woman transporting undocumented children whose names she could not give to another area of the country to work) met each of the three elements, since Mr. Magistrate thinks it’s dangerous to protect children from trafficking because that could threaten the system of child care here…this woman, and the parents are off the hook for anything. The Social Services guy then said he would call the parents to check up on the children.
A few quick words on Social Services. They don’t exist. This government social services delegate is the one tasked by law for caring for the children who are picked up in cases such as this. He however dogged this responsibility and instead headed them over to the head of their village counsel who was them supposed to provide for them. There’s little wonder why the village counselor was thus so eager to get the children back to their families–the government provides ZERO resources to care for, feed, cloth any children who are wrapped up in such disputes. There are (on paper) ten homes throughout Cameroon designated to provide such services…however, in actuality none of them exist. So these children are left to the charity (or lack there of) of people whom they are shoved upon while their parents use poverty and ignorance as a defense to their trafficking. It’s really quite despicable and the failure of the judicial system to protect the interests of the children and properly enforce a law that was enacted by their own government is generally very very repugnant to justice. There are no social workers to visit these families, now that the children have been sent home. So whether or not these children end up being trafficked again will essentially remain unknown.
The entire “intervention” was extremely education and informative. Unfortunately it also left me feeling a little ill, incredibly frustrated and very disappointed in the judicial system here (well that last thing, that happens pretty much every day). Apparently the US State Department also has a problem with the enforcement of child trafficking laws here (at least this is what I’ve been told) because they’ve poured a bunch of money in to educating people on the issue and the related laws. Unfortunately, the judicial branch (which is actually part of the executive) is just as in denial about these problems as they are about everything else. I realize more and more every day how in denial the government is about any short comings, and how eager some of the officials are to pass the blame off to the poverty and ignorance of the public (please see past posting: Oh, that’s just Africa). I’m coming to the belief that no matter how much work is done on the ground the only way that change will really come to Cameroon is through a complete overhaul of the government and the mindset that supports the government. Testimony to the fact that I’m living in NW Region I suppose.
Well, in better news…USA SOCCER!?!?!?!?!?!? WOOOOOOT! Most of the foreign volunteers were thrilled yesterday (the majority of us being American, German and English. The only disappointment was for the Socceroo’s who expected nothing else) and this sets up some great action for the next round.
I hope you are all celebrating and wearing fabulously awful costumes and chanting…something. U-S-A! U-S-A!