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Sarah Tucker

Sarah Tucker graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2011 with a major in International Politics and a certificate in International Development. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, she participated in the Berkley Center's Junior Year Abroad Network from Yaounde, Cameroon during the spring of 2010.

Sarah Tucker on Women's Day and Gender Roles in Cameroon

March 16, 2010

Last week, on March 8, it was International Women’s day. In Cameroon, it’s an enormous holiday with about two months of lead-up and preparation. There’s a special fabric that dress-makers use to make special dresses that everyone wears on Women’s Day, with phrases on it such as "solidaires toujours, solitaires jamais,” which means “never alone, always in solidarity.” The big culmination of the holiday is a parade of certain women’s groups and other organizations, including tontines, or rotating credit associations, microfinance organizations, the US Embassy, and many others. I was lucky enough to be able to parade with the microfinance organization called MUFFA, specifically designed for women in situations of urban poverty to start businesses and gain independence from their husbands. The parade was insanely hectic for the first block, but we had our lines, our steps, and our waves all coordinated by the next block. There was music playing, people cheering, and when I looked to my right, I saw CHANTAL BIYA herself watching the parade! Her hair was more amazing than I could have ever imagined. It was so amazing to be part of this demonstration of the strength of women, especially in a place such as Cameroon where women are responsible for so much, but are also so oppressed. Women in Cameroon are responsible for growing all of the crops to feed the family, raising the children, doing all of the housework, and often also must have a small paying job in addition in order to raise money. Men, meanwhile, are for the most part unemployed and spend a large portion of the day drinking beer and hanging out on the side of the road.

In the accompanying wave of pride that I felt on Women’s Day, I decided to take up some of the men I encountered in conversation about women’s role in Cameroonian society. I found out that, though I consider myself to be generally middle-of-the-road regarding women’s rights in the United States (neither radically feminist nor indifferent to the issue), my views on women’s rights make me the equivalent of a bra-burning feminazi.

My favorite conversation began when a Cameroonian man in a bus asked me to marry him. It was after a day of exasperating discussions with men about their perceptions of women. Feeling sassy and full of feminine pride in my Women’s Day dress, I told him that I could never marry a Cameroonian man because they all think that they are better than women. He immediately stated that he certainly didn’t feel that way, but women simply have their place in the home. The man is in charge of making big decisions, earning the income, and being the “chef du maison.” The woman, meanwhile, had more responsibility and was thus more important in the home, but she was still to respect the power and authority of her husband. I decided to reveal that, chez moi, my mother makes more money than my father, and usually has the final say in major family decisions. He was absolutely appalled, and automatically assumed that my father was bitter and unhappy in this upside-down relationship. I explained that it was normal in the United States for relationships to be this way, and I believed firmly in the sharing of authority between men and women in a relationship. All of the men – there were four by this point who had joined in to combat the crazy American in the bus – agreed that I had a complex that many women shared where. By fearing subjugation by my husband, I was trying to escape my traditional position. It’s more important, they said, to find power and strength in my feminine role and stop trying to “be like a man,” because I could never fill the same roles as men in society.

This conversation went back and forth between my explanations of gender in the United States and their explanations of gender in Cameroon, until finally an older man turned around and stated firmly: “It is in the Bible. Men are superior to women, and the woman is submissive to him in the relationship. It is an absolute truth.” All of the men looked at me, and I didn’t know what to say. Being unfamiliar with the Bible myself, I had no educated response to offer. I had come up against this argument before in conversations, and always considered it a dead end. Coming from a progressive Catholic university, I feel shocked that I don’t have a better response to this statement. Can someone please comment with some advice on what to say?

Luckily, this comment came just as it was my turn to get off the bus, and left the men with the parting statement that Cameroonian women are stronger and more capable then these men give them credit for. I decided to debrief this conversation with my host brother, asking him if it was possible to be a good Christian and believe in gender equality. He told me, “You can believe in gender equality, yes, as long as you know in your heart that your husband has slightly more competence than you.”

Happy Women’s Day!

Sarah Tucker on Development in Cameroon

April 23, 2010

Spending time in Kribi doing research on the Bakola-Bagyeli, I’ve had a lot of time sitting on the back of a motorcycle watching the jungle pass by to think about the great under-criticized buzzword of our world: “development.” I study development, I work in the field of development, and by this time next year I will have a diploma that cites me as a development “major.” But what is it exactly?

My research here has been about the positives, negatives, and challenges in integrating the Bakola-Bagyeli (Pgymies) into Cameroon’s education system. One of the questions I ask in my interviews with civil society members outside of the Bakola-Bagyeli community is “what is development for the Bakola-Bagyeli?” Most of my respondents tell me that this word does not exist in the Bakola-Bagyeli consciousness, and that they have probably never reflected on this question before themselves. This word that is the cornerstone of so many policies and projects influencing the Bakola-Bagyeli has thus been defined outside of their community. From what I’ve seen during my trips into the encampments and in conversations and interviews here, there are three different types of competing development:

1) The Cameroonian government is seeking to develop Cameroon’s economy by exploiting natural resources for export and processing, such as wood and iron. This means locating the resources within the forests around Kribi, proposing an exploitation plan, and proposing impact mitigation strategies. With the impending construction of a deep-sea port in Kribi, the number and capacity of these types of projects is bound to go up soon.

2) Quality of life and the realization of human capacity are limited by many challenges, and I don’t really know how to make an umbrella statement about them so I’ll just give an example of what I’m referring to. Women in Kribi for the most part do not work, staying at home doing the cooking and cleaning and taking care of the kids. I felt that all-American urge to burn my bra and liberate my fellow women upon arrival at my host family’s house, until it was my turn to do the cooking for the family last Saturday. I decided to make my mom’s special spaghetti recipe, which is pretty easy and requires only a few ingredients. However, buying beef, noodles, tomatoes, onions, and garlic literally took three hours: going to the market, finding quality meat at a good price, getting it ground by a hand-crank-grinder, navigating the crowded stalls, giving the obligatory greetings to each of our acquaintances along the way, and getting all the ingredients back home on a motorcycle taxi. Preparing at home took another two hours: grinding up garlic and pepper with a rock grinder, boiling water over a wood fire, cutting tomatoes and onions with a machete-sized knife and no cutting board, etc. By the time we were done cleaning up the mess we made, it was four o’clock and we were exhausted. Cameroonian dishes are in general very labor-intensive compared to this one, involving peeling hard root vegetables with a knife, mashing vegetables with a mortar and pounder, and gutting and cleaning fish by hand. Women in the compound bond over these activities, doing them together in groups while the neighborhood babies play together under their watch. Incorporating women into the workforce would not only require making shopping, cooking, and cleaning more efficient and convenient, but also require women to abandon this lifestyle and community. While I’m not saying that I’m suddenly all for a country of stay-at-home moms, I understand now that in the case of Kribi, it’s not something as simple as male oppression that keeps the women in the home. It is this type of infrastructure/culture/process-driven challenges that make up category #2 of development as I see it in Kribi: the little facts of life that keeps Kribi from maximizing its human potential.

3) Being understood. This is the type that most directly relates to my work with the Bakola-Bagyeli. They live in encampments in varying degrees of seclusion – some encampments are located along the roads built for the construction of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline, while others live several kilometers away from any type of access road. They are physically, culturally, and linguistically isolated from modernized society in Kribi and Lolodorf, the two major neighboring cities, made up of the Bantu majority. They suffer from lack of access to basic services such as health care and sanitation, lack of representation in local and national government bodies, and poverty due to their removal from Cameroon’s market/money economy. The majority of those interviewed have expressed desire to continue living their traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering in the forest, but believe that this will soon be made impossible due to encroaching projects (see section 1 of this post). Development for them, as I understand it thus far, is being able to continue their life in the forest with the best quality of life possible. This requires that the Cameroonian government, their Bantu neighbors, and development enthusiasts like myself understand their way of life and their desires.

This final point is why I think education concerning the Bakola-Bagyeli is such an interesting development study. I never before would have questioned the validity or importance of education, but in the case of the Bakola-Bagyeli, integration into the education system means less time to learn traditional practices such as hunting and gathering. At the same time, in order to be able to represent themselves and their interests, they must have a certain degree of education.

I think this is a classic stage that I’m in of study abroad – the Questioning Everything I Ever Learned in the United States phase – and I’d love to get some feedback about how people feel about education and development to help me think through this. I’ll also have a nice 105 kilometer ride to Lolodorf on Friday to reflect on these ideas some more on the way to the encampments.

Sarah Tucker on the Classic Conundrum of Empowerment versus Cultural Relativism

April 23, 2010

Last night, I could tell that my host mother was in a depressed mood. She wasn’t playing with her grandson or humming a song like she usually does in the evenings, filling out house with a sense of home. Last night, she was simply sitting quietly staring at the small dark space under the cabinet where we keep our dishes, pursing her lips. I asked her if she was tired, and she explained that fatigue was only part of it, and the rest was just problems – there was no money. After three weeks of living in the three-room house with my family of nine, I’m used to the uncomfortable issue of money coming up, and no longer let the guilt of my relative American wealth overwhelm me.

My mom went on to explain that my host father was not giving her any money, saying that she should work like him to make a living and not rely on his paycheck. My siblings had told me similar stories about my host father being very tight with his money, preferring them to find their own funding sources through odd jobs, but I didn’t know that this applied to my mother as well. My mother’s daily life consists of getting up with the children and preparing them for school: clean faces, clean shoes, uniforms, breakfast, and school books. She then cleans the entire house, stooped over with a hand broom sweeping the floor and then mopping by hand with a rag. She does the laundry by hand for the entire house, a long and tedious process involving a three-bucket wash and rinse system, a bar of soap, and rubbing clothes together until every stain is removed. She then hangs the clothes to dry on a wire outside, and commences preparing dinner. For a brief summary of what it is like to do shopping and cooking in Kribi, read point number 2 of the previous post. In brief, it takes several hours and is exhausting. Throughout the day as well, my host mother cares for her baby grandson while his mother is at work, feeding him, changing him, washing him, and dealing with his turbulent mood swings. By the time the family comes home, the house is spotless, the dinner is ready, and my mother is completely wiped out. But, she still finds time to make it to church functions, chat with her neighbors and friends, and sometimes even brings home fruit for the family as a treat. In the evenings, we eat the food, walk on the clean floor, dirty the clean clothes, and the next day her work starts all over again.

With this type of daily life, she has no time to go out searching for a job, let alone work during the day. Jobs are extremely hard to find in Cameroon in general, and the jobs that people do find tend to yield a profit of between 500 to 700 francs CFA per day – between one and two dollars, enough to buy a bar of soap or a beer.

My host father, for compensation for accommodating me at his house, was given a stipend of roughly $250 for the month. This money is to be used for food, soap, transport, etc for me at their house, all falling under the jurisdiction of my mother. However, she confessed to me last night that she has not been given even five francs from my father. As my mother stared listlessly across the dusty room, my father was out drinking beer with his friends at his favorite bar by the beach. He comes home each night late on his motorcycle, eats his dinner, and goes to sleep.

Unable to earn her own income with the poor Cameroonian economy and without any support from my father, my mother lives on the bare minimum. She receives just enough to buy the basics for the household, and the occasional bag of oranges for all of us to enjoy, but does not have enough money to leave the house and live a life of her own. Her situation highlights the merits of micro-loans and entrepreneurship programs targeting women as a means of gaining financial independence from their husbands. However, this does not address the problem of the lack of time, energy, and lack of respect from her husband that my host mother encounters. He sees her situation as resulting from a lack of initiative, but she told me earnestly that if she could work she would; she wants to be independent but there is nothing to be done. The best she can do is going to her family’s village every few weeks to harvest macabo to sell in the market in town.

I didn’t know what to say to her, and I still have not decided whether it is my place to confront my host father about being more generous with his salary to support his family. The fact that he refuses to share even the stipend from my program demonstrates that this problem goes beyond the fact that my mother does not work, but also that he views every cent he earns as his own to do what he pleases. Stepping in and saying something to him could cause conflict between him and my mother, and might make the situation worse. It’s tempting to take charge of the situation and campaign for my mother’s case, but at the same time I have to be careful about imposing my culture and my own opinions on my family.