There is nothing like being surrounded by a group of wonderful women.
On one recent night, teachers from the surrounding schools of Wabane District in Cameroon gathered together for dinner. All of them were women, and they taught a variety of subjects and ages at primary and secondary schools in the region. The purpose of our dinner was to have an informal focus group about the current state and specific needs of the girls and women in the region, based on the teachers’ expertise and personal experiences. The incessant laughter, candor and tender conversation were all happy side effects.
There were eleven of us, including me. We gathered around outside in a circle of chairs, halfway up a grand mountain that overlooks the district. Palm and banana trees dot the side of the mountain, and most of the time the stunning view is painted over with wisps of haze because of the altitude. Our circle was located beside the outdoor brick cooking structure, so we could be close to Stella, who was kindly cooking dinner for everyone and was an integral part of the conversation.
Now, the term “girl talk” definitely reduces the depth and richness of our conversation, so I will call it Women Talk. The conversation was frank and honest, and meandered from sex (obviously the first topic that came up!) to dating, marriage, contraception, abortion, career and childbirth. The topics spanned the phases of a female’s life from girlhood to beyond menopause.
The women were as curious about my (and by extension, the North American) female experience as I was about their experiences of being women in Cameroon. Of course, we were a group of individuals and can’t possibly represent all of the women from our cultures. But there are certainly cultural influences that contribute to our experience of womanhood.
We asked one another all of the questions that were on our mind. There were no restrictions. Having open dialogue was a great way to address all of the questions and musings we’d had over the past two weeks of working together on Mother Nature Partnership’s girls’ program. Most of the questions reinforced for me how universal womanhood is. And then some questions illustrated some glaring differences.
So what about the conversation showed me how universal womanhood is? The first question for me was, “Do you still have sex while you’re pregnant?” and we had a riot from there on. The way that we laughed felt universal. So did the way that we connected immediately, and felt safe and authentic. I felt the same way I would with a group of female friends in Canada. And the makeup of the group was familiar: one woman was brazen and unafraid to be vulgar, making everyone laugh repeatedly; one woman was watchful and curious, and carefully chose her questions; yet another woman was friendly and kind, keeping an eye on her toddler while engaging in the conversation. Both myself and a woman in the group were far along in our pregnancies, and we bonded over this easily. Our connection felt similar to the one I had the other day with a pregnant woman at a Riverdale coffee shop – after seeing each other’s “baby bumps” we went quickly from strangers to comrades. The questions that we asked each other were the same: are you having a boy or a girl (ours is a surprise!), how many weeks are you, how do you feel and so on.
And what were those other questions, the ones that brought our differences to light? Well, the question, “So what would you do if your husband took a second wife?” comes to mind. (It was somewhere around this time that I, a vegetarian for the past ten years, heard two chickens being caught and killed ten feet away, and tried unsuccessfully to keep my face casual as if I kill chickens for dinner every day.) All eyes were on me, and I answered, “He wouldn’t”. They pressed me further. “But what if he did?” I answered, “It’s illegal in Canada”, and they retorted again, “But what if he did?” Well, that stumped me. Eventually I said, “I don’t want to think about it!” and again we laughed together. They also asked me if it was true that in America women are so afraid of labour pains that they schedule ceasarean sections ahead of time, whether abortions were legal in Canada and whether we had to take contraception in secret from our male partners. This last one particularly showed a major difference – most Canadian men in their 20’s would be more than happy to have their partners take the pill, but these women shared that they often had to do so in secrecy or not at all. They expressed that the number of children they had was not their decision to make. (Of course, this is not a statement about all women in Cameroon, but rather the experience of the women in this group).
The women were shocked to hear that my husband Nik does more of the cooking than I do, and that he will be taking a paternity leave while I continue to work – and suffice it to say, I left the conversation feeling infinitely grateful that I have such a supportive and giving partner, and that we have infinite freedom to carve out gender roles as suits our personalities. In the conversation, I learned that these educated, smart women had numerous questions about menopause as they had heard rumours about it but didn’t know what it entailed. I am by no means an expert in menopause but the information I shared was eagerly received and followed with more menopause questions. They said that it was not talked about, and I made a note to incorporate a brief section on menopause into the girls’ programming – information to file away for later in life. This was only one piece of information I learned, amidst a wealth of new information that these women gifted to me.
Surpassing these interesting differences was what brought us all together: was care and dedication for the girls in the communities of Wabane District. Lack of menstrual care, economic hardships and early pregnancies are very real challenges that these girls are faced with, often forcing them out of school before they complete their education. Of course, dropping out of school for these reasons leads to further challenges, and often perpetuates a lifetime of struggling to make ends meet. These powerful women teachers work day after day, and year after year, to support these girls and guide them to finish their education before starting a family. And often they have to watch as classrooms slowly go from a 50/50 split of boys and girls to classrooms made up predominantly of boys. These girls and boys then become the women and men of society, and are separated by the gender restrictions that are forced upon them. As they are upon men and women everywhere, albeit in different ways. This affects me deeply, as it does the group of women teachers. We were also united in our sharing of ideas: how we can alter this reality and provide the girls with everything the need to fulfill their potential? Because their potential is abundant, and clearly evident when you spend any amount of time with them.
When the conversation ended, I was left with new ideas, a wealth of information and fresh curiosities, renewed conviction that our program is essential – and sore cheeks from laughing so hard.
By Irene Whittaker-Cumming, Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership. This is the first in a series of blog about Mother Nature Partnership’s girls’ program in Cameroon.