Yaoundé, 6 July 2018 – In April, I was given the wonderful opportunity to visit the refugee camps where the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) works in the Ketté region of eastern Cameroon. It was a trip amongst beautiful green jungles, through washed-out bridges, and over countless crevice-like ruts.
On my second day, I rode north to the Ketté-Bethanie camp where there are between 800-1000 refugees. The objective of the day was to hold a meeting with Fulani people from the Central African Republic (CAR) about gender-based violence and girls’ education: it was the first of its kind for the traditional Muslim community.
To even begin the meeting was a challenge. It took place inside a large tent-like tarp in the middle of the camp. The men sat on a bed of mats inside the tent, while the women sat behind the back of the tarp, as is customary in the community.
Because the talk was focused on gender-based violence, the organisers invited the women to move inside the tent, so that they could be more involved in the conversation. Following this simple, yet striking change of protocol, the meeting began in the language of the refugee community, Fulfulde.
After some time, the women were asked to voice their opinions and concerns. With much courage, these women revealed their great strength, not only by choosing to speak in a public meeting, but also by what they expressed.
In a meeting on gender-based violence, these women did not speak of their own safety or benefit. They did not speak out of concern for themselves.
Rather, these selfless mothers spoke for their children. Their love, the beautiful force that it is, was on full display as they shared their worries about their children’s malnutrition, education, and the lack of support for these needs.
They showed themselves to be the epitome of motherhood.
Little did I know, this would be the first of many encounters with the strong women of the Ketté region. The next day, I traveled the bumpy roads to the border town of Gbiti to sit in on a training session with the local primary school educators, a mixture of Cameroonian and refugee women. During this meeting I was moved by the enthusiasm and passion of the teachers.
They showed a competency that clearly stemmed from an appetite for their own education and articulated their thoughts and questions in a way that made evident their desire to be better teachers for the sake of the children in their communities.
It was an honor to sit amongst such inspiration. When visiting the Community Preschool Centers (CPCs) in the area, the care and concern for education of the women in the area was clear.
What could be empty shells made of wood and tarp were instead brightly decorated, inviting spaces that encourage the children to feel comfortable and safe in their learning environment.
To be given the chance to encounter these amazing women and their work will forever be a gift I remember.
- John Guyol SJ, JRS West Africa Volunteer