Young Women and Education
in Tibati, Cameroon, West Africa: A Letter from a Peace Corps Volunteer
Peace Corps, Cameroon
|Editors' Note: The following account of women's
education in Tibati, Cameroon is a personal account by Stephanie Don, a
Peace Corps Volunteer currently working in Cameroon. We suggest several
possible uses in the world history classroom. First, the National Archives
Records Administration's Digital Classroom has a lesson plan that uses the
founding documents of the Peace Corps as its core (see http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/peace_corps_documents/peace_corps_documents.html).
Teaching activities include having students discuss the importance of voluntarism
in American society: this letter could be used in the context of understanding
the values and mission of the Peace Corps. It could also be used in conjunction
with other letters written by Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Africa (a
good source is http://www.peacecorps.gov/wws/students/letters/)
to compare and contrast contemporary American perspectives on contemporary
African societies, and what such perspectives can tell us about the African
societies in question as well as about the values of the Peace Corps. In
addition, this letter could be used in conjunction with the sources on women
in Cameroon provided by Marc Gilbert in this issue's "Paper Trails" column
as a way of exploring problems and issues of gender in Cameroonian education.
is cramming for the troisieme, the third level of the probatoire,
a final exam to determine whether she will be able to continue her education
in the Cameroon school system. She is only two years away from graduating
from lycée, the French equivalent of American high school. If she
passes this probatoire she can move on to the deuxieme, the
second level, and then only the bacclaureate during her terminale,
or final year of education, stands between her and graduation. Along with
all of her studies, she has been saying a couple of extra prayers to Allah
outside of the five obligatory prayer times most Muslims adhere to. Asking
for a little divine intervention is not a bad idea, considering that a large
percentage of students in Tibati, Fadimatou's village, end up taking the
test two to three times before either passing or giving up.
The Cameroonian education system, based on the French
model, is theoretically superior to the American public school system in
that students attend lycée for six years instead of four. It would
be the equivalent of high school and two years of college. Adhering to the
rigorous French education model, however, places enormous burdens in the
way of Cameroonian students. The poverty and traditions of Tibati and Cameroon
deprive children of the economic and social resources they need to make
their way through this educational obstacle course. The result is that many
fail, and young girls fail more often than young boys. Fadimatou studies
hard into the night, trying to be the exception.
Tibati is a medium-sized village of about 15,000
people in the western Adamaouan province- a savannah plains connecting the
deserts of northern Cameroon with the humid rainforests of the south. Often
characterized as the "lost province," Adamaoua is quite isolated, which
protects traditional and cultural values but also impedes development. All
roads leading in and out of the village are either dirt or asphalt, riddled
with potholes and ruts. The bush taxis that zoom along between villages,
weaving in and out of the potholes, cattle and pedestrians, kick up copious
amounts of dust or mud depending on the season. The taxis provide one of
the few means of transportation in Tibati, but are highly unreliable as
they easily break down due to age and the hardships of the road. Contributing
further to Tibati's isolation is the lack of communication. Email is still
a foreign concept and, although cell phone service has been established
in many other parts of the Cameroon, remote Tibati is still waiting to receive
its first cell dish. As far as mass media goes, even when one can afford
to buy a television, only a few channels come through. Most radio channels,
meanwhile, are wracked with interference. Because of Tibati's limited exposure
to mass media and the grueling journey to any major city, technology and
change in general has been extremely slow in coming to the village. The
lack of overall development instigates a cycle of poverty that seems to
tightly enclose the future of young people like Fadimatou.
Education of youth is commonly seen as the
way out of the cycle of poverty, but every year a Cameroonian student
continues in school it is an additional financial strain on the family.
Although the government provides free elementary education, parents who
want their children to receive secondary education in the lycée
must pay a tuition of seven to ten thousand Fcfa (14-20 USD) per year,
not to mention the costs of books, school supplies and uniforms. And,
since the Muslim religion of may Cameroonians allows men to practice polygamy,
it is not unusual to find a household with anywhere from six to twenty
children. Needless to say, a lycée education for all the children
of a Cameroon family is, for many, impossible. Tradition dictates that
a Cameroonian parent's priority goes first to the sons' education. Girls
are considered more useful at home, where they do all the housework, prepare
food, and look after their younger siblings.
Angeline is a twelve-year old girl in primary
school who has three younger brothers. While her nine- and five-year old
brothers are playing soccer with the other boys in the neighborhood, Angeline
is hard at work. She starts at sunrise drawing large basins of water from
the nearby pump, and then carries it back to the house on her head for
the day's washing and cooking—tasks she must do when she returns home
that day from school. Angeline runs out to buy a few beignets (rolls)
for the family's breakfast and, like many of her classmates, she will
subsist through the day on this meager meal. Some days, her mother pulls
her out of class to work with the women to cultivate manioc, a potato-like
vegetable important to many African diets. Selling manioc will allow the
mother and daughter to supplement Angeline's father's meager salary teaching
catechism (religious education) at the local church. Although Angeline
is excited about showing off her books and the lessons she's copied down
in school, she has very little time to study and receives little attention
in the classroom.
At the primary school Angeline attends, a typical
class will hold one hundred or more students for each teacher. Although
that number drops as one enters the lycée, there are still between
fifty to seventy-five students in each class even there. In addition, classes
are conducted in French, one of the two official languages of Cameroon.
Most members of the community who have had some schooling speak French fluently;
however, a large percentage of the female population is not included in
this group. The women usually speak only their tribal patois, or
dialect, of which there are five major ones in Tibati: Fulfulde, Hausa,
Mboum, Biya and Vouté. Since women are the ones raising the children and
maintaining the home, using only their patois for communication,
many children enter school with no knowledge of French. They are forced
to take on the extra challenge of learning the language while they are learning
the content of their subjects. Lack of communication and lack of teacher
attention in large classes means that students often fall further and further
behind with each year and struggle more and more with each probatoire.
It is even more difficult for the young girls than for the young boys,
as both Angeline and Fadimatou have discovered.
The expected social roles of men and women in Cameroonian
culture—and more specifically in the Muslim culture which dominates in Tibati—frequently
dictates the future of boys and girls in this village. An undeniably patriarchal
society, Cameroon looks to its men to fulfill most job positions and to
be the sole breadwinners of their families. The Muslim tradition also charges
a man with the responsibility of protecting and ensuring the well-being
of his wife or wives. Although in theory this seems a noble tradition, in
practice it also means that a woman cannot leave her home or village, cannot
handle money, and cannot work without her husband's permission. She is,
therefore, fully dependent upon her husband for her own—and her children's—survival.
A man wins respect in the village by displaying his wealth through the number
of wives and children he has. For parents seeking to increase the prestige
and security of the family, it is imperative that their sons are well educated
and are able to make a good living. This task is particularly difficult
in a country with very few jobs, so sons are often freed from household
responsibilities to give them ample time to study. While young women attend
school and some even attend lycée, they are not given the same time
and attention to ensure success.
Fadimatou's older sister, Jenabou, is on her third
attempt at the probatoire and is determined to pass. If she gives
up now and quits school, as many other female students are forced to do,
the alternative would mean leaving her home and family to enter into a marriage
arranged by her parents. A suitor will come to the parents with a cadeau
(present) of cash along with his proposal. The parents then decide whether
he will be a suitable husband, able to support their daughter and her future
children. He, in turn, is looking for a wife who will look after his home,
bear his children, and cook well. The more she exemplifies these characteristics,
the more the man will be expected to pay to the family to make her his wife.
Once the marriage is arranged, the girl is, in effect, given to the husband's
family with whom she will live the rest of her life.
This is the only future most young Muslim girls
in Tibati can look forward to. Since they will eventually leave home, and
will thereafter stop contributing to their parents' households, investing
precious resources in the education of these young women is often seen as
a waste. With a lack of parental support and the prospect of a seemingly
unchangeable fate, the girls' motivation to work hard at school—or even
to continue attending—is very low. For most of the girls in Tibati, marriages
will be arranged when they are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one,
and they will begin producing their own children soon afterwards. The slow
rate of development in the education system, especially in the provision
of teachers, coupled with values that place little importance on educating
young women, dampens the ambitions and dreams of many young women.
However, there are families who seem to understand
the key role of women's education for the future of Cameroon and Tibati.
The parents of Fadimatou and Jenabou have decided to give their two young
daughters a secondary education and another world of opportunity, even though
it is a great sacrifice for the family. But educated daughters are not merely
a vanity for their family, as perhaps some of their neighbors might think.
Most international agencies in the world today can show with research that
improving the education, skills, and earning ability of young women in developing
countries is the single most important factor in lifting the country out
of poverty. As Fadimatou and Jenabou move through the various and challenging
probatoires, they have seen the number of their girlfriends dwindle.
Yet if the sisters stay behind their desks, if they work their way through
the difficult exams and the long study sessions, and if they graduate with
their baccalaureates, there is the probability of a different future for
them, their families and, in the long term, the country.
|Biographical Note: Stephanie Don graduated from
the University of California at Berkeley. She is currently serving a 27-month
service with the Peace Corps in the field of public health in Cameroon,
West Africa. Upon finishing her Peace Corps service, Stephanie intends to
pursue graduate education in the social sciences in the United States.
The names of persons in this piece have been changed to protect their identity.