A war broke out in 2007 between the villages of Bali and Bawock (Cameroon) over ancestral land rights. Bali, with over 50,000 inhabitants, quickly crushed Bawock, which had just over 5,000 members in its community. Crops were razed, hundreds of homes were burned to the ground, and the palace of the Fon (King) of Bawock was destroyed. Many of the men of fighting age in Bawock died, leaving their widows behind to fend for themselves.
Last year I visited Bawock on behalf of Advice Project Media for the first time with the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation. After seeing the beautiful countryside and rich farm- and montane woodlands for the first time, I saw that despite poverty and against all odds, Bawock was rebuilding, and the widows in the community were integral in this growth.
This August, the Advice Project returned with the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation to learn more, and the teen journalists in our program were granted an audience and interview session with His Royal Highness (HRH) Fon Nana Wanda III. The teens also assisted the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation with a road-building project with the widows and other members of the Bawock community.
In the Northwest Region of Cameroon, where Bawock is located, fons - or kings - reign over their people. Despite having beeb brought under German rule during the colonial period, they have maintained the traditions of their people, and reflect a diversity of cultures, ethnicities, and languages. After the defeat of the Germans in World War I, the fondoms (kingdoms) came under British and French rule until Cameroon's independence in 1961, Today, fondoms are Although under the jurisdiction of the Cameroon government, although they maintain certain rights over their ancestral lands, and maintain semi-autonomous governance over their fondoms. The lasting effects of colonialism are stamped differently across each fondom, and the issues remain complicated, reflecting in how various fondoms such as Bali and Bawock are treated by the Cameroonian government.
What often remains consistent in fondoms are certain ways women have been treated either before or after colonialism. Women, for example, traditionally haven't been allowed the right to own land, and in some communities girls have been given away as child brides. Girls typically haven't been educated. Women and men carry different roles within their communities, both socially and spiritually. Men were - and continue to be - the heads of households. And in many communities such as Bawock, tradition has mandated that widowed women undergo certain widow rites to show their grief for their husbands.
Being forced to shave their heads, sleep naked on mats for a number of days, and eat from the ground, for example, are some of the rites widows typically undergo. They aren't allowed to bathe until the end of their internment, and women often lose their property rights, homes, land, and sometimes, even their children.
Today, there are certain fons who are ending widow rites, deeming them "barbaric." HRH Nana Wanda III of Bawock is one of them. After greeting the fon by bowing and offering three strong claps, five teens from the Advice Project took turns introducing themselves before being given permission to ask questions about a myriad of topics pertaining to climate change, education in Bawock, how the fon maintains traditions while joining the "Android Age" (a term commonly used in Cameroon), and gender issues such as widow rites.
"Our people - our youths - are watching the Internet, and they are a part of the Android Age," the Fon said. "I believe that my role is to keep the traditions in our community that are good, and get rid of the ones that are bad. This is how we will grow as a people."
The Fon is the spiritual leader of his people, and he feels it is important to maintain the spiritual traditions of his people. He doesn't believe, however, that this means his community shouldn't change at all with the times. Today, his fondom educates girls alongside the boys, and he told us about how he discusses menstrual health with his daughters so that they can continue attending school once they start their monthly cycles. He has also ended widow rites, deeming them sexist. He said: "if women have to endure these rites, so should the men."
The Fon's statement was powerful, and the teens of the Advice Project hoped to soon speak with widows living in the community to see if they believed their lives had improved since the termination of widow rites. A week later, the teens were allowed this opportunity after being invited by the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation to assist the Bawock people in building a road.
Previously, a make-shift road went through a swampy area that connected Bawock to the nearest hospital, but it was often it was too muddy to easily use for travel. It was easy enough to get a motorbike through, although In Cameroon, it's the men who own these vehicles, leaving men and women at the mercy of others in order to travel.
Although the entire community was invited to work on the road, it was primarily the widows and a very small number of youth and men who showed up to help volunteers. Stones were taken from a nearby quarry, transported by truck to Bawock, and then thrown - one by one - into the swampy, muddy, road. Once this task was completed, another large truck arrived and dumped dirt over the rocks, which was then smoothed by hand by villagers and volunteers.
For now, Bawock has a road. Over time, however, it will be reclaimed by the swamp, and is therefore only a temporary fix. Bawock villagers and volunteers alike hope that eventually the government will step in to make a more permanent road - one that can help safely transport men, women, and children with equity.
As we worked on the road, some of our teen journalists interviewed a number of the widows from Bawock about what it meant to have a new road in their community built. The road, one woman told us, is a matter of life and death, as it gives us access to the hospital.
Some of the widows didn't view the building of the road as helping women more than men, and thought that all villagers in Bawock would benefit, while other women believed that the road provided a lifeline to women and children that didn't previously exist. "The road," one widow told our teens, "is a matter of life and death."
In many ways, the road is much more than a road leading to the nearest hospital, but it's also a bridge that allows women to travel more freely, helping them to become more autonomous.
Most of the widows interviewed by the teens told us that they felt they were treated fairly in their community, which is a direct result of the progressive policies of their fon. One widow, however, in hushed tones, told us that she wished her community could provide the help her family needs to get by. "Life is very hard," she told us. The teens learned that money is difficult to come by, and other resources that cost money such as school books often can't fit into the budget. In Bawock, as in many villages in the Northwest Region and throughout the world, being married affords greater security by having a man's income and broader community support, and while widow rites are no longer mandated, widows are finding it a struggle to survive within a community that is still reeling from war and poverty. The road, a temporary fix to a bigger problem, will make life a little easier in the near future.
The widow then cocked her head, smiled brightly, and invited the teens back to her house for a visit. A few days later, as we attended a men and women's soccer championship game in the soccer field in Bawock, she pulled aside one of the teens by the sidelines and presented her with a large bag of guavas she had picked from her garden. That evening, the entire community of widows gave the Advice Project two giant bags of ground nuts (peanuts) and pumpkin seeds as a gift. We then visited the Widows Hall - a building recently completed by Bawock to function as a community center - and spent the evening feasting and dancing with HRH the Fon Nana Wanda III, Marie-claire and her team, and villagers to celebrate the soccer champions - men and women alike.
**MORE PHOTOS BELOW**
Advice Project Media will continue working alongside the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation and the village (with permission from HRH the Fon Nana Wanda III of Bawock) on community projects and stories. We expect these stories to grow as we better familiarize ourselves with the complicated issues in the Northwest Region of Cameroon. We sincerely thank his Highness for granting us an audience and interviews, and for allowing us access to his village, and we also thank the Marie-claire N. Kuja Foundation for organizing exciting volunteer opportunities.