The world pauses every March 8th to celebrate Women. With a theme coined by the United Nations yearly, countries commemorate in different ways. Many countries use the day for activism and awareness-raising, but not Cameroon. In Cameroon, it is typically accompanied by lavish feasting, complete with customized fabric, wining and dining, and special publications. From women rocking the hallways of power, to women plying risky dirty roads and alleys to scratch a living, there is a wishful attempt to make March 8th a circus as if to eclipse agonies of the rest of the year.
The International Women’s Day for 2022 took place against a backdrop of the ongoing violent six-year genocidal war in the former UN Trust Territory of British Southern Cameroons that has left thousands of women abducted, abused, displaced, trafficked, widowed, and killed.
The International Crisis Group reports that from 2017, “At least 6,000 people have died since. Insecurity and lack of access to basic services mean that 2.2 million people in the Anglophone regions, or one in two inhabitants, need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. The majority of those displaced by the crisis are women and children.”
Grandma Kisum is one of the women living under the radar as the rest of the country revels in Women’s Day merrymaking. She lives in Barombong, Mundum II, Bafut, a very enclaved village and one of the most violent places in the restive region. She lives with seven of her grandchildren after her son was killed, caught in a crossfire between self-defense fighters and the Cameroonian military.
Grandma Kisum has lived a very difficult life in this mountainous village, where few to no social services ever existed, exacerbated by years of conflict. Now old and frail, she never expected to be taking care of her grandchildren again. The constant violence has made it almost impossible to get food from farmlands or to trek to the local market 25km away.
Finding food for daily survival is increasingly becoming difficult for Mama Kisum and her family. The youngest ones are bearing the brunt. Her four-year-old Emmanuel Kisum started presenting with signs of malnourishment several months ago. When his grandmother first noticed his weakening body, bloating belly, swollen feet, bulging eye sockets, and increasing head size, she was confused. In her years of raising many children, she had never seen such an illness. The lack of a health center in the village meant she had only native healers to turn to for help.
Their inability to help made Mama Kisum to believe her grandson’s condition was a result of witchcraft. A local health worker found out about the little four-year-old’s condition and brought it to the attention of CBC health services worker, Kulka Comfort Ethamu. She braved the dangerous terrain to trek and meet Mama Kisum who carried the boy on her back halfway to the village.
Comfort remembers the meeting very well. “As soon as I set eyes on the boy and his grandmother, chills ran down my body,” she says.
Comfort judged Emmanuel Kisum’s situation as a critical case of malnutrition and arranged for them to go to Bamenda immediately for treatment.
Emmanuel Kisum Junior died in the hospital four days after they arrived. His devastated grandmother had no recourse but to return to Barombong in Bafut local government area where conflict rages and uncertainty reigns. Like millions of women and children affected by this under-reported conflict, they continue to eke out a living, braving hunger and bullets, hoping someone will come to their rescue. For them, stories of lavish feasting or media campaigns with the 2022 International Women’s Day theme #BreakTheBias could as well be unfolding in another universe.
According to the ICG, out of the nearly 573,900 Cameroonians displaced by the Anglophone conflict, women, and children make up 60 percent, with many having been separated from family members and living at risk of abuse. They add that Cameroonian authorities have rejected several UN and NGO requests for the establishment of IDP camps where vulnerable people could be better cared for. Yaounde worries that such camps would undermine the official narrative that life in the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons is returning to normal.
Correspondent reports from Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde indicate that while feasting and fanfare marked Women’s Day 2022 in other parts of Cameroon, the people of the former UN Trust Territory of British Southern Cameroons were observing ghost towns with few people in the streets. The move was meant to protest the worsening human rights situation in the region, marked by the enforcement of a scorched-earth policy by the Cameroon military that continues to render thousands homeless.