Frida Nain, (not her real names), 30, had escaped from Belo, Boyo division, one of the epicenters of the deadly separatist armed conflict in the North-West Region, after clashes between government forces and separatist fighters saw her home go up in flames, early 2018.
Scampering for safety, she decided to relocate to Bamenda, the Region’s capital where things were seemingly more stable. But that was only going to be the beginning of her travails in her new life as an Internally Displaced Person, (IDP).
” I was well received when I first arrived and managed to secure a one-room house at Ntamulung in Bamenda,” the desperately looking lady told this investigative reporter.
“The landlord and neigbours were so empathetic about what had happened to me back in my native Belo,” she said.
“The landlord intimated that we were a family and that I could pay rents of FCFA 10,000 per month anytime I stumbled on something. The welcoming neigbours assured me of a daily flow of food.”
Nain had intended her relocation to Bamenda to be a “temporary one”, but five months after embarking on the journey to the regional capital, escalating violence forced Nain’s six siblings to join her in her makeshift residence in the city.
Things Started Turning Sour
“That seemed to have irked the landlord who started complaining incessantly, citing my irregularity in paying rents, why I brought in my siblings, misuse of the common toilet, why I came back late when the corrugated iron sheet gate is locked,” she sadly recounted.
Frida started spending sleepless nights trying to figure out what might have suddenly gone wrong. Her hitherto welcoming neigbours became hostile toward her, denying her food; while she was not lucky to be amongst the few IDP’s who benefited from government’s humanitarian assistance.
“Luck shined on me when a Senator from Boyo (North-West Region) came and assisted some IDPs, myself inclusive, with the sum of FCFA 50,000 each, to indulge in income-generating activities so as not to continue to be depended on good will gestures,” Frida revealed.
The unprecedented gift helped Nain to start a roadside business -selling roast fish to make ends meet.
“That caused me to start coming back late at nights due to the demanding nature of the business,” she recalls.
“But I really doubt whether my misunderstandings with my landlord started there.”
Nain recalls: “Before the arrival of my siblings from the village, I had noticed the Landlord was always monitoring me, especially when I was going to take my bath when his wife and the other tenants were away.”
“He had even proposed to be my companion at one time, and I politely turned it down reminding him he was like my father who unfortunately had been killed during crossfire shootings in Belo.
“He tried on several occasions to touch me on sensitive areas,” she sorrowfully narrated.
Frida got up one fateful morning to receive a one-week quit notice from a landlord notwithstanding the fact that she had become more regular in paying her rents with proceeds from her fish roasting business.
“I think it was my reluctance to give in to his sexual demands that made him expel me and my siblings from his compound,” Nain disclosed.
“We were forced to relocate to Foumbot, West Region, where we ventured into farming”.
The New Normal for Female IDPS
Frida is not alone. Her ordeal is the microcosm of what female Anglophone IDPs have been facing since the outbreak of the sociopolitical conflict in 2016, in the domain of finding, getting, and keeping housing in host communities. The conflict pits the francophone-dominated government and Anglophone militants seeking a breakaway state which they call Ambazonia.
“We got up one morning and saw our shops going up in flames in Widikum (North West Region) after night clashes with Amba fighters (separatist militants) and the army,” narrates Arshley Tassang, an IDP from Widikum who relocated to Douala in the Littoral Region two years ago.
“We could barely gather any few belongings, especially as the ‘boys’ had been accusing me of having an affair with a uniform officer,” she says.
“I took off for Douala and spent some few days with a friend as I searched for a house. But middlemen were only defrauding me under the pretext they were trying to secure cheap accommodation for me,” Tassang said.
“One day, the Middleman asked me to come so he shows me the accommodation he has secured for me,” Tassang recalls.
“When we arrived there, and he explained to the landlord that I was an IDP from Bamenda, he told us he didn’t want people in his compound who have been dealing with Amba, and that being a jobless young lady, he doubted whether I could regularly pay his monthly rents of FCFA 20,000.”
Tassang became restless.
For one thing, her female friend who welcomed her had started complaining about her continuous stay with her.
She had said this was straining her relationship with her francophone boyfriend who was assisting her pay the house rent.
Tassang in her desperation, easily gave in to a proposal from the “Middleman” to lodge her in a hotel for one or two nights.
“The first night he took me out for drinking and in the process, cajoled me that if we spent the night together, he would increase the number of nights for me in the hotel,” Tassang said.
“I desperately gave in.” “The next morning, he left and I never heard from him again,” she said. Tassang’s trouble in finding accommodation had begun.
There’s been an influx of IDPs into Douala and other Cameroon cities from the two predominantly English- Speaking Regions and with little or no corresponding increase in housing units, Shyllock landlords have jumped at it to hike rent prices.
“I was forced to accept one offer for temporary lodging from one boy or acquaintance to another in exchange for my body,’ Tassang lamented.
Finding, Keeping and Losing Houses:
Most Anglophone female IDPs we talked to narrated heart-wrenching and agonizing stories in finding, keeping, and losing housing.
These range from their inability to assure house owners they could pay regularly, through insecure environments to outright stigmatization. Although getting access to affordable lodging had been an uphill task in Cameroon’s cities before the outbreak of the conflict, issues have been more complicated for female IDPs.
Many of the barriers to accessing housing for the teeming female IDPs remain unattended to by the traditional housing services in Cameroon.
“Two of us IDPs from Mamfe (crisis South-West Region) had gone in search of a house at Melen-Yaounde, but the owner opted to rent it out to the boy, claiming the boy could work hard enough to pay his rents of FCFA 15,000 regularly than I could do,” says Brenda Ashu, another IDP.
“I had only my eyes to weep,” she said.
Another IDP from Mankon-Bamenda, Hilda Tuma Recounts:
“My six months’ rents got expired and I wanted to renew the contract, but the landlord refused, claiming he wanted to refurbish the house and increase the rents; and that many more displaced Anglophones were in search of housing where they could pay even years of advance.”
Rising Insecurity in Presupposed Peaceful Zones:
Amid fierce competition for affordable housing units, landlords have been wielding significant power to decide who gets them. Most IDPs in the cities of Yaounde, Douala, Kribi, Nkongsamba and Bafoussam are reportedly not only being judged more or less worthy based on their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, but more grimly, on their gender. Because of this, some female IDPs enter into informal rental arrangements.
“It is worse when you can only get a house on the outskirts of town or suburban areas infested with drug addicts who can harass you or your children at any time,” Irene Tumasang, an IDP living in Mvan, Yaounde says. “The bad thing is that it’s difficult to find any good school for your children in some neighbourhoods where lodging is affordable.
“You find yourself sending your children to a francophone school,” she lamented.
Most female IDPs confessed finding themselves in undesirable neighbourhoods against their wish-Areas which harbour thugs and pickpockets thereby exposing their children to increased trauma, mental health, and physical symptoms.
One IDP in Kribi described how once housed, her trauma symptoms intensified at the exact time her right to be housed in that compound were being withdrawn.
Besides being victimized anew by sexually harassing landlords, female IDPs’ efforts at stabilizing themselves in their new environments are hampered by pervasive impoverishment since their support networks of family and friends also struggle with economic and housing insecurity.
“It’s so, so traumatizing telling the same story over and over to the same friends and family about the need for assistance, when you also know what they are going through where they are,” said Eunice Futelah, a female IDP from Fundong, now living in Nkongsamba.
Female IDPs Bear the Brunt
Unlike their male counterparts who are increasingly accepting the situation and taking the bull by the horns and graduating from renting to acquiring land and constructing their own apartments in other cities and towns of Cameroon, female IDPs often find themselves in the position of losing housing they have been renting. Evictions happen frequently when female IDPs default on rental payment or are not yielding to the demands of their sexually starved landlords.
Consequently, they usually end up in more unstable housing situations, sometimes going homeless more vulnerable.
Not Just Female IDP, But LGBTQ+
Frida Fien, who lost the opportunity to continue to live in Bamenda because of sexual advances from her landlord and had to relocate to Foumbot, West Region, identifies as a lesbian.
Unlike Tasang, who could maneuver her way through in Douala with men before settling down in her own apartment, Frida’s sexual identity distances her from men, and no offer from a male landlord, however attractive it might be, would be an incentive.
IDPs like Frida, fleeing the conflict in the two English- Speaking regions end up facing triple tragedy: socially and structurally excluded from society for being Anglophones, they are today being marginalized and excluded from the housing system for being female and belonging to the LGTBQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, And Transgender) community. This intersectionality further complicates matters for IDPs in general and female IDPs, in particular.
Disturbingly, Cameroon’s Ministries of Social Affairs, Women Affairs, and more importantly, Housing and Urban Development are headed by women, who should do a better job of proposing incentives to landlords to be more receptive to female IDPs, in the short-run, and initiating sustainable housing unit policies for Cameroon, in the long-run.
The past five years of conflict have seen female IDPs experience unhealthy physical environments, strained household resources, social network impoverishment, sexual exploitation, stigma and discrimination, scarce affordable housing units, eviction, and above all, rape and trauma, instead of healing and empowerment.
Cameroon needs housing programmes that adopt IDP-centered care and comprehensive trauma-informed services that are non-discriminatory and embrace a gender-equity lens to ensure housing services are accessible to all IDPs, regardless of identity and statuses.
This challenge can be overcome if government could require landlords to prioritize female IDPs and their children in return for tax deductions or other incentives.