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Young Women and Education in Tibati, Cameroon, West Africa: A Letter from a Peace Corps Volunteer

Stephanie Don
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 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 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.  
    Fadimatou1 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. 4
    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. 5
    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. 9
    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. 10
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.  
1 The names of persons in this piece have been changed to protect their identity.  

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