This week as we celebrate International Women’s Day, we honor the brave and talented women of the world. Today we would like to give a shout out to Mushmina blogger and copywriter, Tara Fraiture whose birthday happens to be on International Women’s Day, March 8th. Tara tells the story of her days as a young Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, how she organized a bike race on the sand with Fulani ladies, and why she loves telling stories about ’empowering her tribe, women.’ Read on….
Sands of Cameroon-Grains of My Heart
I was a 23-year-old, wide-eyed Peace Corps Volunteer in remote Far North Cameroon, Central Africa. Close to Lake Chad, villagers survived on dried fish and millet grains; this was the endless sandy drifts of the Sub-Saharan African desert where even coveted cooking gas was in short supply. Locals cooked over open fires outside and inhabitants lived in basic, mud-brick structures. This was my home for two years.
My parents jokingly told me after the end of my Peace Corps service that they hadn’t expected me to last two weeks. I might have actually agreed with them; I even surprised myself. Living with no running water, a dubious pit latrine that worked in addition as an even more questionable outdoor shower + frequent electricity outages was, let’s just say, rough.
I learned quickly to wash my long, thick hair (a small victory) with just a small bucket of well water; I became a seasoned expert at the ‘bucket bath’. I didn’t have much to eat besides stale bread, egg salad sandwiches and I’d stock up on Nigerian pasta-a real treat was sautéed tomatoes, green peppers and onions. Powdered milk was a must for my instant coffee and millet beer was a hush-hush moonshine secret, served in huts just outside of the village outskirts.
The seemingly ceaseless dry season was stiflingly hot and humid and the rainy season hit like a smack in the face and the bumpy, pot-hole ridden roads were easily washed out. This would leave a relatively easy (albeit harrowing) drive on a desolate dirt passage to a several hour, harrowing trek. The roads would become rushing rivers. There is nothing, I recall, to this day, like an African rainstorm. It comes down like a herd of trampling of elephants; no mercy, no relief.
Yet through all of these severe circumstances, I thrived. This tiny, isolated, strictly Muslim village, Bogo, welcomed me like a long-lost sister and daughter. These historically nomadic Fulani people of the far north province became my support, my friends, my dear family.
The relationships that I developed and fostered; those were the real lessons of the Peace Corps. They are the memories that remain with me today, over 20 years later. These friendships, the bonding; realizing that there wasn’t much difference between myself and a young Muslim village woman from this itty-bitty village in far-flung Cameroon, three days travel from the capital of Yaoundé.
My best friend and colleague, Leila and I-we came from different worlds, literally across the globe from one another. But really, we were alike. We had the same cheeky sense of humor. Perhaps even the same raucous laugh. The same gift of gab. The same hopes and dreams for ourselves and our families. For our futures. We were, deep down, sisters.
The mud-brick ‘house’ where I lived was in a compound that was cared for by an elderly couple; Asta and Nouhou. Asta was nearly blind and Nouhou hobbled around with a makeshift cane fashioned from the sturdy branch of a baobab tree.
I immediately became like a granddaughter to them. I would spend my evening hours sitting, laughing, talking, and chatting with the pair. No use at all speaking French in Bogo; particularly with the women and children. I did all of my work in the local Fulani language. Asta and Nouhou became my teachers. The villagers, neighbors, vendors, were all my teachers. The children who came to my house daily became my teachers.
It was those human connections that became the ones that mattered the most. These are the memories that still resonate today.
International Women’s Day happens to be on my birthday, March 8th. The first year I was in Bogo, I organized a bike race for the local women. On the sand. Because why not?!? Traditional Fulani women, gracefully tall and elegant, dressed in brightly colored ‘pagne’ or African wraps, on bikes. It was the best moment ever. Many of these women had never been on a bike before. We laughed till we cried. It was such a wonderful day.
Since then, working with women’s groups and co-ops has been something that I inevitably gravitate towards. After all, women and children are often marginalized in developing countries. And I have lived in many developing countries. I therefore feel a pull towards writing about empowering my tribe, women.
I want to tell the stories of women; those who are most often not heard. I can be their voice. I share these stories with my three daughters. I feel grateful to work for Mushmina; a company so dedicated to working with women’s groups and so focused on empowering women that this often becomes the focal point. The story is just as important as the product. And luckily, the products are beautiful. But the women who make our products are really the heart of who we are. And for me, this is what I envisioned for myself, years ago as a young woman in Central Africa. Those heart connections.
-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger