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I always remember a scene in the film Forrest Gump where Gump describes the rain facing him in Vietnam as the kind of rain that “seemed to come straight up from underneath”. That was the sort of rain that confronted me in the small village of Tole. As I drove into town a small boy scurried past me with only a large banana leaf protecting his neatly pressed school uniform from the downpour. Droplets bounced off every surface and the clouds rolled overhead thick and black. The little boy grinned and disappeared off down a side-road, crisp white shirt still dry with his umbrella formed from foliage covering him. This is perhaps not the type of weather most think of when they imagine a country like Cameroon, yet in West Africa when it rains – it really does rain!
Sat under her porch with two of her three daughters was Anna Muke, who was trying to cook a family meal. The aforementioned rain was a hindrance, making Anna’s visits back and forth to the small kitchen muddy and slippery. I sat with Anna and we began cooking fish stew. Anna is a reserved person, a guarded person. Understandably so. As we quietly chopped vegetables for the stew I asked Anna questions about her life as a single mother bringing up three lively, bright girls.
Anna was widowed a few years ago, and as a young mum was then left with very little money and no rights to the land or home she lived in. Everything she had owned with her husband was taken away from her. She struggled to talk about that time in her life, and spoke only of how difficult everything had become. Her eldest daughter Germaine had been able to support her in the home but Anna’s belief in the importance of education for her daughters meant she didn’t want to see Germaine leaving school. Anna started a small hairdressing business to make ends meet but found it difficult to make a profit. All We Can, together with its local partner in the region NADEV, have been supporting widows like Anna to get back on their feet through small businesses. A member of staff from NADEV quickly identified Anna as not only extremely vulnerable, but also as someone with the potential to succeed if given a bit of help.
Anna received special training in business management and a loan to help her invest in her hairdressing business:
“The training was especially useful to me. I had a chance to learn about managing and balancing my books – so I would make sure every month I kept some money for savings, some for investing, some for the house… I also learnt about keeping the customer happy so she will keep coming back. It has meant more customers and of course more income”.
Business was slow on the day I visited Anna – women don’t head out to get their hair styled in the rain – but Anna spoke with excitement at the changes she had seen. Life was still far from easy, being a woman bringing up children on your own in Cameroon comes with financial challenges and often the stigma of being widowed, but Anna felt she was back in control of her own life. As we ate the spicy stew out of our bowls Anna’s two youngest daughters told me their dreams. Diana hopes to become a pilot, and Nina (still not old enough to attend school) just hopes to have more tea and bread! Anna looked at her girls with such pride. And what does Anna want in life? She exclaimed, “Only God knows the future but I pray my business grows and my daughters can reach the things they dream of. I used to want to be a nurse. I couldn’t do that. But I want my daughters to study and then have their dreams”.
The rain did not last long in Tole. After the clouds rolled away the oppressive heat of a West-African afternoon resumed and a teenage girl came up to the porch comb in hand. With her hair products out Anna showed her customer to a chair, and with the joyous laughter of her two youngest girls in the background began work. I sat quietly taking photographs of a woman who perhaps seems unremarkable at first – but who has peacefully got on with living in spite of her extremely challenging circumstances. At All We Can we often speak of every person having potential, I think the most rewarding part of my work is seeing that potential realised when a woman like Anna can take control of her future again because of the dedication of our local partner staff and the compassion of our supporters in the UK. Together, change is possible.
When we work together change is possible for women like Anna. Join us this Lent as we take seriously our ability to change the world together. www.awcdev.us/lent
Laura works for All We Can as the Communications Manager. She is also an internationally acclaimed photographer with a passion for women's rights. She is studying MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies in her spare time and lives with her husband Stephen in Essex.