Benedicta Mukalla Neng, feminist avant la lettre

Benedicta and Walter Gam Nkwi browsing through the photo album (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Benedicta and Walter Gam Nkwi browsing through the photo album of Benedicta’s predecessors (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Co-author: Walter Gam Nkwi,historian from Buea University, Cameroon

‘(On women’s day) This year I had so many messages, (…)
congratulations for doing such a great job.(…)
I was in bed, so they were missing me in the whole process..’.
‘We started breaking the tradition.’

This is a fragment of an interview we did with Benedicta, born in 1932, in March 2014. We knew that this could be our last meeting with her. She was very sick and on her way out. She did not seem to regret her situation, her life was fulfilled. A life as a counter voice. She is one of these rare African women who have been fighting for women’s rights from early independence in the 1960s, when Feminism was still to be discovered in her country, Cameroon. In this interview she looked back on her life as a fighter for women’s rights. She passed away a month after we interviewed her.

‘In Africa in the past a woman was not even supposed to sit among men to say anything or to discuss… but through my effort, things have balanced… The men were even organizing to shoot me down… This woman is a problem in the society.’

Women in Grassfield societies
Benedicta is from the Grassfields, the North West Province of Cameroon. Most societies here are organized in strict, patriarchal hierarchies, kingdoms, with the semi-divine king at the top performing quasi-religious functions. Most of these societies follow patrilineal styles in which inheritance is through male family lines, and women are subject to male rule, though they are exercising power at the backstage. For instance through relations with the Queen mother, who is the most powerful woman in this system. The king could marry more than 100 wives.
Yet some of the kingdoms are based on matrilineal societies, like Benedicta’s kingdom: Kom. The concept suggests women’s rule, but in fact it turns out differently. Instead of liberating women, these societies are very efficient in controlling them. In a matrilineal society, real or fictive kinship is claimed through maternal ties, meant to keep the siblings together. Women then are distributed between husbands and brothers, which is in fact a double control of women’s labour, sexuality and reproductive powers. Until today these kinship relations continue to exert power in the Grassfields.

photo Mirjam de Bruijn

The picture of the founders of the Presbyterian church in Baaba I, on the wall in the church (photo: Mirjam de Bruijn).

Fleeing to be free
Indeed, a system that is rather unfriendly to women. The empowerment of women in this kind of situation is rare, until the women themselves emancipate. Benedicta had to fight these cultural and ‘political’ patterns of women’s unfreedom. She found inspiration by some strong ladies: her predecessors who sought refuge in the new forms of religious organization that entered the Grassfields at the beginning of the 19th century during colonial rule.

Susana, the leader of the women founders of the Presbyterian church in Baaba I.

Susana, leader of the women founders of the Presbyterian church in Baaba I.

Already in those days, women decided to get rid of this patriarchal jug. For instance in Baaba I, a small chiefdom, women fled the palace in the 1940s when there was a struggle about the implantation of the church. The women did not want to follow the king’s choice of church, and decided to step out. By doing so they created a new church (the Presbyterian church) that until today wears the liberation mood of these women. A picture of the women decorates a wall of the church in the village Baaba I. The grave of their leader Susana is behind the church, where people regularly visit, memorizing the deeds of their grand-mother. Another example comes from Benedicta’s Kom. Between the 1920s and 1960s many women from the palace at its traditional headquarters, Laikom, fled to Njinikom where a Roman Catholic Church was established in the early 1920s. These women had liberated themselves from the high-handedness of patriarchal controls. For them the mission and/or church was a liberator.

The pastor in the church in Baaba I holding the picture of the female founders of the Presbyterian church as a fetish.

The pastor in the church in Baaba I, holding the picture of the female founders of the Presbyterian church as a fetish (photo: Mirjam de Bruijn).

How she became a feminist
These examples paved the way for Benedicta’s development and ideas. Other ingredients for her becoming a feminist were her intelligence and her experiences overseas. She also went to nursery school. ‘To further my education, I migrated to England’, she told us. She left her country at the beginning of the 1960s, independent Cameroon. And at independence, people like Benedicta, the intelligentia of the country, had high hopes for a better future. They were building the nation, integrating modern ideas about freedom for all. These hopes vanished with time, which led to Benedicta’s children to move out of the country to find jobs and a better life in Germany and the USA. The last years of her life, Benedicta lived alone in a big house in her village of origin, seeming not very optimistic about life. Keeping as a treasure a big photo album in which the marks of her life were the death of President Kennedy, the reception of the honorary degree from the Governor ‘that showed the women I did important work’, and the pictures of her travels to Europe, first as a nurse and later to visit her son in Germany. She lost contact with her other son in the States.

Watch the documentary ‘Connecting Dreams. Life histories, crossing borders & new communication technologies in Africa’ (Sjoerd Sijsma & Mirjam de Bruijn)

Despite the sometimes impossible fight, Benedicta kept her promise of being an activist for women liberation until the end of her life. ‘We have come out to be liberated, not to oppress the men… We were still housewives, noble housewives and we still do our noble work, in each speech I included that…’

Fabric especially made for International Women's Day.

Fabric especially made for International Women’s Day (photo: Mirjam de Bruijn).

Gently revolutionary
Benedicta speeched in her function as president of the Njinikom area women development forum (NAWODEF) that was approved on 19 August 2000. This new development in the women’s movement in Cameroon was part of worldwide attention for women’s rights after the Beijing conference in 1995, that declared the Decade for women and women’s day celebrations. Excerpts from her speeches reveal the gentle and very balanced way in which Benedicta brought her fight to the fore, without being harsh to the patriarchal society she was part of.

8 March 2001, the second International Day of the Woman was celebrated in Njinikom. From Benedicta’s speech:
‘ ….With joy, on this occasion of the 3rd millennium celebration I stand here on behalf of the women of Njinikom Valley (…) Thank God Almighty (…). With time, the woman has not only been a bed partner but also a responsible mother sharing in the family burden, especially in the education of the child. All these activities fall under the name of Development which we must intensify without discrimination. ’

Benedicta in April 2014, a month before she died (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Benedicta in April 2014, a month before she died (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Her last speech on 8 March 2003 was thus:
‘….You are all warmly welcome to enjoy with us during this [coming] August celebration. The Theme for this year 2003 runs thus: Gender: Partnership between Men and Women and the Millennium Development Goals. N.B. Our Head of State President Paul Biya was part of this decision taken during the United Nations Congress held in New York from the 6th to 8th September 2000. Isn’t it wonderful? This simply means that we should work hand in hand with our husbands, children and the whole community. Allow us to be part of you in everything we might undertake with the love and peace our society greatly requires. Not even the greatest man on earth can boast of his success without the support of the Woman. In fact, the Woman is all and all, no matter the nature. When we started off in 1998, the men thought we wanted to take their position, now they have discovered for themselves that we need only this Gender approach to materialise. It would be wonderful if we strive to achieve these millennium goals with ease and understanding. NAWODEF; STAND UP, work hard, think positively and be ambassadors of your area both here and elsewhere. I will like to thank you all for coming. Have a marvellous time with us.

Long live NAWODEF,
Long live the Ministry of Womens’ Affairs,
Long live President Paul Biya
Long live Cameroon’

Benedicta closed her last interview with us with these words:
‘It has not come to an end, as there are still so many women ignorant.’
We will forever remember her!




Juliette – encouraging students in Bangui as an act of resistance

Co-author: Catherina Wilson, PhD researcher in the project ‘Connecting in Times of Duress’,

Catherina Wilson and Juliette

Catherina Wilson and Juliette

The civil war in the Central African Republic started in March 2013 when the Seleka (Northern) opposing rebel coalition realized a coup d’état, chasing Bozize from office. Instead of a transition government, hatred and violence were installed and led to chaos and violence in Bangui, the capital, and beyond. Many people had to flee, especially those considered ‘strangers’; a xenophobia against Chadians and Muslims became a main discourse and harsh practice of life in CAR.

Invisible counter voices are probably the most numerous, but also a contradiction. When one is not heard or seen, can one be a counter voice? Indeed big feats are realized by these silent voices. Our search for counter voices does not only focus on public events, on ‘ hearing’ and ‘seeing’, because it would amount to a neglect of those silent and invisible heroes. In Africa invisibility is gendered: Women are often invisible in the public and political spheres, yet acting decisively at the background. Juliette from Chad but living in Bangui, is certainly an example.

Juliette in August 2013, phoning about the tense situation in Bangui.

Busy job
It was so nice to meet Juliette again in N’Djamena (Chad) in March 2014, where we did not expect to meet, and a month later again, in Yaoundé (Cameroon). People move in spite of war. As such, our team has met Juliette at various reprisals and slowly but surely she has become entangled in our work. Our first encounter, in the Autumn of 2012, was in Bangui and with her busy job at the European Union office she then had no time to visit her family in N’Djamena. The (civil) war made her life different, but by no means less busy. When we encountered her about a year later, in August 2013, Juliette seemed to be at the heart of exchanges on the events in Bangui, calling and walking around with three phones, a walkie-talkie and a radio.

Bombarded convent
This is not the first time Juliette endures a crisis. Juliette has many stories to tell and she has been confronted with a lot of atrocities and (political) violence in her life, both in conflict ridden Chad and the flammable Central African Republic – countries among the poorest nations of Africa and with a long history of war and conflict.
Her youth was not easy, in terms of poverty and not having anything to eat besides manioc flower and sewing little things for babies in order to take care of her younger siblings. Later, as she decided to become a nun, the convent where she stayed was heavily bombarded by the French in the late nineties. It was actually a wonder the nuns survived the attack, the French were astonished to see them walk out alive.

Juliette in December 2012.

Juliette in April 2014.

Feminist in action
Juliette was eager to study. She left Chad for Bangui where she went to university, without any means to survive. She left with only 1500 FCFA (almost € 2,50), just enough to arrive. A nice traveler gave her 50.000 FCFA (about € 80), for which she bought the plastic cords out of which baskets and other utensils are woven. That is how she earned some money and was able to fund her studies. But it was a struggle to receive her degree in Sociology from the University of Bangui. Juliette proudly showed us her thesis, yet her university experience was not necessarily a positive one. Male professors do not always think rationally and forget to look past the attractive looks of young female students. Beyond exemplary works, they look for exemplary bodies. Juliette was one of those bodies and as she refused to be seduced into obtaining easy grades, the professors made her graduation almost impossible. But she fought, challenging the professors to point out the mistakes in her methodology, a real feminist in action! To think that Juliette should have been born a boy! When her father found out that his sixth child was again a girl he refused to accept it, and by way of punishment, or maybe from disappointment, he neglected her mother who fell ill, and the girl was raised as a boy. ‘That is why I have become who I am.’

A peace dove on a rond-point, Bangui 2012.

A peace dove on a rond-point (left), Bangui 2012.

Funding dozens of students
Despite her disillusionment with the academic institution, Juliette discovered the importance of scholarship and erudition that can be obtained through study. Her determination gave her the dignity and beauty that she embodies so elegantly. Actually, the fact that our team works and resides with her is by no means a mere coincidence, but rather based on her philosophy of supporting academia, not the institution, but the people, and through the people, the knowledge.
And thus learning and studying by herself and for others became her vocation. ‘It is the only way forward.’ And this is where her social project crystalizes. She wishes the best education, not only for her two daughters, but also for so many others. She invests part of her salary in funding schooling of young people in Bangui: her cousins, but also people from Centr’Afrique; ‘ it doesn’t matter’ . She has been able to fund dozens of young students in this way. Some have gone back to Chad, others are still in Bangui and visit her regularly. This is Juliette’s quiet contribution to the development of her two countries (Chad and CAR), to end the madness of the region. In her opinion the only way.

Juliette now.

Juliette now.

Vulnerable position
When the Seleka conquered Bangui in early 2013, Juliette was living there with her two daughters. They lived in a relatively well-protected house and certainly at the beginning she did not feel threatened. Juliette would cheerfully tell us about the drinking under the mango tree, about the shooting, the taking cover inside for a couple of minutes before regaining the mango tree to continue drinking as the shooting had calmed down. There is also a normality to war, just like any other anecdote. Yet the atrocities against Chadians soon increased. Juliette as a Christian was less at risk, so she assumed. However, with the intensification of the violence her situation has now changed. Her children have left for Chad, where they stay with their aunt in N’Djamena. They ‘fled’ Bangui in a plane where they were packed like animals. Juliette on the other hand, decided to stay. She likes her job and would not leave it. Her boss would not let her go either and so she became one of the only Chadians at her office. This vulnerable position leads her to keep up an exaggeratedly friendly attitude to all, even to the point of not denouncing colleagues who she sees stealing, fearing that they will accuse her of being a foreigner among the Centr’Africains. Nowadays she does not even dare to wear the accompanying headscarf so characteristic of the three-pieced African dress; she fears that covering her head would associate her with Islam. No, the conflict is not religious but many of those who have fled, have done so also for religious reasons, misplaced associations in chaos turn lethal.