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Enslaved: The children paying the price of Cameroon’s Separatist conflict

The conflict has forced more children into work and left them vulnerable to slave-like conditions

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anglophone crises
Burned buses at the bus terminal in Buea, South West Region, Cameroon. (Photo by - / AFP)

Fourteen-year-old Landa wakes up at 4 a.m. every day to wash dishes and scrub floors before feeding and dressing her boss’s children for school, which she is not allowed to attend.

She has worked as a live-in servant, unpaid, for a year in Cameroon’s commercial capital Douala since a separatist conflict forced her family to flee their hometown in the southwest.

Out of work and living with a cousin, Landa’s mother entrusted her to a wealthier couple who promised to send her to school in exchange for babysitting.

Residents from the South West Region of Cameroon arrive at the bus terminal in Buea as they try to flee renewed clashed in the restive anglophone region on July 15, 2018. – Twenty civilians, including five students and a teacher, were killed on july 11-12, 2018 by the Cameroonian army in two localities in the Anglophone North-West region. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Like many, she was deceived.

“I do everything. I do the dishes, the laundry. I wash the floors. I don’t sleep until everyone else is in bed,” said Landa, whose name has been changed for her protection.

It is a world away from flying planes or delivering babies – the jobs Landa had dreamt would be hers after finishing school.

She is one of thousands of children uprooted by fighting in Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions, where a movement for independence from the majority Francophone country turned violent in 2017.

It was already common for girls from the English-speaking regions, whose population has long felt marginalised, to work as maids in the country’s two main cities, Douala and Yaounde.

But the conflict has forced more children into work and left them vulnerable to slave-like conditions as thousands of schools shut and families fight poverty, said local human rights groups.

The government denied this, saying many displaced children had been welcomed by host families and enrolled in school in Douala, Yaounde and other cities, and that mistreatment of domestic workers was not a problem in Cameroon.

“Cameroon is a country of rights where this type of practice, if it existed, would be severely punished under our law,” said the communications ministry in a statement.

One activist estimated that hundreds of girls from the conflict zone, at the very least, were trapped in domestic servitude in the major cities.

“Most often they promise the parents to educate their daughters, to take care of them and give them a better future,” said Thomas Ngoh Mudoh, president of the Human Rights Defence Club, a national non-governmental organisation.

“But 95% of the time, this is not the case. These young girls, innocent and manipulable, become domestic slaves,” he said.

The girls often work without rest and some are raped or beaten, he said. If they are paid, it is often with rice, salt or oil that is sent to their families in the conflict zone.

Young boys who have fled the conflict also work, sometimes on construction sites or collecting plastic bottles; others are left to fend for themselves on the streets, locals said.

A price to pay

The crisis has forced half a million people to flee their homes and left 1.3 million in need of aid, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Security forces have used heavy-handed tactics to quash the rebellion, including destroying schools, medical facilities and entire villages, said a U.N. rights committee.

The separatists have also closed schools as part of their protests and been accused of kidnapping dozens of children.

Soldiers of the 21st Motorized Infantry Brigade patrol in the streets of Buea, South-West Region of Cameroon on April 26, 2018. – A social crisis that began in November 2016 has turned into armed conflict since October 2017. Several small armed groups demand the independence of the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, bordering Nigeria. (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

Landa attended school in the department of Manyu until two years ago, when clashes between separatists and the army reached her town. She fled with her family as houses burned.

They were barely getting by, living seven to a room, when Landa’s mother fell sick and their desperation grew.

The job offer meant one less child to feed.

“My mother accepted. I wasn’t going to school anyway and my boss promised to send me later,” Landa said.

Landa’s boss, who owns two clothing shops, told reporters that she would send her to school next year.

“This year I couldn’t because the children were very sick and there was no money,” she said.

But the family recently bought a new car and repainted their apartment, said Landa, who wants to finish her studies. Before the conflict, she had dreamed of becoming a pilot or a midwife.

Other girls and parents of girls who had left home considered servitude an acceptable price to pay for safety.

“Being employed in a house is better than anything. I don’t hear shooting and cries anymore,” said Katia, 18, who fled the northwest region for Yaounde last year.

She is scolded and humiliated at work and earns just 5,000 CFA francs a month, she said, but her boss also feeds her and gives her old clothes.

“At least there, they are in houses,” said a beautician with relatives who had gone to the cities to work as maids.

“Even if they are mistreated, it’s not serious. It’s the school of life,” she said from her home town of Buea, in the southwest region.

“We are slaves”

For many girls, the alternative to housework is prostitution, said victims, families and activists. The government said these reports were unfounded. At nightfall, in the Bonaberi quarter of Douala, the bars are full of girls, many with childlike faces.

“The prostitution rate has risen. We find many young Anglophone girls having fled the crisis who were left to themselves with no money, no resources,” said Bibiana Mbuh Taku, co-founder of a women’s empowerment association called Otabong.

Residents from the South West Region in Cameroon arrive at the bus terminal in Buea fleeing renewed clashed in the restive anglophone region on July 15, 2018. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Taku tries to source donations for the girls’ schooling, but said it is difficult; even in her educated circle, she said, friends were regularly seeking young girls to do housework.

“I explain to them that it’s slavery. They must understand a child’s place is in school, not in the home,” she said.

Felicity, 15, earns 10,000 CFA francs a month working as a housekeeper which she sends to her mother and younger brothers taking refuge in Douala. Her sister, 17, works the streets.

“It’s hard. They threaten me and I work a lot. One time I even passed out because I didn’t have time to eat,” she said, on a rare Sunday break when she was given four hours off to visit her mother in the outskirts of Douala.

Her mother, 53 and divorced, said she never wanted this outcome for her daughters but that they had fled their home in the southwest with nothing and had no other means to eat.

“Because of the Anglophone crisis, I am a ‘maid’ and my big sister sells herself,” said Felicity. “We are the slaves of this dirty war.” 

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Gabon’s Ali Bongo vows to “complete mission” despite health challenges

Bongo said he was “fiercely determined” to push ahead with a campaign against graft

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Gabonese President Ali Bongo vows to "complete mission" despite failing health

Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba on Wednesday completed a decade in office, vowing to push ahead with economic reforms and an anti-corruption drive despite questions over his health after suffering a stroke nearly a year ago.

“I feel good. And feeling better and better each day,” Bongo said in an interview published on Wednesday in the pro-government daily, l’Union. 

“I will complete my mission.”

Bongo said he was “fiercely determined” to push ahead with a campaign against graft. Government departments have been shaken up in recent weeks with a string of top-level changes.

“Mistakes were made in the past, but they won’t be able to be made again in the future,” Bongo said.

“Over time, the standards I require of government members has increased while my level of patience has fallen,” he said.

During his months-long absence abroad for treatment, speculation over Bongo’s fitness surged and the army quashed a brief attempted coup.

At one point, his spokesman was forced to deny rumours that Bongo had died and been replaced by a lookalike, while opposition members made an unsuccessful attempt to have a court assess whether he was fit to rule.

Since returning home, Bongo has attended several well-scripted public events, but every appearance is widely scrutinised for any signs of any disability.

READ: Gabonese President Bongo undergoes ‘routine medical checks’ in London

Nostalgia for father –

The drama has played out against the backdrop of a stuttering economy in the country of two million. 

Bongo initiated an array of major infrastructure projects after coming to power, such as new roads and stadiums, which drew on a flurry of investment from China.

But oil prices slumped after 2014, provoking an economic crisis and discontent, although the country’s political opposition is fractured.

There is widespread nostalgia for the free-spending reign of Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the country for 42 years until his death in 2009, when he was succeeded by his son.

“Gabon has fallen into deep sleep,” said 33-year-old Gael Ndong, reflecting a commonly-expressed opinion.

“It was better before.”

“Ali Bongo has never enjoyed the legitimacy that his father was able to have,” said Florence Bernault, a professor of sub-Saharan history at Sciences Po in Paris.

His reputation was further battered after elections in 2016 marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud, she added. His current term ends in 2023. 

READ: Gabon’s Ali Bongo makes post-stroke appearance

Diversify –

Under Bongo senior, Gabon became an oil major. Today, hydrocarbons account for 80 per cent of exports and almost half of GDP.

Under Bongo junior, the government is trying to diversify the economy, turning to managed forestry, minerals and other underdeveloped sectors to pick up the slack.

But the president’s vow 10 years ago to place Gabon on the path to emerging nation status remains “far away” from attainment, said Gabon economist Mays Mouissi.

Gabon may rank among Africa’s most prosperous countries but still badly lacks adequate roads, hospitals, homes and schools.

“Bongo did not know how to efficiently use the oil wealth he benefited from at the start of his first term,” said Mouissi, describing the “lost decade” as a wasted opportunity. Joblessness among the young is more than a third.

Bongo, in Wednesday’s interview, argued the reforms are “beginning to bear fruit.”

READ: Ali Bongo joins independence celebration in Libreville

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) this month predicted growth will reach 3.4 per cent this year compared with 0.8 per cent in 2018, although “ambitious macroeconomic measures and far-reaching structural reforms” were still needed.

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Doctors in DR Congo to deploy second Ebola vaccine in November

It will arrive in the eastern city of Goma, in North Kivu province, on October 18 and be used from the beginning of next month

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Doctors in DR Congo to deploy second Ebola vaccine in November

Doctors will use a second Ebola vaccine from November in three eastern provinces in the Democratic Republic of Congo to fight the deadly virus, medical officials said Sunday.

“It’s time to use the new Ad26-ZEBOV-GP vaccine, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson’s Belgian subsidiary,” said Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe, who leads the national anti-Ebola operation in the DRC. 

It will arrive in the eastern city of Goma, in North Kivu province, on October 18 and be used from the beginning of next month, he added.

READ: Uganda begins trial of “MVA-BN” Ebola vaccine

DRC’s latest Ebola epidemic, which began in August 2018, has killed 2,144 people, making it the second deadliest outbreak of the virus, after the West Africa pandemic of 2014-2016.

Muyembe said the communes of Majingo and Kahembe had been selected to receive the vaccine as they were considered the epicentres of the epidemic.

“We will extend this vaccination to our small traders who often go to Rwanda to protect our neighbours,” he added.

“If it works well, we will expand vaccination in South Kivu and Ituri.”

DR Congo’s eastern provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu sit on the borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

The Belgian laboratory will send a batch of 200,000 doses to neighbouring Rwanda and 500,000 doses in the DRC, Muyembe said.

READ: Kenya becomes 3rd country to adopt world’s first malaria vaccine, RTS,S

More than 237,000 people living in active Ebola transmission zones have received a vaccination produced by the pharma company Merck Sharpe and Dohme since August 8, 2018. 

The J&J vaccine had been rejected by DRC’s former health minister Oly Ilunga, who cited the risks of introducing a new product in communities where mistrust of Ebola responders is already high.

But Ilunga’s resignation in July appears to have paved the way for approval of the second vaccine. He currently faces charges that he embezzled funds intended for the fight against Ebola.

READ: Doctors Without Borders accuses WHO of rationing Ebola vaccine in DR Congo

In his letter of resignation, Ilunga said “actors who have demonstrated a lack of ethics” want to introduce a second vaccine, but did not elaborate. 

Muyembe, who took over the Ebola fight in the DRC in July, said “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has the most science-based data.” 

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Official cargo plane of DRC goes missing with 8 aboard

The plane, carrying four crew and four passengers, was “providing logistics” for the president,

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DRC cargo plane goes missing

A cargo plane that was providing logistical assistance for a trip by DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi has gone missing, the country’s Civil Aviation Authority said on Friday. It said air traffic controllers lost contact with the Antonov 72 on Thursday, 59 minutes after it took off from the eastern city of Goma.

The plane, carrying four crew and four civilian and military passengers, was “providing logistics” for the president, the authority’s director general, Jean Mpunga, said in a statement. The aircraft, carrying six hours worth of fuel, had been scheduled to land in the capital Kinshasa in the late afternoon.

Mpunga said air traffic control centres on its intended route have found no trace of the plane, and a search operation has been ordered. Tshisekedi returned to Kinshasa on Thursday evening after a four-day visit to the east of the country.

Aircraft accidents involving Antonovs are common in the Democratic Republic of Congo, sometimes involving a large loss of life. In September 2017, an Antonov cargo plane chartered by the army crashed near Kinshasa, killing all 12 people on board.

The country’s deadliest Antonov disaster was in January 1996 when an overloaded plane overshot the runway in Kinshasa and crashed into a popular market, killing hundreds on the ground.

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