Sonia Mankongo

Women’s rights Right to education
Zerca y Lejos

Sonia is native to Ngambé-­‐Tikar, a small village in central Cameroon. She grew up in a “highly sexist society and one of its most acute manifestations -­‐ a polygamous family.” This was explained by activist Sònia Makongo last fall, in the framework of her visit to Spain to give visibility to the #EllasCuentan (#HerStory) campaign. Her mother had five daughters, no sons, and in the eyes of society, this prevented her from becoming a complete woman. “My mother was a woman who was hiding in her room during the holidays, because from one day to the other she saw another woman enter her house,” Makongo recounted with harshness.

Far from weakening her, having lived in situations like this has made her stronger. “So many fights, so many frustrations, so many things that are very hard that you constantly live with, while they are breaking you, they are also building you,” Makongo explained. The activist was very clear about what she did not want in her life, and this prompted her to study and pursue her own economic independence.

Paradoxically, this was the way she found the support of her father.

Currently, Makongo aspires to obtain a doctorate in Afro-­‐Hispanic literature at the University of Maroua, with an investigation into issues related to the memory of slavery. She has a pedagogical and didactic training in foreign languages, and teaches Spanish. Since 2016, her career has been linked to the NGO Zerca and Lejos. In this capacity, she works as coordinator of the Education Plan in Cameroon. She resides in Yaoundé, but travels for work from the north to the south of the country.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Makongo reflects when she looks back on her career. “Being born into a family with patriarchal values, like many others in Cameroon, has allowed me to realize how unfair our society is sometimes towards women and it has allowed me to put myself in front of the issue, with the possibility of choosing a different path from what is otherwise subtly or openly imposed on women,” she concludes.

Interview with Sonia Mankongo

How did you get to Zerca and Lejos (ZyL)?

In 2016, when I was still a university student of Pedagogy, Professor Bouba Kidakou recommended I do a five-­‐day seminar with the school centers managed by ZyL. This allowed me to discover a reality in my country that I did not imagine was so harsh. I have heard of the Pygmies -­‐ at school they told us they were the first settlers in Cameroon; however, knowing their daily life and their reality really surprised me, especially since I discovered it through a Spanish organization Since then, I have been part of the collaboration.

What does ZyL do in the educational field in Cameroon?

Basically, it manages 4 primary schools and 22 pre-­‐school centers located in Pygmy villages. It also promotes a program for the reception of minors in a situation of social exclusion and a home for children that brings them closer to schools. In addition, it offers a scholarship program for students in high school, and another scholarship program for university students, mainly aimed at girls from the far north of Cameroon who cannot continue their studies for economic reasons.

The #EllasCuentan (#HerStory) initiative promotes the education of girls. What are the main obstacles for girls to access education?

In general, in Africa, girls are the most marginalized group in the school system. If we are speaking of obstacles, first and foremost there would be economic reasons. In countries where 60% of the population lives in rural areas with little resources, access to education (which is not free) becomes a luxury that not all families can afford. Then there are premature pregnancies. We’re talking about societies where sex education fails, the use of contraceptives is not so common and the ability of women to procreate is understood as a positive value for their womanhood. There are also premature or forced marriages, which have serious consequences for girls’ studies. In addition, there are sexist stereotypes and prejudices, as well as social codes of conduct that frown upon girls that are not married after puberty. This creates a lot of distress for parents who fear that girls will get pregnant while still living in their homes. Unfortunately, there are no inclusive educational systems that promote gender equality. Finally, there are numerous armed conflicts in Africa that place women and girls in a position of even greater vulnerability.

What could schools do to promote access and permanence of girls in the educational system?

There should be a greater effort to raise awareness with the families about the dangers of child marriages and the importance of education for girls. In addition, it would be necessary to prevent gender-­‐based violence in schools, and educate all children to respect girls and women, to teach them equality and respect for difference. Education should be completely free and compulsory in primary and secondary schools.

You are also participating in a community preschool center project.

It is within the ZyL education program. It consists of bringing pre-­‐school education to Pygmy children from three to five years old, within their communities. The goal is to adapt the child to the school rhythm so that they are better prepared when entering a primary school. They are given courses in their mother tongues and then it evolves towards French and English.

What are the main problems faced by Baka communities?

These are peoples that have lived with Bantu populations for a long time and have built exploitation-­‐based relationships. They are good hunters and field workers, and they have become “laborers” of Bantus. Now they no longer work for themselves, and they receive salaries in the form of food and alcohol. With very few resources, they have no access to even the most basic health or education. Because they are a minority, they are kept in ignorance and thus are more easily exploited.

In the day-­‐to-­‐day work of your ZyL, you’ve probably experienced personal success stories that encourage you to continue your effort.

One remarkable story is that of Julienne. I’m not familiar with the exact stages of her development as a Pygmy woman, but her impact on our daily projects is an inspiration to all of us, and it encourages us to continue believing in what we do. Julienne is a Baka woman who is a hygienist in our oral health centers. She trained with us and has managed to combine her family life and her role within the community, which is not so easy for a Pygmy woman. She is an individual success model for her community, and this influences the ability of other women to express their views inside and outside their family.

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