Archive for 'Feature'
March 15, 2013 by Sophie, under Classroom Connections, Feature.
Opportunity Africa is thrilled to announce that our Classroom Connections program was awarded the 2013 Dot.org “Connecting Communities” award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MNCN) on Wednesday, March 13, 2013.
The Dot.Org awards recognize Minnesota nonprofits that are using technology and communications “…in inspiring, effective and creative ways.” Opportunity Africa is considered by MNCN to be a pioneer in new approaches to technology for communications, particularly for its work in the Classroom Connections project.
Opportunity Africa founder and Board President, Heather Buesseler remarked, “I was shocked and humbled. I had no idea we had even been nominated for the award, so it came as quite a surprise to find out we won! It has been incredibly rewarding to see students from my hometown connect with students from my adopted home in Cameroon through Classroom Connections.” (more…)
Gender inequality in education is extreme. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it is recognized that everyone has the right to education, and global organizations have been working tirelessly to address this gap. Education is critical—it provides women and girls with a strong foundation to secure other rights, as well.
Numerous efforts are aimed at eliminating barriers to achieving education, including initiatives to address poverty, poor health, lack of family planning resources, and child marriage to name a few. Below are a few campaigns gaining traction, and some upcoming events you can get involved with right now: (more…)
As we look back at 2012, Opportunity Africa wants to thank YOU—our donors and supporters—for what you helped us accomplish this year. Here’s our Top 5 achievements of 2012:
- Launched the Classroom Connections program, which connects students in Minnesota and Cameroon. These kids are learning about each other’s lives by communicating through Skype, emails, and photo exchanges—the kinds of cross-cultural learningopportunities that provide the skills to become successful global citizens, promote peace, and effectively participate in a globalized economy.
If you’ve been following our recent updates, you’ve been reading names like “Bertoua” and “Kentzou” and hearing about our focus on Cameroon’s East region. Not quite an expert on Cameroonian geography? Or wondering why we picked the East in particular? You’re about to find out.
An Introduction to the East
Like the rest of Cameroon, the East is very culturally diverse. There are many different ethnic groups, including sedentary farmers such as the Gbaya, nomadic Fulbe pastoralists, and the Baka, (sometimes called Pygmies), who are thought to be the earliest inhabitants of the area. Each group has its own culture and language, but French is often used as a common language, especially in cities. Most people in the region make their living through subsistence farming.
The climate in the region is fairly hot, with two rainy and two dry seasons each year. The terrain consists of low, rolling hills—locals call them “half-oranges” because of their rounded shape!
The rainforest sets the East Region apart from other areas in Cameroon. Forest covers about two-thirds of the region, which comprises a portion of the Congo River Basin Rainforest
—the second largest rainforest in the world (only the Amazon is bigger). The government has established four forest and game reserves, and environmental protection of the forests is a major issue in local politics. Timber exploitation (of both legal and illegal varieties) is the predominant economic activity of the region, as well as illegal bushmeat and ivory trade.
The magic of the forest is inescapable, as anyone who visits will surely tell you. Check out this song written by one of our board advisers after his travels there as an undergraduate study abroad student!
Congo River Basin Blues
“The Forgotten Region”
Cameroon’s East region is sometimes characterized as “forgotten” by politicians and development projects. It has little political or economic importance for Cameroon, and there is the added challenge of accessing the region.The East is the largest of the country’s 10 regions—at the same time, it is also the least densely populated. This is mainly because of the thick forests that cover much of the region, making it a challenge for large settlements to develop. In addition, the dense forests, large land area, and lack of reliable roads make travel difficult.
Because of these challenges, development indicators for the East are lower than for other regions of Cameroon. Health services and education, for example, are not widely available. Where these services do exist, they are usually found in larger cities, which are hard for rural residents to access.
Its “forgotten” status is one major reason why Opportunity Africa chose to concentrate our work in the East. The East is an amazing place—full of cultural and ecological diversity—but has been neglected by many development projects. We knew this was an area where our efforts could have a direct and lasting impact on people’s lives!
Bertoua and Kentzou
So now you know the East region has received less attention and has a high level of need for aid in education, which makes it a good place to focus our work. But what about Bertoua and Kentzou, specifically, where our programs take place?
Bertoua is the administrative capital of the East region, with a population of about 200,000. It’s the nerve center for things happening in the East—local delegations of government administrations are there, and it’s the location of the headquarters of most non-governmental organizations working in the region. It also has a bilingual high school, with whom we are partnering for our Classroom Connections program.
Kentzou, on the other hand, is a rural town of about 17,000 people, right on the border of the Central African Republic. As a rule, rural students have less access to education than those in urban areas. Combining this with lower levels of access in the East in general, rural students in the East start school at a significant disadvantage. Our scholarship program, which focuses mainly on students in Kentzou, aims to lessen that disadvantage by providing students financial support to achieve their educational goals.
The East is an area with some of the greatest needs in Cameroon. Although Opportunity Africa hopes to expand its efforts into other regions in the country, we decided to focus our efforts here as an important starting point.
In 2008, I had the chance to study and volunteer in the beautiful country of Tanzania. That summer sparked in me a fascination with international development, education, and the widely diverse continent of Africa, as well as a yearning to give back.
I found just that chance when I was offered a position with Opportunity Africa. As an intern, my job was largely centered on communications and social media. I blogged, Facebooked, interviewed, Tweeted, emailed, wrote, (rewrote), and edited stories for and about the nonprofit. But the knowledge and skills I gained from this experience went far beyond communications—in fact, my time with Opportunity Africa allowed me to significantly reflect upon the world and our role as global citizens.
One of the most interesting aspects of the internship was the way in which technology intersected with real-life. As it was a telecommuting position, much of my cyber-work could be done anywhere and anytime – saw an interesting story on my phone at lunch? Retweet! Didn’t get to work on newsletter layout until midnight? No problem!
However, the internship also allowed me to forge connections outside of the cyber-world. Technology linked me to incredible people across the country and globe as I attended Board meetings via telephone, and I enjoyed support and networking from local nonprofits in the Twin Cities.
I know that future interns will have their own unique experience working with this great nonprofit, but there are a few things I can promise. A position with Opportunity Africa is:
1. Incredibly educational. Working with communications and social media exposes you to an incredible amount of information that will inevitably expand your horizons. Not only did I learn a lot about Cameroon, but I was immediately engaged with the rest of the world just by opening OA’s Twitter account.
2. Valuable—not only to yourself, but to the organization. OA is a relatively small and completely volunteer-run nonprofit, so your work as an intern is very important. I wasn’t going on any coffee-runs; instead I received hands-on experience with a fledgling nonprofit and even helped them research and strategize.
3. Inspiring. The passion that Opportunity Africa members exude is truly contagious. Every board member has a personal connection to the cause and wholeheartedly believes in the organization’s mission. Even a short chat with the president or my supervisor left me feeling motivated—and ready to change the world one story at a time.
My time with Opportunity Africa may be ending, but in no way is my commitment to their cause. Their work in Cameroon and the United States makes the world a better place with every student they touch, and I will continue to support them in whatever way possible!
Susi Wyss has been a supporter of Opportunity Africa since 2008, when she heard about the organization from her former colleague Heather Buesseler, Opportunity Africa’s founder. Susi has lived and worked in Africa for many years as part of her career in international health, and currently writes African-set fiction. Her book The Civilized World, a novel set in Africa that follows the intersecting lives of five unforgettable women, was named a “Book to Watch for” by Oprah Magazine.
Susi became interested in Opportunity Africa’s work thanks to what she calls the African connection: “Africa is a part of the world that I am constantly fascinated by and drawn to,” says Susi. Her travels have brought her several times to Cameroon, which she believes is a country that receives less donor support than other, more well-known developing countries.
“I believe in the power of education,” says Susi, “especially education of girls.” She also says she enjoys supporting Opportunity Africa because it is a small, volunteer-run organization that allows for money to directly support students in Cameroon, rather than spending money to overhead costs in the United States.
Part of Susi’s inspiration for her writing and nonprofit engagement stems from a chance encounter with a young woman in the Central African Republic, who had lost her mother to AIDS. “Uneducated and with few prospects, she was at risk of repeating her mother’s fate,” says Susi. “I realized it was important for stories like hers to be told. At the same time, I couldn’t help think how many more opportunities she – and many girls like her – would have had if she’d been able to finish school.”
Finally, Susi is a fervent believer that Africans are able empower themselves. “I appreciate that the founders of Opportunity Africa don’t approach their work with the attitude that they have all the answers, or that they are ‘saviors,’ says Susi, “Africans are the best placed to address and solve their own problems, and Opportunity Africa acknowledges that by helping the next generation of Cameroonians pursue an education they could not otherwise afford.”
Opportunity Africa is proud to recognize Susi for her continued support – thank you!
In order to register for secondary school and final exams, Cameroonian students must produce a birth certificate. However, almost 1/3 of births in Cameroon go unregistered - and in rural areas, the ratio is nearly as high as 2/3.
The disproportionate number of female births that are not registered add yet another strike against girls’ access to education. While there are many complex cultural, political, and economic factors that restrict a woman’s education, birth certificates are a direct way to expand access to education.
“Birth certificates are a tangible first step towards improving girl’s education,” says Opportunity Africa’s president Heather Buesseler. “Investing in the relatively simple strategy of ensuring every birth is officially registered is an immediate way to begin improving opportunities for women and reducing unnecessary deaths in Cameroon.”
In addition to disadvantaging women, unregistered births also disproportionately affect certain ethnic groups in Cameroon. The Baka Pygmy people are one such group, and are currently fighting for an identity and an access to education. 98% of Baka births go unregistered - which means that 98% of Baka children have an immediate strike against their access to education.
“Most births in rural areas take place at home. Birth certificates are issued only in the hospitals and the procedure is long,” explains Kaldaussa Faissam, a sub-director of Cameroonian birth certification in a Madison Times article. He too believes that birth registration is a significant and tangible step towards development: “A birth certificate is the first link a citizen has with its government. It shows where a child was born and who its parents are, and defines the child’s nationality,” Kaldaussa says.
For more information on how birth certificates can provide access to new opportunities, please check out Buesseler’s brief video on the power of birth certificates.
“Birth certificates are a right for every child, opening the doors to education and ultimately saving lives.”
Women’s month may be coming to a close, but the issues surrounding women’s rights and the disproportionate effects of poverty on women are not.
Two-thirds of illiterate people in the world today are women. One out of every 37 women from the worlds least developed countries dies during pregnancy/childbirth. And at least 1 in every 3 women is beaten or coerced into sex in her lifetime. Women shoulder an unequal burden of the world’s poverty, an unequal access to educational and economic opportunity, and an unequal access to the proper health of their own body.
But women also hold the solutions to some of world’s toughest problems. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Association, if women had equal access to the same productive resources as their male counterparts, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%, which in turn could reduce the global number of people suffering from hunger by up to 150 million. Educated mothers are more likely to send their daughters to school and participate in developing their communities. In other words, a woman with access to resources creates a ripple-effect that changes communities and inspires others.
On March 1, USAID announced a new policy on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment, aimed at improving “the lives of citizens around the world by advancing equality between females and males, and empowering women and girls to participate fully in and benefit from the development of their societies.” Major goals include reducing unequal access to resources, wealth, opportunities and services (of a cultural, social, political, and economic nature), reducing gender-based violence, and increasing women and girls’ abilities to realize their rights and influence their own lives.
The Global Health Initiative has also launched new guidance on women, girls, and gender equality. The guidelines describe 10 principles for increasing women’s equal access to health services, their involvement in community health programs, and other strategies towards empowering young girls and women around the world.
Because Opportunity Africa is dedicated to opportunity, we are dedicated to gender equality. We know that educating a woman means educating an entire family, and that Cameroonian women who have gone to school usually have higher incomes, smaller families, and healthier children. But if money’s tight and a family cannot afford to send all of their children to school, it is usually the girls who get left at home. It’s a common belief that education is less vital to a girl’s life, as her main role will be as wife in the domestic sphere.
An Opportunity Africa scholarship can change a girl’s life by allowing her to pursue education and unlock her potential. And an education allows her to create change in her community and educate others. We know this from our work: Thanks to a full scholarship provided by Opportunity Africa, Clarisse Akabiyene was able to go to nursing school and find a job in the Ministry of Health as an HIV/AIDS educator in rural areas of eastern Cameroon. Her education is allowing her to educate others. After all:
Education = Empowerment
So, as we move on to April, don’t let important gender equality issues fade from your mind. In the words of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.”
For more information, check out these great videos on unlocking the potential of women:
We often hear about the “brain drain” phenomenon in Africa — highly educated people leaving their home countries for more promising or lucrative professional opportunities abroad. It creates a vacuum of the most intelligent, highly trained, and educated individuals — those most capable of contributing to the persistent social and economic needs of their countries.
Cameroonian Thierry Nyamen is different. He is committed to using his PhD to improve food security in his country and increase food exports. Nyamen’s advice for those wishing to follow in his footsteps? “First of all, they must go to school.”
“If you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t also believe that I have the power to change what is going on.”
This a quote from Rosebell Kagumire (video below), a Ugandan blogger, in a critique of Invisible Children’s Kony2012 video campaign that went viral this past week. While I don’t intend to enter into the Kony2012 critique in this space, her words have important implications for the broader development paradigm and representations of Africa at large.
I’ll admit: I wondered, even wished, what a viral video like Kony2012 would do for a small organization like Opportunity Africa. After all, a persistent problem like the undereducation of young people in a far-flung corner of the globe is never going to make headline news. Especially when the situation isn’t actively causing death and doesn’t have any shockingly disturbing images to accompany the story.
I was moved when I first watched the Kony2012 video — weren’t you? If only Opportunity Africa could make a video that moved people in such a way and generated worldwide awareness of the situation in eastern Cameroon almost overnight. Imagine the funds we could raise. Imagine the good we could do.
But the Kony2012 video illustrated that how an organization goes about raising awareness is important. And self-awareness may be the most important starting place.
I have always been acutely aware of the fact that I am a white, American woman who founded and runs an organization whose mission benefits Africans in a distinctly different socioeconomic category as me. I am extremely conscious of the possibility that such a structure echoes “The White Man’s Burden” sentiments and further perpetuates the narrative that Westerners are the only ones who can save the poor, hopeless, destitute Africans.
I worry about semantics — should we use the word “disadvantaged” to refer to the students to whom we provide assistance? What terms should we use to refer to a person or a community with expressed needs without disempowering them — especially in a scenario like ours, where the historical and sociopolitical paradigms are omnipresent and always implicit in our work?
But the needs do exist. And I am in a position to access resources that can address those needs. And as a fellow human being, it seems only just to mobilize those resources and partner with community members that first gave to me so generously, so selflessly during my undergraduate study abroad days.
Yes, I am a white, American, middle-class woman who founded and presides over an organization whose efforts aim to improve the lives of some Cameroonians who lack the resources to access what I consider to be a fundamental human right — education. Our board vice president is Cameroonian, currently living in the US, but hailing from the small village of Kentzou where our current programmatic efforts are focused. Without his knowledge of the situation on the ground and deep cultural understanding, our work could not happen. The rest of our board members are thoughtful, engaged, and committed individuals — a professor of African history; a former Peace Corps volunteer who taught in Kentzou schools for two years; an East African accountant, asylee, and NGO-worker; an American with a Master’s in Social Justice in Intercultural Relations.
We may not always get it right, but we are trying. Together, as a board, we are doing our best. Here is what I can promise you:
- We believe each one of our scholarship recipients, each one of the communities in which we work, has the power to change the situation on the ground. We strive never to present our program beneficiaries as hopeless or that their circumstances can only be changed by Westerners intervening on their behalf.
- We strive to present the situation on the ground accurately without oversimplifying and without sensationalizing. We aim to be frank, without being exploitative, about the true needs in our communities and the results we believe our programs and/or your contribution can achieve.
- We strive to engage the communities in which we work as key stakeholders so our programs are responsive, timely, and culturally appropriate.
- We strive to present the voices of our program beneficiaries and volunteers/stakeholders on the ground often (and on this, I think we can do more). In presenting their voices, we aim to show how we work with beneficiaries and their communities as architects of their own destiny — not as powerless or in need of being saved.
- We strive to be self-reflective of our positionality and conscious of the historical conditions that precede us and the political economic structures within which our work is implemented.
- We seek to set specific, measurable goals for our efforts (in coordination with local stakeholders). And we are committed to modifying or even changing our strategies if they don’t work. For us, aid isn’t about our priorities, or even just about raising awareness, but about what actually works.
I don’t know Jason Russell’s background (the founder of Invisible Children and filmmaker for the Kony2012 video). I’m not accusing him of not trying. But in the end, his approach was amiss — it was disingenuous and disempowering. I never want for Opportunity Africa’s programs or awareness-raising approaches to do this, nor to render anyone reached by our interventions as “invisible.”
At Opportunity Africa, we understand that in the long-run, positive change in Cameroon has to come from building local governmental and community capacity, not from aid or outside organizing. Groups like ours are a symptom (of weak, ineffective governance), not the solution. Consciousness-raising efforts like Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign, that are directed primarily at external audiences but place no pressure on local government to actually respond to the needs of its citizens and provide effective social services for them, don’t really do much to create conditions for lasting change. Creating this sort of change takes place on a generational, not a viral-video, timescale.
So please, before anything Opportunity Africa does goes viral, let us know if you have concerns, if our approaches seem off-base, or if you think there are ways we can improve. You have a stake in our work, and we strive to be a platform for you as our constituents and stakeholders to engage in our work with your own thoughts, voice, and opinions.