Dear Friends of Nascent Solutions
The International Women’s Day 2019 campaign theme of #BalanceforBetter takes me back to 2015, the year we were recruiting staff for our three-year Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program in the North-West Region of Cameroon. The bulk of the positions we were offering were for Field Assistants, whose work would entail grueling travel to the villages of Bui Division on footpaths, cattle trails, and muddy or dusty farm tracks. For this work, they would need to travel by motorcycles, which the project was providing for them. But to our consternation, none of the women candidates were applying for these jobs. As a woman-centric organization, part of whose mission is to give women in rural Africa all the opportunities possible to raise their living standards, we found it distressing that women would be left out of a well paid position because they could not, or did not want to ride a bike.
The reticence of the women candidates was understandable. In the rugged hills of the North West Region, motorcycle riding is a rather disreputable profession. It is associated with reckless young men who endanger their lives and those of others by ignoring all safety rules of the road while carrying sometimes as many as five passengers on their bikes. Accidents are common and often fatal.
We were in a real quandary. Here we were, with open positions for which women were exceedingly well-suited – following the day-to-day operations of the project, keeping meticulous records and great attention to detail – being faced with the real possibility of excluding them. Many of the male candidates could not ride a bike either, so management decided to offer time for all the FAs to train on bike riding.
Then Patricia Wirnkar and Bertha Mformi opted to apply for the field assistant positions. They were immediately offered the positions, purely on the basis of their qualifications for the FA job. After their training on motorcycle riding, they were a sensation in the city of Kumbo, the base of the project, and an instant hit with the girls in the villages where they worked. In Bertha and Patricia, the young village girls saw role models, not in bike riding, but in the infinite possibilities open to women who believe in their potential.
In striving for gender balance in a position requiring a skill not generally considered suitable for women, and one from which women automatically excluded themselves, we ended up changing perceptions on a wide range of issues that keep rural African women poor.
While there is no study yet that shows that the percentage of women bike riders in Bui has changed, there is anecdotal evidence that some have been spotted in a few villages taking bike riding lessons from male peers. And maybe a few of those little girls in the classrooms that Patricia, Bertha and the other FAs visit have decided that, when they grow up, they’ll get a university degree like the two bike riding women of Nascent, and some day become an FA or better.
Happy International Women’s Day 2019!
Dr. Beatrice Wamey