SYKESVILLE — Residents and staff of the Integrace Fairhaven community met Thursday with a visitor who has a very special interest in them: Francis Njuakom, a champion of women's rights, senior rights and elder care in the West African nation of Cameroon.
The executive director of the internationally recognized Community Development Volunteers for Technical Assistance, or CDVTA, he has spent almost two decades working to create empathy and legal standing for seniors in his country.
"I am in the United States of America, and particularly today at Integrace, to share the experience of the work we have been doing in Cameroon for the last 18 years," Njuakom said in an interview. "To also learn from the American care system, from the Integrace initiatives and cultural exchanges that may help me gain skills and knowledge that can help promote our work back in Cameroon."
Njuakom, 44, was born into a polygamist society in which women had few rights and even fewer securities in old age, he told the three dozen people gathered at Fairhaven, in Sykesville, on Thursday evening. His father took three wives, with whom he had more than 20 children, divided among three bamboo huts in what Njuakom called a very common, very poor African scene at the base of a mountain.
When his father died in 1996, Njuakom told the crowd, he and his more than 20 siblings and his father's three wives were kicked out of their huts and land so that it could be repossessed by "the rightful owner," his father's nephew. Women, seen as property brought into the family, could not inherit land, he said, and after his father's death, the connection between his father's wives and the male family line was severed.
In speaking up — against great criticism, including threats of death and threats of curses — Njuakom worked to organize women into Elderly Social Clubs to provide older women with means to support themselves independently from men — such as goats, whose kids would grow the wealth of the club and the women in it — while also lobbying tribal leaders and the Cameroon government for change. Two years ago, the Cameroon government finally adopted a national policy on aging and Cameroon President Paul Biya named Njuakom "Knight of the Cameroon National Order of Valour."
Today, women may own land titles and openly count money without fear that a husband would take that money to find an additional wife, Njuakom said. His organization now also works with volunteers to create schools for children orphaned by parents lost to HIV/AIDS, and VIP latrines for both seniors and children, two classes of people who often have access to only the most abysmal facilities, he said.
Despite all he has accomplished, Njuakom's U.S. visit, which has involved touring numerous states and senior facilities, has been inspiring to him.
"I have looked at the diversity of the culture of care in the U.S. — they accept people from various walks of life, different classes of society and they live together as a community, as a family," he said. "Indeed, I have learned from the openness, generosity in embracing whatever ideas come in that are good for promoting the welfare of older persons in a society … promoting the human rights of people at the highest level — this is what I carry back home to my country."
"I think from that visit with him, it really helps us know not to give up and to keep delivering the same message, that there is glory in each day that we're given and we need to make sure that day is spent in a meaningful way to us," she said. "When you hear someone like Francis, who has taken that on with such conviction in a country that was in despair, it gives you some hope to continue and to make sure we do our job."