Hunger Haunts Cameroon Schoolgirl
March 13, 2009, —By Lane Hartill
You wouldn't know it by watching Beatrice tease the boys at
school or waltz to class. You couldn't tell by how hard she works at home.
There's no way, in fact, you would know that this slight 13-year-old, who can
lift a 50-pound jug full of scummy pond water, hasn't eaten in the last 24
There was no breakfast. And the small plastic baggie of
flavored ice she sucked at noon wasn't really lunch.
Now it's pushing 4 o'clock and Beatrice is sitting in a shed
smoked black by a cooking fire. She's waiting for her mom to dish up a wad of
couscous, cassava dough and a piece of fish the size of a bathtub plug. This is
all she will eat until tomorrow, when she will have the same thing.
After dinner, which she shares with her brother, Fernandez,
Beatrice goes next door and borrows a protractor from a neighbor. She sits in
her family's mud house, opens her geometry homework and starts in by the
lantern. The city cut off their electricity a month ago because her father
couldn't pay the bill.
When her homework is done and 9 p.m. rolls around and the
hymns from the church nearby quiet down, she'll go to sleep on a mat on the
dirt floor. Her two brothers, Dylan and Fernandez, and Alvine, her little
sister, will pack themselves into a bed without a mattress. They will sleep on
wooden slats in a dank room that smells of mildew and earth.
Everyone hopes it won't rain because the holes that send lasers
of light through the thatch roof in the living room turn into funnels that pour
water down on Beatrice. If it does rain, she'll collect her mat, find a dry
place in the corner, and wait it out. When the rain stops, she'll try to get
some sleep before sunrise and the 1¼-mile walk to school.
An Incomplete Knowledge
Beatrice knows a lot of things. She knows her life hasn't
been easy. But she says with a smile that she's used to it, that eating once a
day has become normal. She also knows that three times a year, Catholic Relief Services
and the Catholic Church will give her and her siblings a sack of food
containing such staples as rice, oil and sugar. The organizations also pay
school fees and offer counseling.
But there's one thing she doesn't know: Her parents are HIV-positive.
Her father says she's too young to understand. He'll tell her. Just not yet.
When her father fell sick, Beatrice's mom was gone for
several days at a time while her husband visited a traditional healer. During
this time Beatrice, 9 years old then, was the woman of the house. She didn't go
to school. She cooked for another sibling, Martinique, and bathed Alvine and
Dylan. She held Fernandez, whose eyes are clouded with cataracts.
For almost a year, when Beatrice's mom was pregnant with
Aristide—who now seems to always be nursing—and HIV-positive herself, she
somehow managed to help care for her husband while he was bedridden.
The time Beatrice's mom has put in shows. By the end of the
day, she is wilting, her body slack, her smiles wan. Neither she nor her
husband is on antiretroviral treatment (though her husband has started the
process). Their only income is the $6 a month she makes selling cassava in the
market, which isn't enough to feed, clothe and care for six children and a sick
husband and herself.
Orphans Face Double Peril
Edwige is 16 but still has the wispy figure of a girl. You have to duck to get into her crumbly mud house. She's in the living room talking with two older girls.
Her parents are dead and she lives in a mud house with her brothers and older sister, who only comes home at night. Edwige shares a room with her 13- and 11-year-old brothers. Her 21-year-old sister sleeps in the other room. Her husband died. And so did her first child. Edwige doesn't know why.
Edwige hasn't eaten anything today. There's a basin of what looks like popcorn in the hallway. It's cassava, a root that has to be thoroughly soaked before cooking. If not, there's a risk of cyanide poisoning (called konzo here) which can paralyze muscles.
Ida Nsangih Ndi, an orphan herself with seven siblings, knows what Edwige is going through. They talk about things a mother would talk about with teenage girls. They talk about HIV. Ida tells her that the church can help, she can help. Edwige should come see her anytime. "Whenever you have a problem, come see me. I'm your mama now and it's me that's going to give you advice."
"They were much worse off," says Benoit Ngonsi,
who heads a CRS-supported project that helps orphans and vulnerable children in the Batouri diocese. Now CRS and the Catholic Church have helped pay for Fernandez's eye
consultation. They even paid for a new pair of sandals for Beatrice. Without
this help, it's unlikely Beatrice would be in school.
CRS also helped obtain birth certificates for Beatrice and
the other children. If parents don't do this within a month of birth, it turns
into a snarl of bureaucracy. Without a birth certificate, Beatrice couldn't get
a national identity card. Without an identity card, you can be thrown in jail.
Benoit says that the while the family's situation has had a psychological impact
on Beatrice, she has been fortunate. Unlike many children, her parents are alive.
She also hasn't yet reached puberty, when many girls are forced into selling
themselves to make ends meet.
Stigma and Superstition
In Cameroon's eastern region, where Beatrice lives, there
are 8,000 orphans and vulnerable children. By 2025, says Dr. Leslie Chingang, a
medical doctor who helps manage a CRS program in the Catholic Diocese of Batouri,
up to 10 percent of the country's population will be HIV orphans. CRS and the diocese
are helping the 500 most serious cases in the eastern region.
"Sometimes you go into the schools and the teachers
will tell me the child is split between head of household" and being a
student, says Benoit. "That interrupts their schooling. Even if there are
actions taken and we bring help but the child is the head of household, there's
an impact with regard to school."
Dr. Chingang says that some children also suffer abuse
because of fears about HIV and AIDS.
"Many people in this part of the country still
associate HIV/AIDS with witchcraft and supernatural forces," says Dr.
Chingang. "This explains why orphans are often rejected by their relatives,
who accuse them [of] being in possession of the same witchcraft that killed
their parents. Some families, even after taking up the orphan, mistreat the
child with the pretext that he or she is possessed."
Teachers say that Beatrice is calm but an average student.
She's not very dynamic in class. She goes to Sambo Junior High School, where
there are 11 other orphans and vulnerable children. They know each other, and
talk at recess. But the other students don't know what they go through at home.
After school one day, they gathered to tell their stories. A
girl in a white satiny shirt read a letter she had written.
"As you can see, among us there are orphans abandoned
by their family. And some of us have had all the household responsibility fall
on us while we haven't yet reached motherhood, not to mention the lashes that
we suffer if we commit the slightest mistake, the insults also. We put up with
this abuse because we don't have any other choice.
"For some of us, giving ourselves over to death is one
solution that swirls in our little hearts. For all of this, some girls among us
see ourselves obligated to go out with boys in the search of money.
"We praise the good Lord to bless…you who are making an
effort to make financial, material and moral donations. We can't give you back
this charity; only God will give it back to you."
When she finished, the applause echoed through the
Lane Hartill is the West Africa regional information
officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.