I arrive to the Center just in time for Julyta’s talk. She’s excited to see me, and quickly ushers me in, offering me the only chair in front of the gathered group of women and girls. I offer to sit on the floor, as well, but she insists. She takes a seat facing the group and begins speaking in French, with a woman beside her seamlessly translating her words to Fulfulde.
Julyta speaks mostly to the mothers, telling them to send their girls to school. She says it’s just as important to educate their daughters as their sons, that their girls are better educated at this age than married. As the French and Fulfulde takes on a lyrical pattern in my ears, I glance around the room, at the pile of women’s shoes at the door, at the handmade signs reading “une fille éduqué vaut un pays éduqué” that cover the walls.
When Julyta finishes, some of the women approach me, taking my hands and thanking me for being there although all I have done is observe. I ask Julyta if I can interview some of them, and she sets up a table in the courtyard with three chairs. Outside the air is heavy with liquid, but I can tell it won’t rain today. I’ve been in the Eastern Region of Cameroon for a month and a half and am proud of how I’ve learned to read the weather despite my iPhone weather app that claims a 100 percent chance of rain every day.
I cross the courtyard with my translator and Julyta sends a woman over to talk with us. This is perhaps the thirtieth interview I’ve conducted so far with refugee women who have resettled in Cameroon. I begin with the usual questions and her answers are similar to most of my previous interviews. She fled the brutal civil war in Central African Republic five years ago with her, then, four children. At some point in their fleeing, she lost her husband and has not seen him since. Once in Cameroon, she remarried but her husband is not usually home. She now has six children and makes a little bit of money by selling the local crop, manioc.
Once we finish, I ask the woman’s age. It’s a question I’ve begun to leave out of interviews because more often than not the women do not know the answer. “Twenty one,” she replies. I look up from my notes. My twenty-first birthday is in two weeks, just days after my return to the States. I tell her this and her eyes meet mine. “It’s very different,” she tells me in Fulfulde. “Very different,” I respond in French.
I conduct two more interviews that day, the last two of my time in Cameroon. As I leave the Center and head towards the main road, I feel the raindrops hit my skin. I hail a taxi and head home for lunch.
Stephanie Mayle is from Richmond, Virginia in the United States. She’s currently a fourth-year student at Duke University studying Political Science, French, and Human Rights. Stephanie is passionate about refugee work in francophone Africa, and spent two months in Cameroon this past summer working with a local refugee organization. After graduation, she hopes to work in international development before eventually returning back to school.
Judge's Note: A well-honed scene that paints the contrast(s) between the first-person narrator and the setting/ people she is visiting. The attention to detail here drives the story forward: the reverence shown to the guest, the ‘lyrical pattern’ of the Fulfude language, the constant and oppressive humidity/ heat. The use of first-person allows the narrator to situate herself directly there, and share this scene with the reader in an intimate manner. It also allows her to reveal humility and even a small hint at humour. The scene leaves us wondering as much about the women in the Center as the narrator: what happens next for each of them?