Helah Robinson

Helah Robinson (Vital Voices in Cameroon): Helah did her undergraduate degree at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She graduated in 2009. During her studies, Helah studied in Dakar, Senegal for five months, traveled to Guinea and the Gambia and volunteered with the African Assembly for the Defense of Human Rights (RADDHO) in 2008. She also interned with Vital Voices Global Partnership. After her fellowship, Helah wrote: “As cliché as it sounds, this summer was truly a life changing experience. I learned not only new skills and how to work in varying environments, but much about myself as well. How I interact with people, work best with others and more. Furthermore, in a more practical sense, I had no video, editing, much interviewing or blogging experience before this summer. Now, I have developed those skills in addition to experience working abroad and more practice in a foreign language. I feel I am more capable, confident and equipped to do real substantial work.”

First Impressions

04 Jun

I’m going to try to make this first entry from Douala short and sweet. However, because I’m still reeling from all the activity of the past two days, and because I want to share as much as of this experience as possible, I make no promises.

First, just a fun story:
The day before leaving D.C. for Douala (via Newark and Brussels, which turned into a wonderful 23 hour trip), Johanna and I had yet to secure our visas. We’re on top of things, I know. Our flights were for Tuesday afternoon, and we were at the Cameroonian Embassy at 3:00 PM Monday waiting for our passports to be processed. Thankfully, the embassy had our visas waiting and we were out the door within 15 minutes. Now, for anyone ever leaving the country at any point in the future, here’s some advice: always, ALWAYS check to make sure your documents are in order. On our way out, I was scanning the last few pages of my passport to check out the visa for fun, which I discovered had been issued two weeks before I had arrived in D.C. and was meant for someone visiting family. Since I have no family in Cameroon to speak of, I flipped to the front page and saw a 43 year-old African man’s photograph staring back at me. The embassy had given me the wrong passport, and I can only imagine the fun that would have ensued had I shown up at customs with it the next day. I’m sure THAT would have made a great blog entry!

I have many, many more stories and thoughts from the flights, the airport, my first dinner in Cameroon, and more, but that would make this post far too long (feel free to ask). Instead, I wanted to talk a bit about the AMA Project itself—what I learned on my first day, what the expectations are and what I hope will come from our time here.

Today began with logistics—finding the ATM, buying a local cell, etc.—but we spent most of the day with Eric, a director at AMA, getting a handle on the context, mission and status of the project. There are around 1,300 commerçants et commerçantes (traders or merchants) in Sandaga market, the largest public market in Central Africa, 800 of whom are women. Despite their overwhelming presence in this workforce, only 2 women have ever been a part of the 42-member ASCOMSAD, the currently operating association for workers in Sandaga. Not having adequate representation, however, is only part of the problem. The market women encounter severe barriers and obstacles on a day-to-day basis: sexual harassment, discrimination and theft are common occurrences, and the majority of the women do not know their rights in the marketplace or the laws that govern them. As a result, community officials are able to manipulate and take advantage of the women, forcing them to pay double or triple rents for example. AMA’s main objectives are to create an association for the market women—to be called UCOMAS (Union des Commerçantes du Marché Sandaga)—and to empower the women of Sandaga, teaching them the laws and regulations of the market, equipping them with ability to defend their rights, and developing further leadership skills. AMA’s central purpose is to identify the most pressing challenges facing women in the market, and to work with them in crafting feasible and effective solutions.

AMA Business Training Workshop in Limbe, Cameroon

AMA Business Training Workshop in Limbe, Cameroon

AMA has made progress—on April 22 they elected 10 women to the executive board of UCOMAS, and they have reached 250 women through business training workshops. Unfortunately, the association is still in the nascent stages; it does not have a sustainable flow of income, a finalized constitution or a solidified plan of action. The women have many ideas with much potential, but lacking resources and definition continue to threaten their growth, reach and success. Our work plan, then, is to lay a foundation and international identity for AMA, through the creation of an AMA website, a brochure that outlines AMA’s purpose and role, and a documentary that will detail its goals, projects and future.  It is going to be very interesting, as well as challenging, to help build an organization, and a movement really, from the ground up.

As Vital Voices’ Global Grants Manager Melysa Sperber commented, AMA really is an idea that now needs to transition into concrete action.

Posted By Helah Robinson

Posted Jun 4th, 2009


  • peya robinson

    June 4, 2009


    it is amazing how little we know. i am very interested to find out how much progress will be made and wish you success.

  • Danielle

    June 5, 2009


    Glad you checked that passport! Excited to learn more about AMA from you and Johanna!

  • Bethany

    June 5, 2009


    I laughed out loud at your description of getting the visa. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your adventures.

    • Helah Robinson

      June 6, 2009


      🙂 I’ll keep them coming!

  • Mary Blaney

    June 9, 2009


    I can’t wait to hear more. The passport story was great. My question is, coming from no background in the politics or history of Camaroon at all, how are you, as a foreigner trying to assist locals viewed by the general public there? Animosity, danger, fear, skepticism, gratitude?

    • Helah Robinson

      June 23, 2009


      Hi again Mary. I just wanted to make sure you saw I responded to your post. I think responding here will send you an email notification. Thanks again!

  • David Lee

    June 10, 2009


    now that you mention it, you do kinda look like a 43 year old African dude… haha just kidding. Update frequently please!

  • Caitlin Ryan

    June 13, 2009


    Helah, what an undertaking and such a great project for you to be a part of! I will follow your progress on here and wish you the best.

  • Helah Robinson

    June 16, 2009


    Sorry this has taken me so long, but thanks for your comment Mary! I can only tell you what I’ve encountered (or at least perceived) in the few weeks I’ve been here. The women of UCOMAS were immediately welcoming and open, completely willing to give us any support we may need. They jumped right in because they want to take full advantage of the communication support we have the ability to give to the organization. As for the community in general? I actually discussed this a bit with the other Peace Fellow with. It’s interesting how we are treated just walking down the street because, no matter what we do or why we are here, we can’t help but be symbols of foreign intervention, or even imposition. It’s up to us to decide how to react and move on from that point.

    Thanks again and I hope you’re enjoying our updates!

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