Originally from a small village in Magdemé, in Cameroon’s Far North region, 48-year-old Elizabeth fled her home in 2015.
In Cameroon’s Far North region, villages are randomly looted and burned, cattle stolen from farmers, and villagers kidnapped. Cameroon hosts nearly 114,000 Nigerian refugees, and more than 484,000 Cameroonians from the Far North escaped elsewhere in the country.
Elizabeth still tears up at the memory of the attack on her village. “You wouldn’t just get over seeing your husband killed before your eyes,” she says.
She tells her story while cooking lunch for her 7 children. She takes a while to wipe her tears and recompose herself before she continues. “Nor would you forget the image of your home up in flames, the smoke coating the sky even from miles away. I saw those images every night for a long time when my children and I finally got to safety.”
Helped by her 5-year-old son Benjamin, Elizabeth cooks using ingredients she bought with the cash assistance provided by WFP, through a project supported by the EU. This enables her to access commodities in WFP partner shops. ©WFP/Glory Ndaka
Speaking in Kanuri, Elizabeth uses the phrase ‘wahalla mbey’ which means ‘grief’ to describe the state she was in after losing her husband, farmland, cattle and the only home she ever knew.
“When I ran out of the little money I had, I could no longer feed the children, the youngest was only 8 months old at the time. What will the children eat? What about their education? These were all questions I asked myself every day. I gave up on myself and my family,” she says.
Thanks to support from humanitarian organisations in Ouro – a small community that hosts thousands of internally displaced people – Elizabeth now has a new home.
‘Food saved me’
Food is something we often take for granted, but it made a difference for Elizabeth.
With the monthly food assistance she receives via the WFP cash vouchers, Elizabeth can now feed her children.
“One never really appreciates the value of things like food when you have it all the time,” she says. “Food saved me! It cut down my level of stress and worry by half. My children finally had enough to eat.”
The humanitarian assistance that Elizabeth received helped her face some of her family’s most pressing needs. Moreover, the project strengthened social cohesion with the host communities, that themselves also struggle with depleted resources.
Elizabeth unpacks food she buys using WFP mobile cash thanks to financial support from the European Union, among others. ©WFP/Glory Ndaka
Elizabeth also made a new friend: Catherine, a 31-year-old mother and representative of internally displaced people receiving World Food Programme (WFP) food assistance in the Mokolo area, also located in the Far North region. Catherine’s outlook and courage inspired her to get back on her feet.
“Meeting Catherine was life-changing: that woman changed my life! I couldn’t believe a woman 17 years younger than me could be so strong, despite all she had been through,” says Elizabeth.
Catherine has lived in Mokolo for 6 years after fleeing her home in Amchidé, a village along the Nigerian border. Losing everything in her village meant starting anew. She has not heard from her husband since.
“I have to be strong for my children,” says Catherine, sounding upbeat. “I don’t know if it is a good or a bad thing, but I never had time to grieve. I was 25, with no husband, no money and no home. I had to think and work fast. Living in a camp for internally displaced people was not the life I had planned for my children. Receiving WFP food assistance was one of the reasons I could continue to be strong for my children because, at least, we were not hungry,” she explains.
Women helping women
Besides being a representative for internally displaced people receiving WFP food assistance, Catherine also volunteered with some local NGOs in the Mokolo area, serving as a translator and community animator.
This is how, with support from a local NGO, she created a group that provides a safe space for internally displaced women in the area to share their experiences and get precious help or advice from each other.
The group has been meeting on the last Sunday of every month at Elizabeth’s house. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, their meetings have been suspended but members do reach out to one another when help or advice is needed.
“I speak to a lot of women every day, they tell me their stories and the challenges they are facing but I am just one woman with my own unique experience and no formal training. The monthly meetings we have give everyone a chance to listen and learn from each other.”
Catherine (left) and Elizabeth (right) photographed together at Elizabeth’s home before the COVID-19 pandemic. ©WFP/Glory Ndaka
Elizabeth and Catherine have since become good friends. Elizabeth says her life is looking up for the first time in 3 years.
“I am happy with how far I have come. Sometimes when I look back, I see myself as weak for letting grief rule me and almost destroy my family. But today, I am proud that I overcame those challenges thanks to the assistance I was given.”
WFP’s assistance remains critical.
With the support of the European Union and other donors, WFP is reaching over 140,000 vulnerable people like Elizabeth and Catherine, with vital food assistance every month, in Cameroon’s Far North.