BAMENDA, CAMEROON – With her office door half open, Caroline Bi Bongwa leans back in her chair, her head buried in a paperback book. Not even the sound of shoes is enough to take her eyes away from reading “Conversations With Myself” by the late South African President Nelson Mandela.
A knock at the door succeeds in distracting her, drawing her gaze to the entrance of her office. With a broad smile and wet eyes, she says, “Come in.”
Bongwa is one of the first female mayors in the Northwest region of Cameroon. She recently started her term representing the municipality of Bamenda I Council.
The new mayor calls Mandela, who died in December 2013, a major influence.
“Nelson Mandela is a saint,” Bongwa says with a friendly smile. “He is my role model. I have learned a lot from this great man. He has instilled in me the spirit of simplicity and forgiveness.”
Bongwa has been involved in politics for more than a decade as a government teacher and a member of the women's wing of the ruling Cameroon People's Democratic Movement party, she says. But she never nursed the idea of running for political office.
The wishes of the people and her desire to bring a change to the youth and women of Bamenda I Council area pushed her to run in the municipal election in April 2013, she says. She won and was installed into office in November 2013.
Since the installations of newly voted mayors came to a close in December 2013, Bongwa and her counterparts have been getting their five-year terms underway. Bongwa says she plans to focus on the same populations that motivated her to run.
“I want to initiate projects that will benefit women and youths of Bamenda I Council area,” she says. “As a woman, I understand the needs and concerns of women.”
For example, Bongwa wants to create a project that shortens the workday of women in rural areas, who must search for water and wood for fuel in addition to their other duties. She also wants to create a project that employs youth.
Having worked for the Northwest regional delegation for the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, Bongwa also acknowledges that violence against women is a major problem. She pledges her collaboration with the regional delegation to ensure the reduction and even eradication of violence against women.
The representation of women in politics increased in 2013 in the Northwest region, according to Community Initiative for Sustainable Development, a local nongovernmental political advocacy organization. Of the 20 parliamentarians representing the Northwest region in the National Assembly of Cameroon, four women won seats in the September 2013 election, an increase from one woman during the previous term.
Two of the 34 newly installed mayors in the Northwest region are females, as opposed to zero in the past. The two female mayors are Bongwa for Bamenda I Council and the mayor for Mbengwi Council.
Bamenda I Council has always hosted male mayors of the leading opposition party, the Social Democratic Front party. But with Bongwa’s election, both the party and gender of the mayor have changed.
The challenges of campaigning as a woman and as a member of the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement party were enormous, Bongwa says.
“Campaigning alongside men in a deeply patriarchal society – a municipality that since its creation has been ruled by men, not only men, but men of the opposition party – was a major challenge to me,” she says. “In the heat of it all, I stopped thinking about party politics. I focused on the importance of women sitting at the decision-making table. This thought clouded my campaigns, and it worked in our favor.”
Bongwa did not concentrate on giving people gifts so they would vote for her, a common practice in Cameroon, she says. Instead, she reminded them that voting for a change and for a woman was a far more long-term investment than a material gift.
“I didn’t campaign with much money,” she says. “I believed in my person and in the change that I could inspire. This philosophy, I passed it down to the electorates, and, like me, they too believed in it.”
Beatrice Tanteh is a staff member at the office of the governor of the Northwest region and the former president of Bamenda I forum, a forum under the regional delegation of the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family that convenes all women’s groups of the Bamenda I Council area for development purposes. In this former role, Tanteh got to know Bongwa, then the regional chief of the delegation’s Service for Social Advancement of the Woman, while collaborating on the organization of women’s groups.
“My cry has been heard,” Tanteh exclaims, lifting her hands and head to the sky. “My cry was to have a woman sit at the decision-making table of Bamenda I. I am all smiles today because it happened. Caro is the right woman to sit on that table.”
Bongwa’s upbringing, education and work profile have prepared her to assume this position, Tanteh says.
Bongwa says her father was a minister of communication in Cameroon. She has a degree in modern letters and a postgraduate diploma in education from the University of Yaoundé I.
Bongwa worked as a secondary school teacher for several years in government schools and then as a senior discipline mistress under the Ministry of Secondary Education, she says. She was transferred to the Service for Social Advancement of the Woman under the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family in 2008. In 2013, her love for the classroom made her request a transfer back to the Ministry of Secondary Education, where she served as a teacher at a government high school for one month before becoming mayor.
Tanteh says that working with Bongwa made her see her as a God-fearing woman who is ever-smiling, loving and organized. She has never seen Bongwa angry – not because she cannot get angry – but because she is adept at anger management and self-control.
Bongwa fits perfectly into the role of mayor, Tanteh says.
“Bamenda I Council will not regret voting Caro as their mayor,” she says. “She is a round peg in a round hole.”
Theresia Vuzuwoh worked with Bongwa at the regional delegation of Women’s Empowerment and the Family until March 2013, when Bongwa returned to the Ministry of Secondary Education. Bongwa, whom Vuzuwoh calls “Ma” as a sign of respect, is a natural leader, she says.
“I worked with Ma Caro for years in the same office, and I think that the temperament that she has makes her a born leader,” she says.
Like Tanteh, Vuzuwoh also cites Bongwa’s anger management skills. Bongwa moves quietly to a corner whenever she becomes tense, Vuzuwoh says. By the time she returns, she is smiling as if nothing happened.
“She is a peacemaker,” Vuzuwoh says. “When she is in a group, her role is to calm the raging storm.”
Bongwa treats everyone equally, Vuzuwoh says.
“She treats everyone – irrespective of age – in a very special way,” she says.
Bongwa also reads a lot, which helped her to execute a successful campaign and also will help her to do her job well, Vuzuwoh says. She commends Bongwa for putting into action the ideals she promoted at the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family.
“She advocated for women to become mayors and not deputy mayors,” Vuzuwoh says. “She has set the example.”
Apart from politics, Bongwa is a humanitarian. She leads a household of 10, of which only three are family members and seven are nonrelatives. Two of the nonrelatives are orphans whom Bongwa sends to school, and the rest are people she took in who were in need.
“Orphans and vulnerable children mean a lot to me,” she says. “At the end of every year, my family prepares and delivers a package to orphanages and other homes for needy children. Doing this gives me joy.”
Bongwa plans to stay in politics for as long as the people call her to serve, she says. After politics or at retirement, she wishes to have quiet time and to open a nursery where she can take care of as many needy and orphan children as possible.
“I find happiness in taking care of people in need,” she says.