Education Trumps Assimilation Woes for Settled Nomads in Cameroon

People of the once-nomadic Mbororo ethnic group clash with locals.

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Education Trumps Assimilation Woes for Settled Nomads in Cameroon

The traditionally nomadic Mbororo people are settling and providing education for their children, despite clashes with locals.

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BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Ali Hajarah, 27, belongs to the Mbororo community, a traditionally nomadic group that has settled throughout Cameroon. She is light-skinned, slim and tall, and her long hair frames her face.

The nomadic Mbororos are traditionally cattle herders and traders. But like many others in the community, Hajarah’s family has opted for settled life. Originally from Nigeria, the family settled in Wum, one of the villages of the Northwest region of Cameroon, 42 years ago when they were in search of grazing land for their cows.

Hajarah grew up with relatives in central Nigeria, where she attended school.

“When I was about 5 years old, my uncle, my father’s brother, came and took me to Nigeria, which is where I grew up,” she says.

She returned to Cameroon at age 12 to live with her parents, but she refused to attend school there.

“I ended my education at primary six,” she says. “Stubbornness made me not [want] to go back to school.”

Her parents let her stay home. According to Mbororo tradition, education is rare, especially of a daughter, Hajarah says. Early marriage is more common.

Hajarah says she fell in love with a Mbororo man and married him at age 14. They had a child together before they separated a few years later.

Hajarah eventually remarried, becoming the fourth wife of her second husband. She says she loves her marriage and her husband, who is one of the richest Mbororo men in the Northwest region. But she says not completing her education is one of her biggest regrets.

“I have seen the importance of education, but my husband will not allow me to go back to school,” she says. “He doesn’t allow me to do anything, not even to go out of the house and join associations with others.”

She says that according to traditional Mbororo beliefs, the woman’s place is in the home. So she has given up on education for herself. But she is happy that they have strayed from tradition enough to enroll their three sons in school.

Traditionally nomadic Mbororo people who have settled in Cameroon recognize benefits of a sedentary lifestyle, such as access to education. But they say they still feel like outsiders, clashing with locals and suffering insults from them. Local community members who reject Mbororos’ presence complain that their herds destroy their crops and that they are not true citizens of Cameroon. The government and an organization specific to the Mbororo are working to create harmony between the two groups and to promote education for Mbororo girls.

Approximately 2.8 million Mbororo people reside in Cameroon, though many are still seminomadic, according to a joint survey conducted by the Ministry of External Relations and the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2005. The population stands at 85,250 in the Northwest region, according to the most recent census, conducted in 2005 by the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Organization, which works to empower Mbororos to become successful, active members of their communities.

The Mbororo, which means “cattle herder” in the Fulfulde language, people are a subgroup of the larger Fulani group that is spread across a horizontal zone from West Africa to Central Africa. Those in Cameroon came from the Middle East, across Sudan and parts of Southern Africa and finally to West Africa, says Sali Django, the program coordinator of the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Organization.

The Mbororos, who live with permission on government-owned land, are found in all seven divisions that make up the Northwest region of Cameroon, according to the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Organization census. The Mbororos in the Northwest region of Cameroon comprise three subgroups with distinguishing features, Django says. The Jafun keep red cattle with long horns, the Wodaabe braid their hair, and the Aku, the largest subgroup, rear white cattle.

Hajarah says that settlement is more of a blessing to the Mbororos than a curse. She says it is empowering that more Mbororo children are now going to school.

“We have learn[ed] to go to school like other children of the Northwest,” she says. “We have seen the value of education, especially the education of girls.”

She says she wishes more Mbororo people would take advantage of a settled life and would realize the need for educational empowerment.

Ali Aishatou is a Mbororo from Tadu, a village in the region’s Bui division. She says her parents and grandparents told her that her great-grandparents came from far-off countries.

“They told me my great-grandparents came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, to Nigeria and then to Cameroon, where they settled in Tadu here in the Northwest region,” she says. “This was many, many years ago.”

The first child to attend school in her family, Aishatou went on to obtain a degree in veterinary medicine with financial sponsorship from the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Organization.

She now works as the chief of the Zootechnical and Veterinary Sanitary Control Centre for the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries.

But Aishatou says that the settled Mbororo, whose main occupation continues to be rearing cattle, struggle to assimilate into the local community of farmers native to the Northwest region.

Mbororos often face problems with their neighbors when their cows destroy the neighbors’ crops, Aishatou says. The disputes often escalate and require intervention from the government.

Hajarah says that local community members treat them like cows.

“They abuse us that we are just like our cows,” she says. “It pains us when we are looked upon as animals, as cows.”

Aishatou says that the native community still regards the Mbororo as outsiders and looks down on them for their lifestyle.

“Many people look at us as local or primitive people because we live in the outskirts of villages, in the bushes,” she says. “Sometimes when I pass, even little children call me ‘Mamia,’ a nickname given to Mbororos.”

Aishatou says when she was still in school, she used to receive all types of insults from schoolmates and even other adults. But Aishatou says the insults no longer bother her.

“I now know my rights,” she says. “I no longer feel insecure. I take my time to defend myself anytime, anywhere – trust me.”

Samuel Kang, a 39-year-old native of Wum, is not a Mbororo and says that the tribe is causing problems in his village.

“I remember when once my mother’s crops were eaten by a Mbororo man’s cow,” he says. “Everything in the name of crops was eaten. It was a bad year for the family because we starved, and the family suffered financial problems all through that year.”

Kang says his father prepared to confront the cow’s owner but couldn’t find him or her. He says several farmers in the area have suffered because of the Mbororo people and their cows.

“They are not even Cameroonians,” Kang says. “Most of them come from Nigeria and other African countries. Why did they come here to cause problems?”

Kang says the Mbororo should live far from villages and farmlands so they can graze their cows without problems.

Django says the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Organization is working to create harmony between the Mbororos and the local community by promoting dialogue between them.

“MBOSCUDA has as its mission to empower Mbororo pastoralists to achieve sustainable and equitable development and to secure their human, social, cultural and economic rights as valued active citizens of Republic of Cameroon,” he says.

Django says the organization seeks to promote the education of the Mbororos, especially young people, to improve agropastoral practices, to ensure maximum protection of the environment and to contribute in the sustainable use of national resources.

They also work to empower Mbororo women to increase their participation in the family unit and in community decision-making. The organization’s program in the Northwest region provides scholarships to Mbororo youth and builds and equips schools, Django says.

“The enrollment of Mbororo children in schools from primary to university levels has drastically increased from about 5 percent in the year 2000 to about 17.5 percent in the year 2011,” he says of surveys by the organization.

Django says the settled life generates a lot of challenges for the Mbororo people, but they are trying to handle it one step at a time.

Tchakam Billy, a member of Cercle International pour la Promotion de la Création, an environmental nongovernmental organization, spoke on the issue in October at the Northwest region’s celebration of World Rural Women’s Day. He advised female farmers native to the region to collaborate with Mbororo cattle herders on a farming technique. In the technique, farmers would build fences around their farmland, and the Mbororos’ cattle would stay there at night to fertilize the land with their dung.

“Night paddock farming technique will enhance collaboration between the native communities and the grazers,” Billy says. “This is because the cattle will not stray into people’s farmlands, and the farmlands of the people will be fertilized in the process. This is a major technique in reducing conflict between the grazers and the farmers.”

The government offers support to the Mbororos through the ministries of Social Affairs and Women’s Empowerment and the Family, among others, Aishatou says. Education initiatives include free books, seminars and workshops about the importance of enrolling girls in school.

The government also mediates disputes between the Mbororo cattle herders and local farmers and aims to raise awareness to promote peaceful coexistence. Aishatou recalls a panel she contributed to on a radio program organized by the Ministry of Social Affairs about indigenous people.

“Somebody called and asked live, ‘Where is the village of the Mbororos, Madam?’” she recalls. “And I told him, ‘Wherever the Mbororos are is their village.’”