April 16, 2014
April 16, 2014
BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Dozens of shoes – some old, some new – hang from the walls of a wooden structure measuring about 2 meters (6 feet) by 2 meters. A hammer, knife and shoe repair gum lie on a workbench. Torn shoes are heaped on the table, awaiting repair.
This is the workshop of Rosemary Fengen, the only female shoe mender in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region.
Fengen, 29, says people in the city are amazed that a woman can do this job. Some support and respect her vocational choice, while others treat her as though she is in the wrong profession.
“Every blessed day, people express surprise seeing me do my job,” she says. “Some appreciate and encourage me, some give me funny looks. I don’t blame them. It is the society in which we live.”
Fengen was inspired to become a shoe mender while growing up in Oku, a village in the Northwest region. Whenever she took her shoes to be repaired, she admired how the shoe mender also made shoes.
Fengen wanted to learn how to make shoes, but the shoe mender told her she had to learn how to mend shoes first. A year later, she enrolled in a three-year apprenticeship with him. But her parents forbade her to enter a trade they considered the preserve of frustrated men who were unable to do anything better.
“Behold, my parents did not pay even 5 francs of my fees,” which amounts to less than a penny, she says with a strained face. “I struggled all alone, working on the farm of my patron just to make up my fees.”
In exchange, Fengen’s trainer offered her reduced fees because he understood her difficulty, she says.
“Hmmmmm,” Fengen says with a sigh. “I have gone through a lot just to become a shoe mender.
The single mother of two has been working as a shoe mender in Bamenda for six years now. She grosses about 100,000 Central African francs ($210) a month. After paying for materials and rent for her workshop, she nets 15,000 francs ($30) to 40,000 francs ($85) a month.
“My job is lucrative, honestly,” she says with a smile. “I am able to pay my rents, pay school fees for my two boys, clothe myself and my children, feed my household and, of course, send money to my parents.”
Although Fengen’s parents initially disapproved of her choice of vocation, they now advise her to take her job seriously.
“Becoming a shoe mender is the best thing that happened to me,” she says. “I love the uniqueness of my profession.”
Female shoe menders are rare in Cameroon. Many Cameroonians associate the occupation with poor, illiterate and frustrated men who lack other job opportunities. People expect women to join professions such as nursing, teaching, tailoring and hair dressing.
Benjamin Mbah, a shoe mender in Bamenda, says there are hundreds of shoe menders in the city, but Fengen is the only woman among them.
Christian Ngufor, a client of Fengen’s, says Fengen is the only female shoe mender he has encountered in all of Cameroon. She is also the best shoe mender he has ever seen, he says.
“I give my very expensive shoes to Rosemary to mend or to adjust without fear,” Ngufor says. “I know for sure she will do it perfectly well.”
But some people believe women should not be shoe menders.
“What the hell is a woman doing with shoe mending?” shouts McDonald Fusi, a local businessman. “Of all the professions in the world, if my daughter decides to become a shoe mender, I will surely disown her.”
Fusi says he believes Fengen is cursed because it is abnormal for women to become shoe menders.
“Female shoe menders need deliverance,” he says. “They may be suffering from some generational curses. Ah, they need deliverance, to be honest.”
But Fengen does not let such people discourage her.
“I love my job so much so that even in my next world, I will still become a shoe mender,” she says.
She advises jobless women to ignore the male tag attached to shoe mending and take up the trade.
“Shoe mending is a lucrative job,” Fengen says. “Many more women should get into this business and save themselves of the stress of poverty.”