‘I never went to school, however, if to be educated mean to bring change, then I am very educated’ says Mama Pekokeh Mary a.k.a Peaceful Pekokeh, age 90+,a WWSF award winner for sustainable development and creativity in rural life,a community mobilizer, and founder of NJANG FARMERS common initiative group.
The story of Mama Pekokeh is one of those rare rural voices, whose works have transformed rural farming as well improved the living condition of many rural farmers in her community.
Born around the 20s, in Nbashie, in Bafanji northwest region of Cameroon to father; Mbimoh Honfu, a farmer and traditional fence marker, and mother, Ngwiepieb Monica, a fulltime farmer; Mama Pekokeh has lived all her life as a farmer.
“I have farmed all my life” she says,“I was born a famer. My parents farmed for living. Then, I got married to a Farmer with whom we farmed until death took him away from me, some three to four decades ago. Now I am old, I am still a farmer. My children, grand and great grandchildren also make livings from farming”
Inspired by the association WICO, a grassroots northwest-based Women’s Information and Co-operation network which aims at improving the socioeconomic situation of women by providing them with small grants (microcredit), as well as supporting and/or facilitating the creation of women’s groups, Mama Pekokeh created the NJANG FARMERS common initiative group. A childhood dream Mama Pekokeh finally realized in her late sixties and early seventies.
Growing up, Mama Pekokeh says, “I have suffered so much. I saw my parents laboured so hard, spent most time in the farm. I knew one day, things will change. And farmers will have time to engage in community affairs like others.”
NJANG was the first collective farmers group in Bafanji;she says, formed within the 90s and was legally registered in 1994 as a Common Initiative Group (CIG) for Bafanji Farmers.
“I remember when I started NJANG, which originally was a traditional dance group modified to a farming-and-entertainment initiative, a lot of friends and people laughed at me; many didn’t believe it will work. Some doubted my competence as an illiterate managing literate men and women” she said; at that time, the population of NJANG was just 7; gradually it grew to 13, later 20 and now 70+ including young and old people.
And unlike before, some NJANG members say,work is lighter now; harvest is not lost, farm sizes are also expanding to cultivate more crops like cocoyam, groundnuts, maize, tomatoes etc.
Having established NJANG, mama Pekokeh said, the group managed to generate some income from their farms activities, were they used to purchase a corn mill in 1995, the only corn mill within that community, serving almost 3’000 people.
The infamous country woman, now a peace advocate and a world’s hero
In 1997, Ma Pekokeh became the first Cameroonian woman to win the Women’s Worldwide Summit Foundation (WWSF) women’s creativity in rural life award, an annual prize ceremony whichhonours and celebrate women’s work worldwide.
“The award came as a surprise! I had never thought that what I was doing would be of such international interest. Lessof winning an award” she says “…[laughs] imagine, a village old woman like me having lived all my life in the village, and can neither read nor write is now a world’s hero, a role model to both literates and illiterates, a symbol of hope to many grassroots women and men”
Again, she added: “I remember, after the award, I was contacted by men and women of high profile to share my experienceand tell my story. It was a little intimidating because I had never imagined in my dream that people of such status will someday gather to hear my story”
A year after, mama Pekokeh recalls, joining a group of women for the Peace Match to Ndop,to call on the attention of state authorities, particularly the Divisional Officer (D.O) to see into the end of the war which began sometime in 1995, between the two villages; Bafanji and Bali Nkumbat. The war that tookaway many lives, properties destroyed, people left homeless, lots of women and children became widows and orphans.
“War is scary”, she said, that of 1998 started in the night. I can hardly remember a thing except on how I ran for my life only to return to find out that my house, the corn mill – everything was burned.”
On the day for the Match for Peace, she said, “altogether we were 20 women, 10 from Bafanji and 10 from Bali,trekked straight to Ndop, to meet the Divisional Officer (D.O). Once we arrived, we were ushered to a hall, seats were offered to us, and while we sat, waiting on the D.O. the secretary took our names to makeus badges.As we gave our names, a suggestion came up – and we were asked to connote each letter of our names. “I gave my name as Pekokeh with the letter ‘P’ standing for ‘Peaceful’. Throughout the meeting I was referred to as Peaceful Pekokeh and till date I am called Peaceful Pekokeh.”
Old and lost my walking stick
At Mama Pekokeh humble thatch home, she lives with a young boy and two girls but cook the size of a party of 10+ people. Come to her house, she feeds you, while you eat, neighbours and children, friends and families visit her – some to eat, others just to chat, borrow petite food items, salute and / or seek for advice. “My house is a home for all” she says, in 2009, “When my only daughter passed away, leaving her four kids which are `now living with me, I was comforted by the community.”
The community is my strength; she added just how she was my strength, my walking stick and my ink on paper. She was learned. Whenever I wanted to send a message to any person or write a letter I communicate to her and she writes it. She understood my dream and supported me throughout. Her death had caused me so much pain. It has left a big gap in my life. And till date, I am yet to fill that gap. It has also made me a little lax in my movement – though I am so ageing.
Dream for NJANG
Now that I am old, I can barely work for long. Nonetheless, NJANG is a large group with very young and active farmers, who are so committed to pushing the vision of the group forward. I hope someday, NJANG would be able to have another corn mill, such that people’s lives become normal like before; when we used to generate income from the corn machine, and will used parts to purchase fertilizers, seedlings and other necessary products for our farms. And when our women and girls no longer have to walk miles nor spend hours to pound maize or ground on a stone.
Above all, I pray to see NJANG continue with the good team spirit, and should continue in helping the community.
This article is part of the Know Her Story Project ; winner of the Global Citizen DAWNS DIGEST Grant