Yaounde, Cameroun

“All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family…”

– Mahatma Gandhi

I took this photo of a young girl coming home from school in Yaounde, Cameroon.  It is a photo that always reminds me that, as Gandhi once said, all of humanity is one family.

To see more responses to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Humanity, click here.

Adventure on an African Road

Motorcycle taxis speed toward Douala, Cameroon's major port and commercial center


Motorcycle taxis speed toward Douala, Cameroon’s major port and commercial center.

Just getting around can be an adventure in and of itself in many parts of the world.  In Cameroon, the motorcycle taxis are used by many people to get around the city of Douala.  Most motorcycle taxis carry two passengers, but a few times I saw three passengers.  I took this photo from the back of a taxi speeding in the opposite direction.  There were hundreds of motorcycle taxis heading into the city, so I just snapped a couple photos at random.  I was shocked that this photo captured the scene as well as it did!


This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure.  Follow the link to see more entries!

Art Therapy in Cameroon



In Cameroon, an NGO called RENATA (Reseau National des Associations des Tantines)

encourages women and girls who have experienced violence to use art therapy in their healing process.




These are just a few of the works of art that I had the privilege of seeing when I visited the RENATA office in Yaounde.

While I found these works of art profoundly sad,

I also saw them as bold statements of empowerment by the survivors who painted them.


And so, while these works of art may never hang in a gallery, to me they are inspirational.


This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge:  Work of Art.  Click on the link to see more responses.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Community

douala map

As part of their Community Health initiative, a Cameroonian non-governmental organization developed this map of the city of Douala.  Douala,  a major Central African port and the commercial capital of Cameroon, is in the departement of Wouri.

The map shows the locations of  potential transmission sites for HIV/AIDS,  STDs and TB.

It was created based on information gathered through field work in the community.  Staff members use it to target their outreach and community health intervention strategies to effectively reach the most at-risk populations.

This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Community.

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Colors of Cameroon

Deciding on just one photo for this week’s Photo Challenge theme COLOR was a real challenge.

Deciding on just one COUNTRY was even harder!

Here is my second response to the challenge.

Enjoy the warm and vibrant colors of Cameroon!


The bright colors of a primary school in a town near Yaounde.

Some of my more colorful Weekly Photo Challenge posts:

Weekly Photo Challenge: Color in the Kathmandu Valley

One Day in Zanzibar

Weekly Photo Challenge: Home

Weekly Photo Challenge: Geometry/γεωμετρία


Forward Movement: LGBT Rights in Cameroon

Motorcycle taxis speed toward Douala, Cameroon's major port and commercial center
Motorcycle taxis speed toward Douala, Cameroon’s major port and commercial center

In response to this week’s Photo Challenge: Forward, I thought I would simply post this photo, taken two weeks ago today, of motorcycle taxis speeding towards Douala, Cameroon.  But there is another kind of movement going on right now in Douala, one that is attempting to move the country forward towards acceptance of the rights of LGBT persons.  These courageous activists, who are risking their lives to end discrimination and persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity in Cameroon, deserve more than a photo.  They deserve to have their stories told.

In Cameroon, people who are LGBT face pervasive societal stigma, discrimination,and  harassment.  They also face the possibility of imprisonment – Article 347 of the Cameroonian penal code criminalizes “sexual relations with a person of the same sex”.  At least 28 people have been prosecuted under the law since 2010. One of them is Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, who was arrested and convicted of homosexuality in March 2011 after sending another man a text message reading, “I’ve fallen in love with you.”  In December 2012, the Cameroonian court of appeals upheld the conviction and sentenced him to three years in prison.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have a high risk of HIV/AIDS infection.  They are often rejected by their families, who force them out of the home.  When targeted by law enforcement, they have more difficulty in obtaining legal protection.Due to the social stigma and intense climate of fear, most LGBT people are forced to live out their lives in secrecy.  Yet there are several impressive non-governmental organizations  – Alternatives-Cameroun, the Association for the Defense of Gay and Lesbian Rights (ADEFHO), Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), and Evolve, to name a fewwhich are working hard to raise awareness about and provide services to the LGBT community.

When I was in Douala, I was able to visit Alternatives-Cameroun.  Security is, understandably, a big concern.  There is no sign that marks their center on boulevard de la Liberté, and when you arrive, you have to sign in and show your ID.  Alternatives-Cameroun has one doctor at the center who provides HIV/AIDS treatment and medical services to approximately 75 patients.  In addition, Alternatives-Cameroun provides a small community pharmacy, as well as safe, confidential and free HIV testing.  In 2012, they provided 720 HIV tests.

Staff at Alternatives-Cameroun centre in Douala
Staff at Alternatives-Cameroun centre in Douala

Equally important are the services provided by a psychologist and two social workers.  Alternatives-Cameroun also provides public education and outreach, both at the center and through peer educators.  On the day I visited, all of the peer educators were at work out “in the field” in Douala.

What touched me most, though, was the real sense of community that is provided by Alternatives-Cameroun.  I saw a small group of young people sitting on plastic chairs around a table in “William’s Hall” (named after one of the organization’s founders, who died in the Kenya Air plane crash).  I could feel that they were providing each other with comfort and support, a feeling so strong that I could see the connection between them almost as clearly as I could see the young man holding the hand of the woman beside him.

As a way to join the community and to connect with the neighbors around them, Alternatives-Cameroun started a small restaurant that serves a very inexpensive daily lunch. This anti-discriminatory gambit has paid off; the neighbors now come to the restaurant to eat and talk together with the staff and patients.  Often the patients are very poor, so the restaurant means they can offer them a meal or two a day.  The restaurant also provides meals for LGBT detainees in prison.  Prison conditions in Cameroon are notoriously bad, with severe overcrowding and inadequate food.  Most detainees rely on family members to bring them meals.  As LGBT detainees have often been rejected by their families, they have no other access to food.


Activists working on LGBT issues in Cameroon told me that one of their main needs is for more lawyers. One of the very few Cameroonian lawyers who is willing to take on these “homosexuality” cases is Alice Nkom.  The first black woman admitted to the Cameroonian bar, Alice has been courageously fighting for the rights of LGBT Cameroonians for many years.  In spite of serious death threats, Alice Nkom continues her work.  “Threats like these show us that the fight must continue,” said Nkom.

with alice in douala

Cameroon has been receiving a lot of criticism recently from the international community, particularly the European Union. The issues of LGBT rights will certainly come up again at the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon this spring.  On January 31, Cameroonian President Paul Biya told reporters that attitudes are changing in his country about the criminalisation of homosexuality.  “Now I can say that discussions are under way. People are talking, minds can change one way or another but currently it’s a crime.”  

The government of Cameroon must do more than discuss.  The government must protect the rights of all Cameroonians, regardless of sexual orientation or identity. And when things do change, as they will one day, the credit will go to the brave men and women who have put their heart and souls – not to mention their lives – into moving their country forward on LGBT rights.

To read more about LGBT rights in Cameroon:

Human Rights Watch, Criminalizing Identities (2010)

Joint Stakeholder Submission on LGBT Rights for the Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon (2012)

International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Cameroon

Weekly Photo Challenge: Home


Girl walking home from school

Yaoundé, Cameroun

February 3, 2013


Cattle head home past the US Embassy

Avenue Rosa Parks, Yaoundé, Cameroun

February 4, 2013


Incredibly unsafe school bus (NO SEATS!) brings school kids home

Douala, Cameroun

February 8, 2013


A young boy plays in front of his home, which has a small shop on the front porch

Nkolfoulou, Cameroun

February 9, 2013


Welcome home (and happy Vanitimse day)!

Minneapolis, MN

February 10, 2013

This week’s Photo Challenge calls for photos that evoke “home”.  See more Weekly Photo Challenge: Home posts.

Celebrating Rosa Parks’ 100th on Avenue Rosa Parks in Yaounde, Cameroon


This morning, I had a meeting at the US Embassy in Yaounde to discuss human rights in Cameroon.  The US Embassy, it turns out, is located on Avenue Rosa Parks.  Past security, in the lobby where visitors wait for their escort, the walls were hung with photos and text documenting the life of Rosa Parks, a true American hero.

I realized later in the day that today is Rosa Parks birthday.  If she were alive, she would be 100 years old today.  Could she have imagined the impact – wide and deep – that her actions would have, not only in her country but around the world?  Or that one day there would be streets named after her in places like Yaounde?

I met Rosa Parks once, on the Ellis Island ferry.  I wrote about it last February and am reposting it here in celebration of her 100th birthday.

Me and Rosa Parks on the Ellis Island Ferry

(Image source)

My oldest son is studying the life of Rosa Parks in his 6th grade history class.  “I actually met Ms. Rosa Parks once,” I say.  He’s already halfway up the stairs, heading back to the sanctuary of his room. “Did I ever tell you about that?”  On the cusp of his teens, he has no interest in being trapped by a pontificating mother.  “Yes,” he replies.  He pauses, half-turned towards me, left leg on a higher step, poised for flight.  I see my opening and I take it.


In 1986, my grandfather Orville Prestholdt was recognized with an Ellis Island Medal of Honor for his contributions as a “Norwegian activist”.  I was a sophomore in college and I took a Metro North train down to New York to meet my grandparents the night before for the gala event.   The honorees were staying at a fancy hotel, one those midtown landmarks that is long on history but short on space in the guestrooms.  As I entered the lobby, I walked straight into the sonic boom of Lee Iaccoca (chair of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, honorary medal recipient).  If I remember correctly, I next walked straight into the back of Donald Trump (Scottish-German).  Fortunately, “The Donald” was engaged in animated conversation with Mr. Iacocca and didn’t notice my faux pas.

Established in 1986 by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, the Ellis Island Medals of Honor “pay tribute to the ancestry groups that comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic”.   Walter Cronkite (Dutch), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (French-Irish), Joe DiMaggio (Italian) – the Ellis Island medalists were a veritable Who’s Who of American immigration.  Of course, this was back in the Reagan era when Americans still celebrated the fact that we are a nation of immigrants.   The 80 inaugural Ellis Island Award winners had been selected from more than 15,000 nominations following the controversy over the Medals of Liberty. Announced in the spring of 1986, the Medals of Liberty had honored 12 naturalized citizens, including  Bob Hope (English), I.M. Pei (Chinese), Irving Berlin (Russian) and Elie Wiesel (Romanian).   Numerous ethnic groups had objected that they were not represented among the winners of the Medals of Liberty, however, and had threatened protests during the “Liberty Weekend” (July 4, 1986) award festivities.  So the Ellis Island Medals were created more or less as a compromise.

That’s when they went looking for the lesser-knowns with more obscure national origins.  People  like my grandfather, who had changed his name from Olaf to Orville when he immigrated from Norway in order to “be more American”.  My grandfather had charted a successful political career in the Sons of Norway, from lodge president to International Board of Directors.  He got his Ellis Island Medal for his “contributions in preserving  Norwegian- American culture”.  Too late for “Liberty Weekend”, the Ellis Island awards were to be presented on the actual 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in late October of 1986.  That date fell on a Monday, but I figured it was worth skipping one day of classes to be a small part of history.

Having finally located my grandparents among the honorees at the reception, we headed to the elevator to go up to their room to drop off my bag and change for dinner.  Muhammad Ali (African) was in the elevator with some family members; they held the elevator door for us.  Mr. Ali tapped me on the shoulder and, when I turned, began performing a magic trick with a polka-dot silk scarf.  At the time, I didn’t know that he had Parkinson’s.  Or maybe I had heard he had Parkinson’s, but I didn’t really know what that meant.  In any event, I watched in horror as the man – who had been such an icon in the 70s when I was a kid – struggled, with trembling hands, to slowly stuff the scarf into a fake plastic thumb.  That’s how I found out how they do that disappearing scarf trick.  No kidding – Muhammad Ali!  The fake plastic thumb was several shades different from the color of his skin and looked dangerously close to falling off his real thumb, but he was focused like a laser on making that scarf disappear.  I remembered playing chase at recess on the playground at Magnolia Woods Elementary School.  The one who was  “it” would yell,  “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! I am the mighty Muhammed Ali!”  As “The Greatest” slowly performed his magic trick for me, I watched the single, crystalline drop of drool that hung suspended from the corner of his mouth.   I thought for sure I was going to cry.

My grandfather handled the whole thing much better than I did.  Maybe he was just feeling pretty good after a couple of highballs and a chat with Victor Borge (Danish), but he clapped his hands when the scarf finally disappeared and chortled with glee. “Woo-hee-hoo-hoo!!!”  He may have danced a little jig in that elevator, too – he was that kind of guy. But I can’t be sure because I had gotten really good at ignoring him when he did that kind of thing in public.  At 19, I saw only the weaknesses, the frailties, the embarrassments of my elders in that elevator.  Now I see that I missed the courage, the determination, the encouragement, the shared joy in the accomplishment of a difficult task.

That night, as I lay in my narrow rollaway bed listening to my grandparents snore a few feet away from me, I thought about who I might meet the next day.  I hoped to see  John Denver (German) and Cesar Chavez (Mexican).  Maybe also Gregory Peck (English) and Andy Williams (Welsh).  Bob Hope was going to be there, too, as his wife Dolores (Irish-Italian) was receiving an award.  But the person I most wanted to meet was Ms. Rosa Parks (African-American).

Rosa Parks had been a larger than life figure for me growing up in the post-Jim Crow South.  The East Baton Rouge Parish school system underwent court-ordered desegregation when I was in high school, so I had some sense of the courage it must have taken her to do what she did.  I thought she was an American hero.

(Image source)

The awards ceremony was to take place on Ellis Island, so in the morning we were all bussed down to Battery Park and the chartered ferry.  Most people stayed up on deck for the short ferry ride, cameras at the ready to take photos of the Statue of Liberty.  About halfway through the ride, I went inside to look around.  And there she was!  A tiny, birdlike woman with large glasses sitting alone on a bench by the window.  In my mind’s eye, she is wearing a hat, coat and gloves but I can’t be sure I haven’t borrowed that memory from other images.  She sat prim and erect, her hands folded on her purse in her lap, looking straight ahead. It is exactly how I always pictured her on the bus. I walked over and asked, “Can I sit here?”  She looked up at me and nodded briefly and I sat down.  Then my courage failed me.  I can’t think of what to say next.  As we approached the Statue of Liberty, she turned for a better view out the window so, of course, I did, too.  “She’s smaller than she looks in pictures,” remarked Rosa Parks to me. Or maybe just to herself, but I smiled and nodded anyway.  Then we approached Ellis Island and her family came to collect her.  I went back up on deck to look for my grandparents.


“Maybe a famous person like Rosa Parks didn’t really want to talk to you.  You were a stranger,” my son speculates.

“Maybe,” I say.  “But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just sitting there, trying to think of what to say to her and how I was wasting my one chance to talk to her.  It was like I was frozen.  I never did say anything else to her, other than ‘Can I sit here’?”

“So what would you have wanted to ask her on the ferry?”  my son wonders.

“Well, I guess I would have asked what it was like to ride that bus.”

Twenty-five years later, I realize that Rosa Parks was probably asked some variation of that question nearly every day of her long and beautiful life.  She was probably asked it more times than she could count.  Asked and answered; you can google it.

“I don’t recall that I felt anything great about it,” Ms. Parks remembered in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser. “It didn’t feel like a victory, actually. There still had to be a great deal to do.”

This conversation with my son made me realize that I didn’t need to ask her anything that one time I met her.  I didn’t waste my one chance to talk to Ms. Rosa Parks.  It was enough to be able  to sit quietly in her presence for a few minutes. An African-American and a Norwegian-American, sitting side by side on the ferry and gazing together at the Statue of Liberty.