Kumba, Cameroon
Religion Unplugged

At precisely 10pm every day, she locks herself in the silence of her room. Heline Babiene Eweni then kneels or paces the room as she begins to pray.

In her prayers, which last till 1 in the morning, she asks God to grant her increased ability, courage, and "grace", "so that I would keep doing the things I do".

And providing support for poor and vulnerable Cameroonians who have been heavily impacted by the ongoing conflict between government troops and separatists from Anglophone Cameroon is what she does. 

Since the conflict started, through public fundraising and a $US35,000 grant she received last year, Eweni has helped hundreds of displaced pregnant girls and women access free sanitary and laundry products and provided free prenatal support to nearly a dozen others in her home town of Kumba in Southwest Cameroon.

The 24-year-old teens' pastor has also delivered livelihood support funds to women to start small businesses and back-to-school materials to more than 1,500 school kids who need them most. 

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Heline Babiene Eweni. PICTURE: Supplied.

 

Eweni carries out her humanitarian activities through the Exceptional Youth Initiative, a youth-only group she started for providing free community-cleaning services before she registered it as a non-profit that now supports people in need.

Eweni carries out her humanitarian activities through the Exceptional Youth Initiative, a youth-only group she started for providing free community-cleaning services before she registered it as a non-profit that now supports people in need.

Wrecked livelihoods
Until 1961, what used to be called French Cameroon and Southern Cameroon were two different territories administered by France and Britain, respectively. They were previously a German protectorate until the Germans lost World War I and consequently relinquished their African colonies.

In a 1961 UN-organised referendum, Southern Cameroonians voted against joining neighbouring English-speaking Nigeria as one country. Instead, they opted to form a united government with French Cameroon. Hence, the Republic of Cameroon with two official languages - French spoken in the former French territory and English in the former British Southern Cameroons - was born. 

In 1972, Cameroon's Francophone-led government introduced a unitary system and scrapped the federal structures under which Southern Cameroons agreed to join their French-speaking counterparts as one country. According to Anglophone Cameroonians, who make up only about 20 per cent of the country's overall population, that turn of events marked the beginning of their political and economic marginalization in the hands of successive Francophone-led administrations.

In today's geographic arrangement, the former British Southern Cameroons occupy the country's Southwest and Northwest regions. In 2016, President Paul Biya's government imposed the French language on courts and schools in the two English-speaking regions.

That imposition sparked protests among lawyers and teachers in the minority regions. Following a heavy crackdown on demonstrators by security forces in 2017, some angry Anglophone civilians picked up arms against government forces. The result was what is now called the "Anglophone Crisis."

Weapons-bearing Southwest and Northwest youths now belong to one separatist group or the other, including the Ambazonia Military Forces, the Red Dragons and the Southern Cameroons Defense Forces. The groups are united in their demand for a breakaway country called "Ambazonia", a name derived from Ambas Bay, a bay located Southwest of Cameroon and considered the de facto border between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroon.

The arms fight has already led to the death of more than 3,000 people. More than 700,000 others have been displaced, including some 60,000 who have crossed to border towns in neighbouring Nigeria. 

The crisis continues to complicate the Central African state's security situation as it also battles Boko Haram terrorists at its far-north borders with Nigeria. The UN said the combined effect of the two security situations has brought about a severe humanitarian emergency.

Nothing currently signals that the Anglophone Crisis would soon end, and many citizens are losing hope.

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Eweni gives a bag of food items to a woman in Kumba. PICTURE: Supplied.

"This morning, I asked a loved one [over the phone] when we will see [each other] again, and she said, 'when the war ends'. I broke down and cried because nobody knows when it would end," Comfort Mussa, a multimedia journalist and founder of Sisterspeak237, a non-profit that works to amplify the voices of women and minority groups in Cameroon, said in a Twitter post. "In the bushes, in refugee camps, in prisons, in overcrowded homes in other cities...in graves; [the] war separated us and left us homeless."

Thousands of Anglophone Cameroonians have not only lost their loved ones and homes; they are also exposed to extreme levels of vulnerabilities.

For example, by early 2019, the rate of unwanted pregnancies among young girls had increased exponentially in the Anglophone regions. "The crisis has affected the livelihoods of many families leaving their women and most especially girls at the mercy of the streets and on beds of men for survival," said Rahel Randy, founder of Rahel Randy Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes education for girls in Cameroon.

"Some young girls have been adopted in bushes by separatists who constantly molest them sexually,” Randy said. “Some of the cases of rape that resulted in unwanted pregnancies were not only perpetrated by the separatist fighters; military officials carried some out."

According to the World Bank, Cameroon's maternal mortality rate is as high as 529 per 100,000 live births. And pregnancy-related complications and deaths among displaced pregnant girls have increased since 2017 in the English-speaking regions. That is partly because many expectant mothers do not visit medical clinics, partly due to lack of funds to pay for costly prenatal care services. 

The response
In 2019, Eweni learned that emergency cases resulting from gestation-related complexities were increasingly being reported at PMI, a clinic in Kumba. She further gathered that many such exigencies involved displaced pregnant women who could not visit medical clinics for prenatal care due to their lack of financial ability to pay for the service. 

What she did was that she walked into PMI and asked a nurse there to compile and keep for her a list of displaced pregnant women who needed support. Words soon spilled from one displaced pregnant woman to another about a potential free prenatal support. 

When Eweni returned for the list, she received one that contained hundreds of names. She then started a public fundraiser from which she provided sanitary and laundry items like soap, diapers and detergents to the women every Tuesday. In six months, she reached about 3,000 women with the products.

Her organisation, the Exceptional Youth Initiative, also paid the prenatal care bills of 10 women and helped two others who had mother-to-child transmittable hepatitis B access free treatment. Partnering with Doctors Without Borders, the organisation also helped two children who had cataracts in their eyes to get free surgeries.

Last August, after a flood in Cameroon's commercial city of Douala, displaced as many as 900 families, the Exceptional Youths Initiative responded by organising a back-to-school campaign in the town, providing school items like books, school bags, uniforms, and others to about 1,600 school children. 

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Eweni delivers a relief package to an older man’s home.PICTURE: Supplied.

Late last year, the group's effort was boosted with cash support of $US35,000 after the Future African Leaders Foundation (an initiative of Nigeria's popular Pastor Chris Oyakhilome) named Eweni the star prize winner of its Future African Leaders Award in recognition of her contributions to human happiness. 

Since the award, the organisation's activities have expanded to include providing livelihood support - small non-refundable business funding - to women and providing food items to households in Kumba, especially during coronavirus-sparked lockdown in Cameroon between March and June this year. At least 10 women in Kumba have received 50,000 Franc each (about $US92) to either start or support their existing small businesses. About 130 displaced women and families have received packs of food items that include bags of rice and vegetable oil from the organisation.

Inspired by personal experience
Until 2012 when a close friend invited her to attend a church service at a local branch of Christ Embassy Church in Kumba, Eweni was a member of the Presbyterian Church, her parents' church. After that first visit and subsequent ones to her friend's church, she decided to become a full member of Christ Embassy, where, according to her, her spiritual self was growing more powerfully.

Today, she pastors about 45 teenagers at Christ Embassy, Town Green Road, in Kumba.

Talking about what inspired her choice for humanitarianism, Eweni cites a succession of sad events that began with the death of Enoh Ferdiance Eweni, her father, who died from sickness in 2013. Six months after his death, Beatrice, her mother, fell ill and died in 2015.

Her parents' death pushed Eweni and her four siblings into tough times as they struggled to eat daily and complete their education. At the time, she was studying English at the University of Buea in Southwest Cameroon.

She tells the story of how her parents' relatives, from whom she and her siblings had hoped to receive material and emotional support, abandoned them to pangs of hunger and need. The experience pushed her into depression, and she even contemplated suicide.  

However, with the encouragement from sermons and support from church members, Eweni overcame those tough times. She then vowed to start an effort to deliver what she did not receive from her relatives - help and comfort - to children and young people in need. That was how the Exceptional Youth Initiative was born.

"I didn't want to see another child in a situation of need. I made that decision [to help others] because sometimes people will never know what you're going through, even when you explain," she said. "I was the only person who knew what we were going through [as siblings without parents]. So when I see a young person in need, it affects me; it disturbs me psychologically."

Eweni attends church activities four times a week, including going out every Thursday with other young people to evangelise. She spends many hours everyday praying.

The professional teacher attributes the very foundation of her religious consciousness to her late mother. "My mother ensured that everybody went to church on Sunday," she said. "Every Sunday, you cannot stay at home without going to church, and every one of us got baptised.” 

"I didn't want to see another child in a situation of need. I made that decision [to help others] because sometimes people will never know what you're going through, even when you explain. I was the only person who knew what we were going through [as siblings without parents]. So when I see a young person in need, it affects me; it disturbs me psychologically."

- Heline Babiene Eweni

Working with youth and providing emotional and spiritual support to teenagers became a pleasure to the young leader after. "I discovered that most young people confide in me; they always want to share with me their challenges or their worries. They want to get solutions from me," she said. 

Yet, Eweni's life does not start and end only with helping others; she has personal ambitions too. One of her dreams is to, in the near future, leave her conflict-torn Southwest region to earn a master's degree at Harvard University. She is unsure how it would happen, but she is hopeful that it will happen, even if it is by some dint of a miracle.

For her, Harvard "is a place that has trained some of the greatest men and women in the world," and she wants to be another great mind the school would produce. 

Back in her room, every time Eweni paces or kneels as she prays in the evening, she has it settled in her heart that it is an exercise she would never stop doing. And that is because, apart from obtaining "more grace" for humanitarianism through prayer, she believes to live "a productive life as a child of God," she has to continue as “a prayer person".