Real Life Stories: People Trafficking in Cameroon

This is Cameroon, Africa. I grew up in a village called Nwa in the North West Region of Cameroon, not far from the border with Nigeria. It is a trafficking prone community. I lived here and observed girls and boys trafficked out of this village to cities like Bamenda, Douala, Yaounde, etc. 

My name is Fanwi Seraphine Kakwi. I am the founder of Mercy Seed Outreach (MSO) and this is my story.

I sold kerosene and other items for my mother in this very market some years back. People mainly make a living in Nwa and in the countryside from peasant farming, animal rearing and other peasant activities. It is an enclave community, which means it is very cut off and separate, with no decent roads.

Typical road

This photo shows what it is like here, particularly the ‘roads’. There are many villages nearby where children are trafficked from. Cars like this one above go out seasonally from Nwa and back to bring in passengers and basic provisions that are not readily available in Nwa.

The nearest city and capital of the North West region is Bamenda. This is where most people are trafficked to and beyond. It is about 8 hours away by car due to the isolated nature of the community and the bad roads. The population is approximately 553,000 (2021). This compares with 69,000 in the Nwa area, 7,000 in Nwa Ville (the smaller town/village). Below are some photos of Bamenda City, it is very different to life in the villages.

Most of those that Mercy Seed Outreach work with were rescued from Bamenda and a lot more are still out there. Unfortunately we can’t go beyond this city for lack of resources, some are trafficked further to the capital city, Yaoundé, and even to Kuwait and Dubai.

This is the Liluye interview of Fanwi:

Fanwi has lived with and been haunted by trafficking all her life. Growing up, she witnessed many children and young women being trafficked (although she didn’t really know what was going on), more recently she has been working with individuals, families and communities affected by trafficking. In 2014, Fanwi founded Mercy Seed Outreach to help these people and registered the organisation in April 2019. We were fortunate enough to have an interview with Fanwi in March 2021 to understand more about life in Nwa and how trafficking takes place and what we can do to support her important organisation:

Could you please explain a bit about life in Nwa and how you came to get involved in this work?
It is a common practice and accepted culture for families in Nwa and nearby to give 1 or 2 children to someone for them to be taken to the city. They might be ‘sold’ out to the city, most likely for domestic service. Then when the children get there they find that the conditions are not very good, it is not as it was ‘sold’ to them. Most often than not, they stray away from their keepers and get involved in all sorts of illicit activities. While those who dare to remain “decent and morally upright” somehow find that they end up as sales girls in beer parlours, slaves, street hawkers or working in gruelling grinding mills. Some are sexually exploited, abused, not paid what they were told they would be paid. I lived it, I saw it in Nwa and in Bamenda. My very own biological sister is involved in it right now, she was manipulated and carried away to the city of Douala for domestic servitude. She is about 19 years old and has been trafficked time and again.  

I developed a strong passion to stop girls in Nwa and beyond from being trafficked when I witnessed the ordeals of those that were trafficked. Most often I saw girls come back home very frustrated, sick and some even died as a result. While in Bamenda I watched young girls physically and sexually abused, bruised, raped and tortured by strangers and they had no way to return home. It was just like I witnessed back then in Nwa some years back. I now have a hatred for labour and sex trafficking as I know what inhumane treatment some victims are subjected to.

While my passion for these vulnerable people grew stronger, I started to think of sowing seeds of mercy and compassion by extending help and love to those who have been targeted and affected.

I want to give them the justice and compassion they never had. I really want people out there to be aware and show them love mercy and compassion. This explains why I target women and girls who were sexually exploited, who can not meet their children’s needs (often as a result of being exploited) on their own. Sadly these children would also most likely end up being trafficked too if interventions and support are not extended to them in time.

You see, at the root of all of this is poverty, abject poverty in these communities. No empowerment structures for girls and boys, no livelihood opportunities. There are only basic amenities so they fall prey to any scam plus they have no idea what labour and sex trafficking is. A child just comes out of primary school and grows up like that and thinks that is the way life is. They think that taking to the city is the best and most readily available option, they don’t even know about the word let alone the realities of trafficking. Before you know it someone comes from the city and talks to the family and the child and says things like:

“You aren’t going to school. Come on, let me take you to the city, take you to school. I will give you a job, you will be my daughter, I will settle you with any business of your choice”, and they fall for it.

Most often, the whole outcome is very different and often devastating.

I wanted to stop that. I intend to stop people from coming into the community to harvest children. While I was living in Bamenda for my studies I could see what was happening to these children and girls. I engaged in a few rescue campaigns with girls that had been trafficked and were suffering. I also went back and talked to the community and gave it the name they never knew. I told them it is called human trafficking.

Can you give us some personal stories of what experiences people have had and what you have done to help?
Yes, there was one girl that came in and she was 17 when I found her in the city of Bamenda, everything of hers had been seized by the sex traffickers, she had no money to return home. We followed up and rescued her, she was in a very difficult situation and she got pregnant. We took her into our cohort (Mercy Seed Outreach’s support group) and paid for her child’s medical bills and finally secured her a place for her to be trained in tailoring. We have paid all her costs of training and plan to help her set up her own tailoring shop so she can be able to meet her needs and those of her children. She is very happy and positive now, she is doing really well and so is the baby.

You talk about the poverty and terrible living conditions of those in the villages and those that have been trafficked. It is quite difficult to understand, our worlds are very different to yours.
Most of the victims are trafficked from families with about six children. Usually the mother works in peasant farming that can barely meet the food needs of the family while the father does nothing but rear a few animals or tap palm wine for a living. They are both uneducated, and live in a thatched temporary house. They can basically feed their family and that is it. They have little or no money for hospital, for school fees, daily basic needs. Then someone comes along and says:

“I am going to take one of your children to town”.

They are like:

“Wow, this is a dream, a beautiful opportunity”.

Then the child is taken straight from them.

You say that trafficking or moving children to the city is relatively normal in Cameroon, what age are we talking about?
They are between 9 and 20 years old. When a family comes and wants to find someone they are pretty precise with their needs. They may say they need a child of 9, 14 or 18 years old. They usually go for a child that is very naive, that they can control, one that is very weak. That they can keep under their grip for 10 or 15 years. So when they finally get the understanding that you are being exploited, it is far too late.

And the families that they are being taken from, they don’t really understand either what is happening, they are quite naive too I suppose? Are they getting paid money as well for providing their child?
We are talking about families that have a lot of children, whose educational needs, nutritional needs are barely met. So they engage these children in some commitments that they think can help them back at home. We are talking about children being paid about 20 dollars a month and maybe that money will then go back to their parents, if they end up getting paid the amount they were promised. The families are large, the parents would prefer that some of the children leave and are getting their needs met and give room for the others that are growing up.

Some of the work you do is to educate and raise awareness of what is happening in these situations and talk about trafficking. What is the reaction of the families when you go to talk to them and explain that their child could be the victim of trafficking and very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Are they shocked?
They are so worried and disappointed. But there is nothing they can do. There was a recent case where we rescued a girl who was taken from my Uncle from Nwa to Bamenda where I now live. The child was picked from that community and brought to the city, there was no way they could trace her. The living conditions were horrible, deplorable. Her birth certificate, identity card and sim card was confiscated, to ensure that she was unable to communicate her living conditions back home or run away. She was 16 when she was taken from the community. We were trying to find her to rescue to no avail since the city’s too large, I had no means to find her. Each time my Uncle asked the family that took her to hand her the phone so he could speak with her, they bluntly refused knowing there was nothing he could do about finding the child given that the city is too large to trace anybody. He kept pushing and pushing for three years to get her back.

It was too risky for me to go in and just take her for the rescue, so I said that my Uncle must be at the forefront of the child’s release since he was the one who gave the child to them. We finally got her back home.

How is she now?
After her rescue, she was morally and mentally so down. She is glad to be back and is happy, but her education has been disturbed. She left when she had just finished primary school so she needs to be taught and trained by MSO.

What is the day to day life and existed like for a trafficked person?
Let me talk about one case of a girl I know who was taken from her very poor mother in the community, she was taken by a civil servant. She came to Bamenda and worked for a couple there, did house work like washing, all the cooking, looked after the children, cleaned, did the floors and everything that needed to be done. The mother of the house left the home and went to work in a different place. Meanwhile the girl was left behind doing the work, she is left alone there, she has no identity card and nothing that can help her leave or travel. She is locked in there doing the work on a daily basis with the children and the man of the house. We are living next door and one day we suddenly hear some mild scream, a strange noise. We are behind the house she lives in in Bamenda, we hear a child crying, crying, but not able to scream out aloud. We call her and say:

“Lili, lili”(not her real name) what is happening in there? What is happening to you?”  

We hear nothing.

Then about 30-40 minutes later the door opens, she appears. We ask her what happened. She was being raped by this man, the man of the house.

The man later warns her that if you tell my wife, she will not believe you. We are left standing there, not knowing what to do. We cannot rescue her then (we are just neighbours at this time), we cannot meet her needs, we cannot call her parents, even if we could her parents are very poor and can’t help her. She has nowhere else to go and so she doesn’t want to leave the family she works for.

This is the kind of situation that takes place on a daily basis.

When the mum comes back we try to call her to explain what happened there. We need to report this to the authorities otherwise it has not happened, there is no record. But who is going to follow up this case, to see that justice is served and that the child is rescued? At that time I was not yet in this work, and even if I were, providing her with proper shelter and upkeep is needed. I tell you it takes a lot of support and resources.

What do the police do in that kind of situation, are they proactive?
If this is reported, reported by an organisation that works to help stop sexual exploitation and things like that then they can do something. She cannot report that on her own, she also does not have the courage or the know-how to go about that alone.

Is this the most common type of situation?
This is not necessarily normal, but it is quite common. There is another girl in our current cohort (the group of girls that Mercy Seed Outreach are working with and supporting) who went through that for 4-5 years. She was locked into a situation and didn’t tell anyone about the rape, the man of the house raped her and there was no way she could escape. She was coming to our group meetings and we were coaching the group via the monthly meetings. One day she was at the meeting and she just burst into tears, she got to narrate her story of rape where she was serving as a domestic servant.

It is a common thing – they bring in a girl, who does not go to school, who doesn’t go out, who is so afraid of anything and knows no one, who is kept at home. So, then anything can happen in that house. Sometimes it is not the father, it could be another male taking advantage of her.

I’m curious about the woman in the house in that situation, do they not know what is happening or do they pretend they don’t know? What is happening with them?
Well for this first case that we witnessed and then talked to the mother, the woman, she was nonchalant about the situation and never gave the girl medical attention nor sent her away. For the weeks ahead, the girl carried on in the situation of living and working in that house. The woman of the house doesn’t want the girl to leave, as then she will have to do the cooking, the cleaning, watching the children, so she would prefer to keep the worker despite the risk and complications involved.

When we think of trafficking we generally think of sex trafficking for prostitution. But you are saying it is more common in domestic service, in people’s homes which is far more hidden.
I tell people to contextualise human trafficking as it is different in different countries. Here it is very subtle, but very dangerous. People have wounds from human trafficking that cannot be expressed. They have been silently trafficked and sometimes victims don’t even realise what they are getting into until it dawns on them that:

“Oh, I am working as a slave, I wake up at 5am, work until 10pm with little or no rest, very restricted movements, no salary, but a sweet promise of a better future.”

When it dawns on them that they are a hired slave, it is too late to retreat, the best they can do at this point is escape – if they find a way of escape.

It is not just about sex trafficking and prostitution. It happens right under family roofs, well covered and well protected. Unless someone is caught red handed sexually abusing the families and those trafficked will behave as though nothing is happening.

So at Mercy Seed Outreach, you work to educate the families and children about the risks of trafficking to raise awareness back in Nwa and the villages. You also rescue children and young girls from these situations and then provide support afterwards including a scheme to create an income so they are less vulnerable to being re-trafficked?
Yes, this includes training, development and creating products too. We are mostly engaged in training with the cohort right now.

There is another girl we work with who was taken from a very hidden community. She was sexually trafficked, she lived with traffickers who were sexually exploiting her and abusing her and so on. And when she realised what situation she was in and how she had been deceived she wanted to leave. So they seized all her property, her dresses, everything about her in the house was taken. I had to get involved and intervene and get her some things. Her living conditions were horrible, so we had to ask for some funds from an individual donor who helped to place her elsewhere and then we started to train her.

The challenge we have is that training materials and training fees are not readily available for lack of funds. This is why I want to raise some funds so we can buy machines and equipment so we train in different skill sets depending on the choices of our survivors. We want to be sustainable so we can be able to serve more of those that are knocking our door daily.

I have a vision to create a ‘Sustainable Support Structure’ which I call SSS, that will constantly train, educate and release those we rescue. We intend to have a centre for hairdressing, tailoring, culinary arts, library, conference halls, accommodation that can temporarily keep survivors safe after rescue.

At the moment it is very difficult for us to rescue them as we don’t have a shelter for them to stay safe. We need to find somewhere for them to live safely before they get reintegrated. A lot of them already have children. This centre could stop this cycle of trafficking from continuing.

When we are able to meet the needs of these girls and the children they have, they will also be educated about trafficking, they will not allow their children to leave, they will keep their children with them and make their future better. It is all about sustainability. That is why I call it a ‘Sustainable Support Structure’, if that structure is not there then it will be very difficult to reach our goal of contributing to ending trafficking.

How many girls have you helped to rescue?
We have been able to pull 10 out who were in trafficking, we now have a total of 16 in the current cohort (some were trafficked earlier). There were some that were very, very complicated. There were some that went further into trafficking. For example, if they were in Bamenda sometimes they went further into the cities and got further exploited.

We are on the way to completely rescue them, but we sometimes fail, because we have no shelter to take them to. We encourage them to share their experiences, but they have to be patient as we need a little more time to get them out of there which is sometimes not possible. Sometimes when the opportunity was not there for us to get them out they got trafficked to another destination where we could not trace them and they get completely lost to us. As you can see it is very complicated. Though with access to resources, it is possible for us to secure shelters and in turn provide all rescued cases with the much needed security and can also break the circle of re-trafficking.

So you have meetings that you encourage women to come to. How do you find these girls and women?
We have a meeting place that we share with a sister organization where we generally have monthly meetings there and we talk about trafficking victims. Those that come share information about other victims and vulnerable cases they know about, survivors and they tell us about other survivors. They tell us about what is happening where and how, and with whom. Just like one sick person might know another sick person, they share the information with us. Sometimes they call me and tell me about a situation and that they need help. Normally they call me on my personal number, we haven’t got a hotline number yet, so I ask them to meet me at a certain time and place. They meet me there and if they can sneak out from where they are, we talk briefly for just about 5-10 minutes. It is just about establishing contact to start with.

How do you rescue someone from that it must be quite dangerous?
You are very correct, it actually can be quite dangerous. I have had a handful of threats from families that wanted to keep the girls to work for them. It is so tactical, I go behind (the scenes). I am not known, I am not in the scene at all, but I do the rescue. So when we can, we are able to get them out and we are now working with some of them. We teach, train, support them and so on.

In this cohort of 16 we have now, we had some that were basically illiterate. Some have been in trafficking for 10 years, while others for up to 14 years, so education has not come to them. Some could not read or write. So we have put them through the adult literacy programme first. I also had to bring some in for vocational training, for example in hairdressing, tailoring, manicure, pedicure and things like that. Others needed medical attention so we organised treatment and paid their hospital bills. Then we give them a monthly sustainability fee (like a monthly stipend to cover basic living costs) to ensure that they will not be trafficked. As they are still very vulnerable to be re-trafficked as the root cause of the trafficking has not gone away – poor living standards.

How easy is it for them to sneak out when they are in the homes in Bamanda?
It is not easy at all, once I had one that used to sneak out and then I completely lost her. They knew that she was coming to a place where she could be rescued and they blocked her from all communication. We were in the area where she lived and they knew something was happening. It was a difficult situation as she was being forced into Islam, because she was in an Muslim home. I came to her home once and I gave her a handset so we could keep in touch with her, that posed a threat to them. So they seized the phone, her documents, everything and we lost her. She was threatened, I was threatened and we could not go and meet face to face again. We tried to find another way to contact her, but couldn’t. Her teacher in school had trafficked her.

Presumably the teacher gets paid? There is no shame involved in it for them at all. It is just seen as normal?
The teacher may get some money to share with someone. Sometimes people approach me now, even with the work I do, because not many people realise, as I don’t really shout about it. They approach me to get children from my community, they are maybe going to pay me to do that or ask what I want or need. It is like a normal process.

I had a neighbour in the village where I was growing up. She used to come and see these people in the city and help them find children. She would go to the village and find the poorest of the poor and take out the children, take them to the city with these strangers and she got money and so on. Some children got lost.

They don’t always pay much money, they are more likely to ask what you need. They might offer transport or medical attention. They say:

“What do you need to get me a child?”

Do you have other people that support you in your community, the government?
I work in partnership with other local organisations that can give out some small provisions for their upkeep. They also give some support with workshops, training, venues and that is the best way they can support us with their limited resources. I have a training centre that I work with and we send girls to be trained there. Sometimes they are at the other end of the city so we need to provide transportation to them to go there which is another challenge.

One of the last activities that we had was awareness and information sharing on Covid-19 and supply of hygiene (dignity kits) for the ladies. Aside from that we really focus on donations from individuals elsewhere to support us, we have some families that give regular monthly donations to sponsor the women we work with. Some individuals link us to other organisations like schools, hospitals that can give support. Any organisation is welcome to work or help work with us.

Most financial support comes internationally as local support is hard to find. We mainly reach out to funding organisations that are not here in Cameroon. As yet, I have not been able to lay my hands on larger scale or grant funding, currently we are supported more by individuals who can give 10, 50, 100 dollars a month. Whatever they can give is a big help to our work.

Have you seen attitudes start to change since you have been doing your work?
Yes, although it depends where we take our campaigns to. We are not covering the whole city of Bamenda yet, we cannot host a tv or radio programme yet as we need to pay for those. But where we are able to have activities and coordinators they then tell the story of trafficking.

When we reach out to a community we go to a community hall and we mobilize the people there, a particular age group – from children aged from 10-22. We provide transportation, we ask the parents to come, the hall is full. We talk about trafficking and we see the parents that have had children trafficked sharing their stories, telling how their children were treated and how they came back miserable and frustrated and all of that. From that you can then see that there is an attitude change in those people.

So you ask the parents to talk about the children’s experiences rather than those that were directly trafficked?
The children sometimes are there. They sit in the meetings, sometimes they get scared. Once one of the girls sat in the meeting and she sat in it, but she can be scared as she has stolen money from the home she was trafficked to to run away and she found a way to escape. She sat in the meeting and her father stood up and was talking against trafficking and saying the children should not be sold out or taken to the cities. The child just sat there quiet, not saying anything.

I assume that some of them have come back and have had children or are pregnant?
Yes, sometimes. We have had a case where we could not provide shelter, she got pregnant and again and again, meaning she is continually being exploited. She was just 18 and got pregnant, we later could rescue her and we got her into our programme, she got a monthly stipend from us. But then we found that she had gone back to that community she was trafficked to, so she could get childcare for her children and sadly the abuse continued. If the structure is not strong enough on the ground from the start through all the four phases then it can fail:

1. Awareness
2. Rescue
3. Empowerment
4. Reinsertion

If the system is not strong enough we will lose them along the line. It is very hard to take them from survival to a reinserted person. It is not enough to just rescue them, they are at risk to go back or re-trafficked.

What has been most effective or useful to them for those that are being reinserted?
It has just been keeping a strong record of who they are, where they live, what they are doing, constant meetings and giving some kind of monthly support that can keep them, monthly coaching. I have some that come to my house once a month and we talk and find out how they are doing. I want to keep talking to them, coaching them and encouraging that. You don’t want them to fall victim again, they need to be very careful when they go out and so on. Especially if they are training, I tell them to concentrate on the trade they are learning and that we have plans for you and we are not going to abandon you. When you have finished we are going to set you up a little business. That gives them hope and keeps them strong.

Part of the challenge is that traffickers come with some sugar-coated promises, they tell them again that they are going to take them to greener pastures somewhere. So we tell and explain to them that there is something for you. We didn’t bring you in to just frustrate you, we brought you to support and establish you and make your life better. That keeps them going, too. If the monthly meetings are not there, it will fail, the constant calls, the support system. It has to be a sustainable support system. It can get quite complicated to get 10 of them across the finish line to be reinserted.

Roughly how much are your costs each month currently?
$700-1000 a month, depending on whether we are enrolling a new person or paying medical bills for somebody. We also are paying for basic needs for some of them and for our own running and maintenance costs. Our costs can be quite variable and lower than this some months.

You talked about a shelter – the vision. Do you know how much that might cost a month to set that up?
Yes, we were estimating that it would cost $5,000 to help set this up. This would be for a centre for us to have a business place for us to buy the equipment to start a business with this cohort of 16. If we raise at least $2,000 it would give them that basic start, if we raised more, then we could also have an office, a proper shelter there. We don’t have an office of our own currently. It could have everything in one place to do all of it together. That $5,000 could let us operate for about 5 months.

The shelter would be a place where they could stay and be away safe from their traffickers. This would take us very far ahead to help these people. Having our own centre, our own trainers to teach them to read, all the trades and fully support them. The centre would have the equipment, the structure and materials in place for them to carry out the various skills and trades they have learnt and earn a living.

We currently have 16 in the cohort, we lose quite a lot for various reasons, like I have explained earlier. We have a lot of victims that contact us, but we are not in the full capacity to provide them support, like I said as we don’t have anywhere to keep them or to house them. We currently support 16 in total, ten with training, six in other ways.

You want to make sure that you can support them the best you can so you don’t want to have too many people?
Yes, you are right. So our basic challenge now is to set up and equip some basic structures that can enable us to offer the initial technical, educational, vocational training (TVET) and go on to provide full support to those we currently work with and are following up on. Then we can extend this work to others too. By creating these opportunities through the centre it will also create an income source for the organisation making it sustainable for the future.

So the vision, the dream, with the centre and training and trainers, do you imagine that at some point the cohort you are working with right now could become those teachers?
Perfect, that is perfectly correct. That is the vision we have. We are training them to be trainers for those others who will be enrolled. And we also hope to subsequently release some of them into their own businesses. For these ones, they will be required to train others placed at their businesses for free. And the cycle will continue.

We are trying to find sustainable ways of generating income to consistently support those that we rescue.

How do you go about learning more about them and their stories?
We are privileged to hear these stories, because they have come to trust us, they know that we will not divulge their identities to other people. I have heard their stories, I have built the relationship and the trust with them and have told them I will share your stories, but I will not share your identity with anyone. It is important to share their stories to let others know about what can happen, to raise awareness.

How can you get more funding for your work?
We would like to get more donations, but to get support from donors, funders and well wishers across the globe, we need to have established an international bank account and that costs $20 a month to get the bank account running, which is a lot of money for us. With the hope that we are going to get more donations, it is important for us to own and get this account running.

To fund the work of Mercy Seed Outreach / Liluye, then please donate here.
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Thank you so much Fanwi for your time and sharing this powerful work with us.
Thank you.

Fanwi was interviewed by Liluye Staff Writer, Emma Lees, who also writes on her blog, InnerExpat

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