by Edward Béchard-Torres

After a two-week introduction, I know enough about my host organization to draw a sketch. La CONGEH – whose acronym roughly translates to “the Coalition of Non-Governmental and Community-Based Organizations working in the domain of Human Establishments” – acts as general coordinator, network, research center and occasional spokesperson for its member organizations, rumoured to amount to some thirty in total.

The Coalition has as its lodestar the attainment of secure and adequate housing for all Cameroonian residents. Its approach is holistic, multi-disciplinary and multi-layered, and is particularly oriented towards the most vulnerable segments of the population. That said, much of its work consists in providing local residents with information – particularly legal information – and advocacy, directed towards both community members, traditional leaders, and political stakeholders.

The organization, in other guises, also conducts research on property and housing-related issues. The organization has examined, for instance, the channels by which low-income families come to possess land, the formal and customary law of succession and its impact on married women as well as a study on the quantification of the psychological, social and pecuniary loss suffered by families following a forced eviction.  Lastly, the organization works as broader spokesperson, both to potential sources of funding and to a larger development-oriented community.

Human Rights as an End, Not Necessarily as a Means

While some imagined human right to housing and property may act as an ultimate objective, a clarion call, and even a marketing pitch, there does not appear to be much workable or useful human rights law or mechanism for the Coalition to make use of. Secure property and adequate housing remain to be achieved by other means: influencing government policy, transforming community attitudes, providing health-related services or spreading commercially useful practices. Because poverty acts as one of the most important barriers to adequate housing, some of the Coalition’s member organizations devote themselves to simply raising household incomes.

Les Cases Sociales

At the center of la CONGEH’s operation sit seven Cases Sociales, a term which translates (poorly) to “Social Spaces”. We might know them as community centers. The notion of the Case Sociale, I have been told, is a modern iteration of the institution of the Baobab tree, a tree whose base and shadow served as a center of debate, dispute resolution and community gathering in traditional villages. In its modern iteration, they are small offices rooted in different neighbourhoods in Yaoundé and in the surrounding rural area.

The offices serve as the principal distributors of la CONGEH’s informational services and advocacy. I have had the chance to visit only one – la Organisation Nationale des Promoteurs du Progrès (“ONPP”). The office is holed at the backend of a dirt road in Messa Carrière, a dense neighbourhood of mostly informal settlements, bordered by a communally-managed cornfield that grows from the remains of an evicted neighbourhood. That day, the ONPP had organized an HIV screening campaign – children line up to be tested while the event organizers try to rope in passers-by. Next week the ONPP will host a session on micro-credit; the week after it will host a session on dying and sowing material for sale; the week after that it will hold a session on interior decorating.

Human Rights Advocacy as Missionary’s Work

 The Coalition does offer some traditional legal services, most notably legal information related to property and housing rights. It has accompanied community members to Court and does, on occasion, offer references to lawyers better positioned to handle litigious matters. But much of the Coalition’s focus remains centered around reformulating attitudes around land and housing, and around HIV/AIDS and women’s welfare in particular.

This campaign hopes to bring a human rights worldview to bear on actions of community leaders and community members. And the human rights discourse is not the only source of arguments tapped. A small stack of unfolded pamphlets lined up against a wall had been intended for distribution in low-income communities. The pamphlets are intended to inform community members of the discrimination and housing-related vulnerability faced by women in Cameroon.

On the pamphlets, one slide sketches a local community leader informing women – both married and un-married – that they will possess no rights to their own houses until their name is entered on the formal title to property. Another features a husband ejecting his wife from their shared home – she is HIV-positive, the slide informs, and her new homelessness will be a burden, added to her need to find work, food, control her illness and take care of her children. One last slide features a woman arguing with her partner, who similarly intends to eject her from their home. Surely, the wife argues, the effort and affection with which she cared for the home, making it a livable space, should give her some right to it. Much of the Coalition’s work is of this nature: modern, human welfare and human rights-oriented proselytizing.

These have been some of my first – and perhaps mistaken – impressions, and these will be the spaces that I will continue to watch.