A Law graduate, Patience Agwenjang, decided being a barrister was really not for her and engaged in what she loves doing best; helping others through volunteering.
She applied and was accepted as a volunteer for the Bamenda-based Youth Outreach Programme (YOP) in North Western Cameroon. The Organisation helps disadvantaged youths and women realise their full potentials by training them about life skills and entrepreneurship. She is now the YOP programme Officer.
Five years on, Patience is still volunteering but has set personal goals she wants to achieve very soon. Among her projects will be the Recharged Women project which she hopes will lead to the establishment of a Women Development Agency and the creation of synergy of young women entrepreneurs in Cameroon.
She has been speaking to Francis Ngwa Niba about her hopes and aspirations.
Q. What first got you interested in volunteering?
I got interested in volunteering because rendering service to the community is my passion. Secondly, when I saw that what I needed to do was in development work, I located Youth Outreach Programme (YOP) and began working from there. What attracted me to YOP was the work they do with children and youths because my initial research showed me they worked around the protection of children’s rights. I went there, went through the application process and began working there. When I joined YOP, my first task was to build on a project for young women empowerment called Footsteps. It was exactly the type of project I liked working on. Apart from the Footsteps project, I did some other work that I did not even expect with the organisation. I also started learning life skills and facilitated some workshops about that. That is when I knew most developmental issues are interrelated. Inasmuch as you get into one, you cannot do without the others. While working with YOP, I also worked with AFECAM which is another organisation I joined while I was still a student in the university. With Afircam, we carried out lots of youth socio-economic empowerment projects.
Q. Looks like your two areas of interest are youth development and women empowerment. Why those two?
First of all, youths and women are vulnerable groups in the sense that often they are disadvantaged mostly in terms of knowledge and experience. Youths for example, often do not know how to tackle basic issues with life and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. They sometimes have problems with integrating in society or how to help others and acquire basic life skills. Women sometimes lack these skills like most youths. They, therefore, need some capacity-building and that is what I love doing. I like helping these two groups because I am also a youth and a woman.
Q. Tell me about some of the projects you facilitate for these youths and women.
Entrepreneurship is one; they need economic empowerment which we usually give them through training and life skills. We also need to teach them about issues, especially around their sexual health and gender. Most of these skill training go together so when you organise a particular workshop, you need to teach them about all these skills. Some youths have very disorganised sexual lives and have no idea when they could potentially be in danger.We need to teach them to plan and set short term goals for themselves. You also need to teach them how to boast their self-esteem, identify the talents they have and how they could channel those talents to generate capital they could use. You can then teach them to put together all these life skills and get something out of life. Some do have a lot of talent but just don’t know what to do with them.
Another key area is helping them participate in public life and decision-making. Let’s take the area of the most basic system of governance which we have which is the local council. Most youths don’t even know the names of their mayors or councillors; they don’t know the services that councils offer to them, which means they cannot gain from those services. They do not know there are civil societies in their communities that they can benefit from. Footsteps is a particular project that YOP has been running since 2008 and brings together young women between 13 and 20 years old. We identify 50 young women around the Bamenda area to identify and prioritise the challenges they face in their daily lives and their personal development. Most of their problems centre around the lack of money to pursue their ambitions. Some have problems with early marriages, sexual harrasment , ignorance, low self-esteem and many other problems. We look at their problems and develop training programmes around them through workshops and follow up forums. This helps them a lot.
Q. And what results did you get after all that training?
Within the context of Footsteps, we try to introduce economic empowerment to the women though in the end we don’t have the necessary finances to set them up in business. Most of what we do is that we teach them the basic life and income generation skills . We hope to eventually open a vocational centre where we will train the women. Let me add here that Volunteer Service Overseas, a UK charity, later helped some of the women with a loan which they could use to set up small businesses.
Q. You obviously mentor some of these young women. When you meet them a couple of years later and they have implemented what you taught them well, is that what makes you happy with volunteering?
Yes, indeed! The fact that you are able to give hope to somebody and you are able to help somebody make his or her situation better and you can come back and see they obviously followed your recommendations is very satisfying. You don’t only make one individual happy but you are helping society in your own small way.
Q. What do you intend to do next ?
I will get a paid job; I will make sure I do more training. I will also initiate a personal project where I will help many more young women who will be empowered to improve their situations in life. I also intend to bring together a good number of young female entrepreneurs so that we can form a synergy and help other young women.
Q. Who are some of your female heroes?
Oprah Winfrey is one. What I admire in her is the fact that she is a very determined lady, the fact that she was able to use her talents to generate a lot of money and use that to help other women. Most of what she does is that she is always helping women to access education, gain some type of knowledge, to be able to get empowered one way or another. She is a woman with a good heart trying to help a lot of women. Another woman I admire is Condeleezza Rice. She too is a very determined and focussed woman and I like her participation and courage in terms of politics. She is good at negotiating for the good of America and sometimes manages to negotiate with states that are supposed to be hostile to America.
Q. Why are your models mostly Americans?
I may not have a justification but those are the two I like most. We have some strong women in Africa who might be better than those two I cited but in life we always make choices. Those are the two women I really look up to as my greatest female heroes.