The email inquiry came out of the blue with a request I couldn't turn down. Would I be willing to meet with a group of female politicians from Cameroon? The place and time were not convenient, but I still jumped at the chance. These women leaders traveled to Vermont as part of a U.S. State Department trip that brought them to several U.S. states. As we sat around a conference table in Burlington, along with two talented French language translators, I delighted in the exchange of hearts and minds, and I marveled at the idea that they came to learn from us when the work they are doing is simply amazing.
Cameroon is a coastal central African nation on the western side of the continent. Home to 230 languages although French and English are its official languages it sits in the Bight of Biafra and is bordered by Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon and tiny Equatorial Guinea. When I taught social studies, I once wrote a song about the African continent to help students remember that it is, in fact, the world's second most populous continent and not a country, despite erroneous ad copy and hackneyed sitcom dialogue. There's a lot we don't understand about the struggles and strengths of the 54 African nations.
My visit with the Cameroonian legislators happened in the week preceding the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. If the timing had been different, we perhaps would have discussed Boko Haram and not other issues. The sociopathic terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State has gotten a lot of press this year, but Boko Haram has killed more people. As I sit down to write this, Boko Haram has been blamed for more suicide bombings in markets in Nigeria and Cameroon last week. According to reports, one of the bombers was an 11 year old girl. There is no limit to Boko Haram's depravity.
This jihadist group has terrorized Nigerians and the citizens of neighboring nations since 2002, as it tries to establish a state based on sharia law. Its zealots killed 6,600 human beings last year alone. Now they are making more incursions into Cameroon, Chad and Niger, targeting young people to recruit for its terrorist activities. Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls from a school in Chibok in April of 2014, which drew international condemnation. Some of the schoolgirls managed to escape, but it is believed that most have been sold into slavery, married off to Boko Haram fighters or killed.
It is truly perilous to be an educated female in areas in which Boko Haram operates. When my colleagues in Cameroon show up for their work in the National Assembly they are literally risking their necks.
Our problems in Vermont are not insignificant, and we will face another daunting budget gap when we return to Montpelier in January. Poverty, hunger, rising healthcare costs, workforce challenges, the scourge of opiate addiction, unaffordable housing these, and many other pressing issues, will all demand our attention. As legislators, we will do our best to find solutions that will make meaningful improvements in people's lives. We will work long, long hours and we will sometimes encouraged by constituents veer into grandstanding in attempts to get the attention of others who will help us further our agendas. But I will not look at Vermont politics the same way now that I have met with these remarkable Cameroonian women.
As we shared our experiences of being women involved in politics, and I looked deeply at the faces before me, I kept thinking, "This is what courage looks like.