Dreaming of a land far away—a land of adventure, development, and much unknown. A land known by many as home to many exotic animals, fruits, and surprises. A land with colors, dark sun-kissed faces and bright smiles. A land with beautiful songs and voices but also a place filled with struggles, abuse, suffering, fears, violence and survival. This land is Africa; a continent miles away from the tiny Hawaiian Islands, and, yet, a place I had dreamed of going my entire life.
Half-way around the world
I had been invited to work in two centers in Cameroon in Africa, serving children who had been exploited. I was asked to provide medical and therapeutic trauma intervention and education. In addition to therapeutic intervention education, I was also invited to deliver training and education to the national task forces against human trafficking in the Northwest and Southwest Regions of Cameroon.
In mid-September, with 6 large suitcases of generously donated supplies in tow, having crossed the two great ponds, I found myself half way around the world in the hustle and bustle of the humid Doula airport in Cameroon. It was nightfall and my journey had been long, but my anticipation of the adventures ahead and the sheer reality of setting my feet on African soil enlivened me.
Back home, I had been engaged in anti-human trafficking efforts for the past 5 years. I had researched, studied and seen first hand the complexities that exist around this issue on a local and national level. Little did I know that despite the differing trafficking dynamics in Africa from those of the US, I would discover that girls are girls. People are people. Trauma is trauma. Behavior is the language of trauma, regardless of your cultural background. Good is recognized for what it is, just as evil is, no matter where it is manifested.
A 7-hour drive to the Northwest Region of Cameroon was eye opening. The drive was absolutely beautiful. It reminded me of the island of Kauai, Hawaii. Bountiful fruits and vegetables were at every roadside stand. Each new village has assigned “toll collectors” on the road collecting the fare for passing; though, there was no evidence of what good the tolls aided. Begging women and children displaced from their war torn homes in the Central African Republic lined the streets outside the major townships. It was a common roadway sight to see 4-year-old children in tattered dress leading younger siblings along the roadside to school or, in some cases, to places of tasks and chores. I could not help but wonder where the parents were.
Along my journey I saw women and children with physical deformities attempting to work. It was commonplace to see many women—even pregnant women—hard at work with carts in the fields. It was also commonplace to see men sitting idly at the roadside bars in the middle of the day. I passed young girls and boys, seeing some dressed in uniforms for school and others who likely couldn’t afford the uniforms and were not so fortunate as to attend school. Amazingly, by regulation, possession or not of a uniform is a major deciding factor for admission into the world of receiving basic education and its preparation which enables a better life and decreases a person’s vulnerability to exploitation. It was more than apparent that without an education, survival is the way of life and a child has little or no choice in this decision.
Who among the vulnerable and uneducated wouldn’t unknowingly latch onto empty promises of a better life… such promises are the enticement seeds of exploitation. Recently, a common theme in many New York Times best sellers is the importance of education. Reading about how education affects the developing world is one thing. When you actually observe in the flesh the reality of life without education or skills training, you quickly realize and understand the sheer vulnerability, especially for young females, that the lack of education brings.
A Place of Hope
The ASSEJA (Association Enfants, Jeunes et Avenir) Center sits nestled in the middle of the bustling streets of Cameroon’s sixth largest city: Bamenda. ASSEJA occupies the fourth floor of the city’s credit union association building.
I was greeted with the beautiful voices and smiling faces of 40 children who are in the program. The center is a pillar marking the starting point of a new life for children who have been exploited. There were several girls dressed in traditional Muslim attire with head coverings. Many are from small villages where forced child marriage is the norm. Their small petite frames would lead you to believe they are 10 years old however they are closer to 13. Their eyes are deep, dark, exotic and stunningly beautiful almond shapes. They have a very shy demeanor, are soft spoken and possess life stories that are hard to comprehend. The trauma they have endured is hidden under their beautiful smiles but their deep, dark eyes cannot hide the pain, their sense of shame and the trauma. Their stories are not easily shared with one another. Cultural stigma and imposed shame is almost too much to bear. When the children are placed in the program, they are placed immediately into an educational and vocational training program. The capacity for an appropriate assessment of their physical and mental trauma and what they have endured is not directly addressed. My clinical senses were completely overwhelmed by the clear needs for assessment and intervention.
Despite being total strangers, the children welcomed us with a special Cameroonian greeting song that sent chills down the back of my spine and warmed my heart. Many of their faces filled were with joy and excitement. The opportunity to lead a “girls circle” presented itself and despite my moments of insecurity, I decided to be brave and facilitated what had been placed on my heart to do. The focus of the circle was on value and worth of each individual. Most of these girls had never shared their stories with one another, despite their lives walking and enduring similar paths. I walked each of these girls through a group exercise of speaking words of life, hope, and renewal over one another. I repeatedly reminded them that they are each loved, valuable, unique, and beautiful. My goal was to begin building a sense of sisterhood and mutual understanding of past circumstances, situations, and similar abuses; yet, with power they now have collectively as young women who are no longer enslaved.
The cultural stigma surrounding sexual abuse, rape, and exploitation is powerful. Even within a setting where there should be mutual understanding—such understanding seemed absent or was certainly held silently. The response from our girl’s circle was overwhelming. Girls, who had never shared their story, began sharing. They verbalized emotions of anger, feelings of shame, and a sense and feeling of abandonment. The barrier lines that once divided these girls were slowly being broken down. We made bracelets, painted fingernails, and sang together. I brought a Polaroid camera to have them to leave with their own personal “beloved” picture of themselves. Most had never had their own personal picture. I reiterated their value as young women and the plan God has for their life.
Committed Staff and Volunteers with a passion for Restoration
The ASSEJA staff quickly understood and latched onto the truth of trauma informed care. They were eager to learn about trauma informed care, interventions and treatment modalities. They are committed to doing the best possible for these children. I plan on continuing in our relationship and bringing the clinical services, expertise, and organizational efforts to partner in the work being done. While we can provide often physical safety and education, in response to depth of the trauma that is associated with human trafficking, their mental health cannot be overlooked or underestimated. Working with the ASSEJA staff, reminded me of the dedication and commitment of my volunteers with Ho ola Na Pua. Their sacrifice of time, money, and effort is remarkable. Resources are clearly scarce in Africa. In a way, the allocation of resources existing for our children in America who have been exploited is also lacking along with a deficiency in recognition of the crime. The passionate heart for seeking justice for these children resonates in pockets around the world. We may be miles apart but are connected through our vision of hope, healing, and restoration. Life in Africa is about relationships and I am beyond honored to be a part of those relationships now.
Freedom for one Nigerian Girl
One of the girls approached me after the circle time and asked me to help her with a medical issue. During her exploitation her trafficker had an implantable birth control device put in her upper arm without her consent. Instead of removing it after a year’s time, which is the standard for these devices, they inserted another device. It had been a year since this child had been out of her exploitation situation. She had approached the health clinic asking for the devices to be removed but she was turned away given her financial constraints the scarcity of clinicians able to remove the object. Given her religious affiliation as a Muslim, the provider had to be female. She asked me to come to her village the next day to remove the device. After a wild treck through the mud and windy roads, I found her rather remote village. Their thatched mud hut was poorly lit and would have to do for this procedure. In the US, often times this device is removed under ultrasound guidance; however, in this African village setting, I only possessed a few meager tools and a lot of prayer. Within 15 minutes I was able to remove the two devices that were encapsulated in tissue! This young girl began to cry and said she was finally free! She was thriving in the ASSEJA program, yet the constant reminder that this foreign object remaining in her arm kept her enslaved to her past. With its removal, what had been forced upon her no longer had any power over her. It was in this moment that all of the effort I had put into studying medicine was completely worth it… all for this one instance! I was reminded to never underestimate the power of affecting one life at a time.
My organization in the US embraces the value and power of affecting one life at a time. Everything we do is worth it to offer hope, for healing, and for life renewal. My encounter with one Nigerian girl in a mountaintop Cameroonian village firmly imprinted this belief of the power of affecting one life at a time.
Trauma informed Task Forces
Providing training and education for the growing and developing Task Forces in Cameroon was an honor. It was encouraging to see the teams of senior governmental official, judges, military officials, social workers, police, and advocates come together to discuss the growing crime of trafficking in Cameroon. They work to develop and implement strategies to discover victims, prosecute the perpetrators, decrease demand, discourage supply, and build committed to aftercare. Much of the training and education I provide within the US focuses on providing trauma informed care and trauma specific services. Having the opportunity to discuss the importance of integrating this approach in every service arena that touches these children is essential. Sensitivity to culture is always necessary when working within a foreign culture; even so, trauma and traumatic events impact every human being around the world and cannot be disregarded. When each individual who collectively works on a team to combat this issue of trafficking serves and evaluates cases from a trauma sensitive lens, the impact is powerful and survivors’ benefit is more holistically positioned to begin a journey of restoration and healing.
Lest we forget the power of one life and commitment
These are only a few of the experiences I was blessed to enjoy while in Africa. Daily, I am reminded of the incredible privilege it is to be a part of an army of individuals around the world who are standing against the atrocity of human trafficking. From a 30,000-foot view we evaluate strategies for combatting and turning the tides around this issue. While this is extremely necessary, we cannot forget the power of relationships and effecting one life at a time. I remind my volunteers that this journey isn’t a sprint, it is a marathon. The service both domestically and abroad is enormous and almost at times feels insurmountable; however, with persistent passion, commitment, and activated faith-filled visions we can trek through even the most complex and perilous paths.
Jessica Munoz is the lead nurse practioner for Emergency Medicine Physicians Inc. at Pali Momi Medical Center on Oahu. She has been a resident of Hawaii for 8 years. During the past 8 years she has been a mentor to high-risk youth and a leading advocate for holistic services to this vulnerable youth population. In addition to her full time job, she is currently the president of Ho ‘ola Na Pua whose goal is to establish the first licensed special treatment facility specific for children who have been affected by this crime in Hawaii and has spent the last four years helping lead the anti-trafficking movement on the islands.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will be hosting "Motel X," an interactive exhibition that aims to educate visitors about human and labor trafficking in the Cincinnati area, from Jan. 11th to April 5th 2020. Plan a visit to Cincinnati, OH, USA to view this powerful exhibit.