“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” ~ Shannon L. Alder
She wanted to be a banker but by chance, she became a women’s advocate.
At 25, most girls exude youthfulness and participate in activities that are personally satisfying to their young lives. In Cameroon, Central Africa, women’s empowerment is an unusual path for a woman to embrace at this prime of her life.
But for single and soulful Yonga Nelly-Shella, rocking her life means carrying on the legacy of the projects began by her deceased mother.
In the small town of Buea, at the foot of the Mount Fako in the southwestern region of Cameroon, this young woman continues the mission to bring gender equality and add value to the lives of women and girls.
Nelly-Shella has led the battle against HIV/AIDS, initiated a micro business loan program for women, and currently runs a leadership training program for young girls.
Her mother, Yonga Beatrice, was born into an impoverished family and had no access to formal education, even though she badly wanted to study. As she grew, she sought ways of learning and attended several training programs. Her quest landed her at the Pan African Institute of Development for West Africa (PAID-WA) in Buea, Cameroon. And so, a peasant became an empowered woman.
During her studies at PAID-WA, Beatrice began a Non-Governmental Organization to help rural women who remain underdeveloped due to lack of education. This birthed the Rural Women Development Center (RUWDEC), an initiative aimed at promoting and fostering gender equality and promoting improved livelihood for women and girls in the southwestern region of Cameroon.
However, Beatrice died in 2010, leaving her NGO in the hands of her daughter Nelly-Shella, the third child of four siblings. Now her spirit of activism lives on through her daughter.
“I got into women’s empowerment by chance,” says Nelly-Shella, a graduate of Banking and Finance.
After graduating in 2009, she began volunteering at her mother’s organization.
“When she passed away, I had no choice,” she says. “It’s like you just jump into a river and you have to float.”
As the Coordinator of RUWDEC, Nelly-Shella worked hard to keep the relationships that her mother had already built. Today she has become so fervent in her quest to better women’s lives, that one could hardly tell that she did not choose to be a women’s activist from the start.
“Dealing with the rural women was challenging because some were uneducated and it was hard to break the barrier and understand the dynamics that make it easier,” she says.
One of Nelly-Shella’s current projects is a micro credit program that provides micro loans to women to enable them start small businesses. These women are also trained on how to carry out small business projects.
“We focus on women because they are excluded financially, socially and this makes them feel that they do not have the ability to contribute to the growth of the economy,” the activist explains.
“I believe in the potential of the woman to help the man to take care of the community,” she continues.
Under Nelly-Shella’s leadership, two grandmothers were sent to India to receive training to become solar engineers. They attended the Barefoot College in Tilonia India, and their success is an exciting achievement for the young activist.
This successful training allowed Nelly-Shella to finish another project that her mother designed some years back. A hundred solar panels were procured and distributed, and 98 households in a remote community called Munyange Trouble gained access to electricity.
Situated in the Bomboko area behind Mount Cameroon in the southwest region of Cameroon, the community is an agricultural settlement which produces cocoa for commercial purposes but is hindered by lack of electricity.
The electrification of the region with solar energy was a step into modern times that helped business expand, bringing economic relief.
More importantly, the training of these two aged grassroots women has boosted women’s access to education and their right to prominent job opportunities.
Last year, Nelly-Shella ran a program on HIV/AIDS called Telling Our Story. Here, art was used to communicate issues pertaining to HIV/AIDS.
Apart from helping others, this young activist devotes quality time to developing herself so that she can, in turn, give out to others. She attended a sustainable development and micro enterprise program in Tanzania last year. She has also received online training on youths, leadership, sustainability and ethics.
Perhaps, one of Nelly-Shella’s biggest projects is “D Girls Initiative”, a program in which she teaches young girls leadership skills, career orientation and home economics.
“We want to create a platform for young girls to get skills and knowledge that they’ll not get from the classroom,” she says.
Since January of 2013, Nelly-Shella has taught these skills to about 12 young girls. She believes that being a strong woman does not mean a woman should neglect her duties in the home. She therefore stresses the importance of being a balanced career woman.
“I have seen girls express themselves and I have learned a lot from them. I hope to establish a center in the future solely to continue this training,” Nelly-Shella says.
Despite the many challenges that arrive in different forms, this young woman is no quitter. She collaborates with several local and international organizations to achieve her goals.
In 2011, Nelly-Shella was recognized by the Moremi Institute of Leadership as one of 25 outstanding young women in Africa. She says that women’s empowerment remains her passion, and she will continue to work hard to continue her mother’s legacy and empower women and girls in her country.
It seems likely that when Nelly-Shella’s mother meets her in the other world, she will salute her and say, “Well done, daughter!”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Profiles