Central African refugee craft maker helps displaced women in Cameroon rebuild their lives

Central African refugee in Cameroon teaches displaced women craft making, giving them skills to earn a living and take care of their families.

Zainabou Abou, 33, is a Central African refugee who teaches women in Cameroon's capital Yaounde, to make crafts using beads.  © UNHCR/Helen Ngoh Ada

Zainabou Abou fled the Central African Republic eight years ago, when lootings, rapes and beheadings spread to her neighborhood in Bangui. She was sheltered by a friend in Cameroon’s capital city Yaounde, a nun who taught her how to use beads to make all kinds of crafts. Years later, she has turned her craft making into a lucrative business and shares her skills with anyone who is ready to learn.

"I am passionate about craft making,” says Zainabou. “That’s why I learned how to make crafts. I mastered it well enough to branch out on my own, create my own designs, develop the skill further, and now, I teach others."

Thanks to the sales from her crafts, Zainabou is self-sufficient, and was even able to pay her way through a two-year accounting course, which has greatly improved her home-based business.

"She saw the interest I had and said I was free to come and learn."

Most of her trainees are young women, many of them nursing mothers looking for something to do to sustain themselves. Some are refugees, others Cameroonian, many of whom are internally displaced.

"I teach others because I see a lot of young girls, some young mothers who have nothing to do, and who have no work. So, if we can work together, we can produce a lot of articles to sell to a wide market."

Zainabou doesn’t charge the women she trains. They pool resources together to buy the beads and strings they need, although she often spends her own money. The women have all been amazed by the jewelry, purses, slippers, and other kinds of items that she makes, and mostly, that is all it takes to get trained is an invitation.

"Each time I went to her place, I admired the crafts so much,” says Catherine Chayi, a displaced woman living with a disability, and one of Zainabou’s first trainees. "She saw the interest I had, and said I was free to come and learn."

Now, Catherine can cover some of her basic needs with the money she makes selling her own crafts.

Displaced women learn to make crafts using beads Yaounde.  © UNHCR/Helen Ngoh Ada

Zainabou has trained over 20 women, some of whom continue to work with her, especially when she has large orders. She gravitates towards displaced women because she feels a kinship with them.

"When you are forced to flee, you feel frustrated. You feel really isolated as you have no one, but if we come together, we share, we talk, you can start to forget some of the trauma you have experienced in your life."

"I feel like she understands me better than others because she also ran away from war," says Catherine. "She has an understanding heart, and she inspires me because she is always trying to be better."

Zainabou teaches some of the women at a government-run vocational training center for women in Yaounde, where she is herself taking a course in dressmaking. These women are also beneficiaries of a UNHCR-UN Women project providing displaced women with vocational training.

"I feel like she understands me better than others because she also ran away from war." 

One of the field coordinators of the Second Chance project, Prudence Noutcha, says Zainabou is "someone we’re trying to create as a figure who other women can look up to and say that ‘if she did it then I can do it.’ She is a model."

“Zainabou is a perfect example of how refugees can contribute to communities where they find themselves when they are integrated and included,” says UNHCR Representative Olivier Beer. “They will pay taxes and give back to these communities, just like Zainabou. Today, not only does she contribute to the local economy, but she is helping Cameroonians directly to gain skills and earn a living.”

Zainabou Abou, 33, is a Central African refugee who teaches women in Cameroon's capital Yaounde, to make crafts using beads.  © UNHCR/Helen Ngoh Ada

Reflecting on the theme for World Refugee Day in 2022, Zainabou would like people to welcome refugees with open arms, “because if someone is coming to you, it’s because they saw danger,” adding that the only reason she is able to help others today, Cameroonians and refugees alike, is because she found safety when she came knocking. She adds that displaced persons always have something to offer.

"Before fleeing their homes, refugees had skills. It's not like when you flee war, you don't know anything, no."

Because of that, Zainabou says even if she does not have a lot of money, she will not stop helping others whichever way she can, especially women.

"I have experienced that when people are forced to flee, it’s us women who have more problems," she says.

"I will not take much to teach you. If we have strings and beads, come, we will work together. Money is not the only thing you can give someone. You can share your knowledge and in the long run it can help that person."