Confronting the Nachtigal Hydropower Dam
Interview with Bella Marie Victorine
This is a condensed version of an interview conducted by Oumou Koulibaly, WoMin Francophone Coordinator of Women Building Power, Energy and Climate Justice. WoMin and its ally CECIDE-Guinea hosted a campaign strategy meeting from 25 to 28 April 2023 with activists and organisations from 11 countries across Africa targeting the African Development Bank (AfDB). The strategy meeting was a powerful and radical space that gave a voice to communities affected by AfDB projects but also provided a framework for reflection on the strategy to collectively hold the AfDB accountable and demand reparations.
BMV: My name is Bella Marie Victorine. I am a Cameroonian citizen and come from the territory of Batchenga where the Nachtigal Hydroelectric Dam Project is located, more specifically, I am in Mabasa. I avail myself today as I have my mouth, I refused to just cry, I refuse to keep silent, and I want to express what I feel. Since the arrival of the Nachtigal hydroelectric dam, the bush fire has burned our farms, the farms that helped us to produce cocoa, that help us to keep our children in school. All that we were farming is gone. You plant your seeds in the ground and it doesn’t grow properly, it only produces the roots. The roofs of our houses have been destroyed by the wind coming from the dam and right now I am only left with my mouth to speak, I no longer cry.
OK: Is the African Development Bank concerned by the problems you just mentioned?
BMV: The AfDB has been informed, because through Green Development Advocates (GDA) which is operational in Cameroon, they come from time to time, but my problem is that the community is naive, and because of naivety and ignorance, when the chief makes a call for the community to come forward and express themselves, everyone starts hiding out of fear to express their problems. They say they are afraid for their lives and their families, but I told the chief that I am willing to speak because, Jesus came, he died to give me life, and I will not die before I have finished with this struggle, and I will get what I am struggling for.
OK: What is the AfDB’s project that came to impact your life?
BMV: The project has impacted our lives by the infertility of the soil caused by the Nachtigal hydroelectric dam, that’s our biggest challenge. The bush fire, the roofs of our houses that have been destroyed by the wind. As I speak to you right now, I don’t have a house, I came back from Nigeria, only to found that the roof of my house has been completely blown away by the wind. I took some left-over material and made a small structure where I hide myself and my children. After that my children left to follow some workers of the dam. When you go to the dam to apply for a job, they don’t employ you, but they prefer employing people from other areas. The workers of the dam, they also impregnate girls in our community as well as raping girls and women. There are so many pregnancies. I don’t have the words.
OK: Have you been affected in terms of health and access to land? Has there been any violence perpetrated against the communities and especially against women?
BMV: Right now, in our community we only live from the cassava stick, you put your cuttings in the ground; you know that after 8 months you will have big tubercles. But since the dam has been implemented, you can’t even eat from the stick, how are you going to survive? For you to have proper cassava sticks currently, you have to cross the Sanaga River and go to buy the cassavas that we soak and sell. The process is very expensive. We used to produce potatoes and yams but currently no potatoes grow and when they do, they are small. Without food, life is not easy because even eating is a problem now for most families. You can’t make ends meet. Kids and teachers in school face a lot of challenges. The girls I referred to who have been impregnated in our community, they disappeared.
OK: How did your community get organized?
BMV: As far as I know, the project promoters came, and we met with the AfDB. We explained all the problems, and the GDA contacted them, they pretended like they had listened and were concerned. When they came, it was a small group of women who were informed and even the community leader was informed. It’s those women who called them and who informed the chief that the delegation from the dam came to visit the community and they have left. I don’t know what was discussed because I wasn’t informed. So, the communication wasn’t clear.
OK: In your opinion, why is it important to organize to face the African Development Bank?
BMV: When there is a meeting, I am the first person to come and even when the chief calls for a meeting because when it comes to speaking, I am always prepared to speak my mind and I always have the fear of God in me. When we got organized, I thought that I together with the few women who will agree to follow me, we will face the Bank and the promoters of the dam project to force them to listen to us and consider our cries since our lands have been taken. We are not against the project, but we were hoping they can give us something, otherwise how do we survive? They can build a training centre for our young children, if they can give us the means, I can start animal breeding, and there are many ways of breeding. Some of us have the knowledge to do something but we are denied that opportunity. That’s why I believe that if it was possible for me to meet our President Paul Biya and tell him that our lands have been taken and our houses have been destroyed. We don’t even have a place to sleep, and I live with my husband who can’t afford anything at the moment, so what should we do? Nothing. The project came to destroy our lives. My life and the lives of my children.
OK: What kind of development would you like to see – would you recommend the AfDB’s type of development? What type of development would you and your community have wished for?
BMV: I know that the dam is good, the dam is not bad, but what we are complaining about is that the dam has affected our lives and the project promoters had to take into account the consequences of the dam on our community. We are not against the dam, but the problem is that we mean nothing to this dam project. We lost everything, and no one compensated us. I swear to you before God and man, I didn’t even receive 1 cent from the dam. While I have lost a lot of things, what I would like to see in my community is to build a training centre, to have the financial means for other activities such as breeding and give us the fertilizers because our land has been destroyed. The nurseries and fields have been destroyed. If we can use fertilizers, we might be able to produce something.
OK: Is there anything else that you would like to have in your community?
BMV: I mentioned a training centre. I talked about the fertilizers for agriculture and training centres for young people, a structure for girls and young men because sometimes the situation is such you want to train a young man in electricity, but you find that there are also girls and women who are interested in doing the same training. As parents, we want to have the necessary means to do the breeding. Like me, I have 8 goats and want to have the means as some of my goats died because of the wind from the dam. I have managed to build a small structure to protect them from the rain; this is how things look currently.
OK: What is the cry of your heart that you want the world to hear?
BMV: The cry of my heart right now is that of a parent’s worries for their children. And I cry out to the whole world to listen to me, to come to our help as parents to rescue our children, because our children are exposed to being lost and they don’t understand this situation. So as a parent, when you can’t afford the basics for your family, your kids would ask you for this or that and when you tell them you don’t have it, they get angry and decide to run away from home. Since I don’t have a house anymore, when I call them to come, they ask me, Mom what are you saying, what should we come to do there? Where are we even going to sleep? I become traumatized and I am calling on the whole world, may the good Lord touch their hearts for them to come to our help, because we are many people in my community struggling now.
To learn more, read our report Women Stand their Ground against BIG Coal: the AfDB Sendou plant impacts on women in a time of climate crisis which highlights the harmful effects that the Sendou coal plant in Senegal has on people, particularly women, and ecosystems amidst the unfolding climate emergency across Africa.