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The Building Blocks of Breaking Ground

Students of School for International Study in Spring 2004.

Lindsay Clarke, Sarah Oxford, and I met while studying abroad on SIT’s program in Cameroon during the spring of 2004. After the semester was over, we knew that we wanted to return to Cameroon and contribute to the communities that had welcomed us so openly.

The lessons we learned and the friendships we made during that semester have contributed to building Breaking Ground from a set of dreams and good intentions to a committed, efficient, and effective nonprofit organization that has made a tangible difference in the lives of more than 35,000 Cameroonians.

During our program with SIT, we were introduced to a vast array of development strategies through the program’s curriculum; the strategies ranged from those employed by Peace Corps volunteers to those commonly used by large international nonprofits. In building Breaking Ground, we tried to take the best aspects of all these different approaches.

Even more influential than the classroom curriculum, was the program’s focus on homestays and independent research. As students, we were encouraged to integrate into the community, go out on a limb, and be open to new connections. The program’s emphasis on listening, respect, and relationship-building fostered genuine connections and directly influenced Breaking Ground’s mission and working methods.

The defining principle of Breaking Ground is that Cameroonians know best what they need and that it is not our place to come in with unilateral solutions. Breaking Ground partners with Cameroonians to achieve lasting solutions to their self-identified needs by investing in local knowledge, empowering women, and promoting economic development. We spend time with community members, earning their trust, learning about their struggles, and providing a forum for them to accomplish their goals.

Alex speaking with participants in Folepi in June 2011.

To date, we have partnered with seven different communities on a wide range of construction projects, including a bridge over the Menouet River and a preschool in the village of Keuleng. We are currently fundraising for a water pump for the community of Baleveng.

In addition to community projects, Breaking Ground also runs capacity building programs. Our Women’s Entrepreneurial Program in Dschang teaches women basic business skills and provides access to low-interest loans to begin or expand women-owned businesses.  In the southwest region, we are in the pilot stages of a multi-faceted program to strengthen local revenue through palm oil and cocoa production.

Breaking Ground’s organizational focus on women’s empowerment is a direct result of having spent hours huddled over hot fires helping our host mothers prepare couscous and gumbo, watching these strong and loving women toil tirelessly to nourish their extended families on a bare-bones budget.

SIT fostered in us an enduring respect and affection for the people and culture of Cameroon at the same time as it exposed us to the complexities and struggles of working in development. It is clear from the number of SIT alumni who contact us asking to help—to donate, fundraise, or volunteer their time—that our experience is not unique, and that SIT Cameroon inspires in its students a responsible and heartfelt engagement with development, long after the semester is over.

By Alex Moore, alumna of SIT’s Cameroon: Social Pluralism and Development program
Executive Director, Breaking Ground