Friday—March 8—marked International Women’s Day, an event that occurs worldwide to honor and bring special attention to the hard work of women. In Cameroon, International Women’s Day is a national holiday, so schools and offices were closed across the country, and events were held in each town to recognize women. In Buea, Women’s Day is an occasion for a “March Past”—quite literally, a militaristic march past a bandstand full of dignitaries. It was to be the second “March Past” that I have encountered in my time here (my first was on Youth Day, about one month ago; and I believe that there will be another on May 20, Cameroon’s national independence day), so I was excited to head down to the parade grounds and watch the event unfold.

I arrived at about 11:00 am at centrally-located Bongo Square, and already, the bandstand was filling with sharply-dressed men and streamers ran across the street in red, yellow, and green—the colors of Cameroon. Almost all of the women lining the street had donned dresses made specially for the occasion from blue and pink cloth, which had been printed with slogans like “Educate the Woman for Better Management of the Environment” and “One Woman, One Tree” (apparently, this year the theme of International Women’s Day is “Women and the Environment”). As I waited for the march to start, I ran into some Belgian volunteers who had made several sandwich boards to advertise their environmental awareness work here in Cameroon. Unfortunately, it appeared that their advocacy work was overshadowed by a table behind them, where businessmen were selling pesticide-coated, neon pink corn kernels that (it was claimed) would produce high yields when planted.

Intermittent rain showers delayed the start of the march somewhat—the rainy season is slowly approaching, and it is now raining nearly every other day in Buea—but eventually, a band started playing marching music, and legions of women began to pass the bandstand in tight formation. Groups of women were arranged by workplace—just as during Youth Day, students had been arranged by school—and so I saw groups pass by from various ministries, local offices, and cooperatives, each holding a sign to identify their group or provide a motto. Women from the police department passed by in particularly close marching formation; another group of women from a local clinic passed by carrying signs that read, “Women, take your young child to the hospital for free vaccinations” and “Women, if you are HIV positive, see a doctor before breast feeding your child.” As the march continued, people started to wander throughout the square, buying fruit, skewers of meat, bottles of beer, and folere, a sweet purple drink made from crushed Hibiscus flowers. As during Youth Day, it was peculiar seeing so much organized, militaristic marching; evidently, this sort of discipline is very highly valued here.

After something like several thousand women had passed me, I got tired of watching and decided to head off with my Peace Corps friend Nate and several of his colleagues, who had just finished marching, to have a drink together. These colleagues of Nate’s were highly educated women who had been to a great many Women’s Day marches, and it was interesting hearing them talk about Women’s Day and what it represents. One of the women expressed a great deal of frustration at the attitude she saw in many people, that Women’s Day was an opportunity to avoid work and go out drinking all day. However, she also explained that Cameroon is far from reflecting even a modicum of gender equality, and so it was farcical to even try to adequately honor and recognize women as a group in just one single day. (I must say, I certainly agree with her; one frustratingly sexist comment I heard from many men in the days leading up to Women’s Day was that Women’s Day may come once a year, but Men’s Day occupies the other 364 days. Sadly, I find the statement to be pretty accurate).

I headed home shortly after meeting these women, and my International Women’s Day pretty much came to a close from that point onwards. However, I did venture out later at night to meet up with some friends at a local bar, where I found one of Nate’s colleagues’ observations to be very true—that many people do indeed use Women’s Day as an excuse to go out partying. Goblizz, the local bar I went to just down the street from my house, was packed. Bottles of Castel and 33 Beer littered the plastic tables, and hundreds of young people danced to music from the US and bass-heavy beats from Nigeria. Cameroonians are good at finding any excuse to throw a party; but I was struck by how many men were out drinking and dancing, and how few women were there. As I left around midnight to head home, I passed a cadre of women standing on the side of the street. They were still wearing their specially made women’s day clothing as they hunched over hot embers, busily grilling up fish and rolls of cassava for the hungry, drunk men leaving the bar.