Friday, March 17, 2017

No-Internet Cameroon: Two months on

On the evening of 17th January 2017, two regions in Cameroon- one of which is my permanent domicile- were indefinitely cut off from internet access. Today marks two months.
The government claims it "had to take drastic measures to curb the spread of false information and extremist messages". This could be debated. However collectively punishing over 4 million people by limiting their freedom of speech, hindering their business operations and so much more just because our government cannot stand bad things being said about them? That is not debatable. It is just wrong, short-sighted and dictatorial. 
I have no doubts that if Cameroon were a lot more united. If my people had a stronger sense of social justice, this would not be happening. The other eight regions would not have taken it in stride that two were being silenced. Both Anglophones and Francophones make up the other eight regions. If we had even a tenth of self-respecting government administrators, this would not be happening... again, I find myself concluding that we are all to blame. No one person can successfully mess up a country with tens of millions. 
Yet here we are. 
I wrote about my experience living under the internet ban and my thoughts on #BringBackourInternet for ThisIsAfrica.me
Find an excerpt with a link to the full piece below: 
             
           Life in No- Internet Cameroon

It used to be difficult to explain that there were two Cameroons. At conferences, international round tables where Africans and Afro-inquisitive Westerners would swap stories, as well as questions and assumptions about each other’s countries, you would often have to debunk the myth that you were fluent in French by virtue of being Cameroonian and being called Monique. It would take too long to explain the invisible divide of that Picot Line. This problem, which has since either been ignored or normalised, would be too broad to broach. So you limit your comments on your country to corruption, the president’s everlasting reign, conveniently patriarchal cultural ‘values’ – issues all Africans understand and face, unfortunately, irrespective of their country of origin.
But recently your government has made it easier to explain that there are two Cameroons. They somehow found that dividing line that no one would acknowledge existed and now it is clear: There is Internet Cameroon and No-Internet Cameroon, that is, La Republic du Cameroun, which gained independence from French rule on 1 January 1960, and former British Southern Cameroons, which gained independence by merging with ‘long lost brothers’ on 1 October 1961.
Now when your colleagues from other countries ask you about Cameroon, it is easier to explain the problem that has long been ignored and subdued. Easier, not easy. The issues of who and what you identify as remains as complex as ever. Now your colleagues ask you, how are you coping? What is it like living under an Internet ban? You attempt to help them envisage it. Imagine this, you say:
So, what is it like?
It is 7pm. Just two hours earlier news had broken of the government banning the associations at the forefront of the longest and largest strikes in recent national history. Now you are reading reports online, stating that some of the leaders of the strike (and one of the now banned associations) have been arrested. Upon reading this you feel alarmed. You attempt calling those you know to check on their well-being. Your call doesn’t go through. You try reaching out to mutual friends and family online to discuss your fears and ascertain their safety, but your messages keep loading. You can’t see the tick next to your WhatsApp messages, the one that would confirm that they had been delivered. You assume it is the network; that the lines are probably crammed as the news of arrests sends everyone scurrying to call their loved ones. Things will surely escalate. And they do. You see cars held up on the road just outside your window – bikers have taken to blocking the roads with burning tires and abandoned cars to show their displeasure. You hear shots being fired into the air, the police descending with tear gas. People try to park their cars on the pavements to hide in the safety of neighboring buildings like the one you live in. Others use the opportunity to loot and steal – you see them running with gas bottles stolen from the local gas station. You have dismantled your phone and reassembled it twice, removing and replacing your SIM card, restarting it, feeling confident that the network will return so you can check in with your loved ones or follow updates on the situation.

 An hour later you receive a call from a friend who is stuck a mile from your place due to the road blocks. Could he come spend the night? he asks. The roads are blocked and the police are arresting whoever they can. When he arrives at your place, he tells you of the fear on fellow passengers’ faces when they saw tires burning on the road and bikers with bottles – ‘kerosene bombs’ – only for the gendarmes to follow with batons and tear gas. He tells of running for his life and feeling ashamed for not stopping to help a female passenger who fell into the gutter as they both tried to escape. He says all this while reassembling his phone. You both still think it is a network problem. Hours later, you can’t sleep. You receive an SMS from a friend in Douala: Has your Internet been cut off too? she asks. It dawns on you that this may actually be it; the government may actually have cut off Internet access. You two laugh. Crazy people! you remark. How long can this last? Douala, the economic capital, needs Internet access or else businesses will crash. Heck, everyone needs Internet access. You two discuss the government’s lack of foresight until you fall asleep. The next morning you learn that the other regions had their Internet restored overnight. Just the two Anglophone regions where protests had occurred, just the people who had complained about marginalisation, had been cut off. As if to further confirm their claims…

Read the rest HERE

Sunday, February 12, 2017

What’s happening in Cameroon? Learning, I hope



On the 10th of October 2016, Lawyers in two out of ten regions in the country went on strike/industrial action, after giving the government fair warning in 2015. For two weeks they sat home and did nothing. No one paid them any mind, in fact the Minister of Justice insulted them. They took permission to hold street protests (confirm) and after successfully marching across Commercial Ave (with a crowd of people joining them out of curiosity) their union president gave a speech calling for the end of the protests, thanking his colleagues and police who he claimed had “behaved like police of America and Britain “. He praised them prematurely it seems, because by the time he finished the police aimed teargas at their group to disperse them.

video


Well two weeks after that incident teachers- the most populated occupational field in the nation- decided they would go on strike too. To support lawyers and to bring attention to their own issues with the government’s attempts at harmonization which tend to be more of an assimilation of one system by another. Of course this particular strike won’t be limited to the workers. It would also mean students, their parents in other professions etc. would be affected. THE MAJORITY OF THESE PEOPLE WERE NEVER FORMALLY OR CLEARLY INFORMED OF WHAT EXACTLY THEY WERE STRIKING FOR NOR FOR HOW LONG THIS WOULD GO ON. This omission was allowed to slide because we all know there was a problem with the way our government marginalized our unique systems. So we didn’t bother to define the problem knowing that there were, what harm could come of not knowing exactly which one we were fighting eh?

Well as the strike progressed, language changed. The fact is, the issues raised by teachers and lawyers were a result of a much larger problem- the Anglophone problem- the problem our government tried to ignore and which a lot of our citizens have been unable to correctly diagnose. So language changed, it was no longer a fight for industrial action but gradually becoming a political revolution fueled by long repressed anger over the Anglophone predicament in this country and being used as an opportunity by a group of secessionists calling themselves Ambazonians (the name they had given the citizens of a country yet to exist which they are fighting for).

In an attempt to ignore the strike thinking it would go away students of the University of Buea were called to school to write tests. However their teachers had set no tests and no one would be there to administer them, the administration basically attempted to show they were superior to the teachers they administer and it backfired. After two weeks without classes, students turned up and saw empty classrooms, then proceeded to storm the administration building and vent their anger. In the absence of the VC, the Director of Students Affair approached the students and asked for representatives to take in to see the VC’s deputies. The crowd chose the most vocal to represent them before the VC’s deputies.  They presented their issues:
  • ·         Anger over the fine which they were being asked to pay for late registration,
  • ·         The fact that some students (Level 400 students) had yet to receive their Excellency awards
  •    Anger over being asked to come to school thereby disrespecting their teachers’ calls to stay home and respect their strike. 


     Of these three reasons forwarded by the students only one had to do with the strike and only one was legit (and even then still questionable). The Level 400 students had already been set to receive their cash award. The proof is in the document dated Friday 25th of November. The last working day before the strike.



 That information had not gone out fast enough so the students didn’t know that the administration had actually had to force Yaoundé to fulfill its promise and “gift students with the award”. The fine the students complained about though was a more legitimate problem, not because students were being fined (quite frankly given the way we do things at last minute, or abuse deadlines we need to be fined) but rather because the fine was too steep 1/5th the school fees and it didn’t help that students were late to pay their registration fees this year as a result of technical issues with the school’s website. While they had a legit problem few of them had attempted to complain to the right office nor did they use their elected student leaders to lobby for them. In essence, being called back to school they used an already tense atmosphere to vent their frustration without prior warning.

In fear of aggravating the situation, the deputies agreed with all student demands: The fine will be revoked, level 400 students will receive their awards as was already arranged, and the students would be asked to come to school only after the teachers called off their strike, the director returned with the student reps. to the crowd of students in front of the building. But things had changed, the peaceful students had been infiltrated. Students were now being encouraged by members of the banned student union UBSU to demand for the reinstatement of the union. The director thinking he had done all to appease the students was told no, they want to see the VC and have their union reinstated. This was obviously unexpected as that association had been banned for several years and few undergraduate students new of it enough to demand reinstatement.

Later, when I would leave the security of the administrative block I would recognize alumni, UBSU members of the batch ahead of me, and see their vandalism of staff cars which would be blamed on the peaceful group who were obtuse to their protest being used. I would realize that calling students back to school rather than addressing the striking teachers at that time, created fertile grounds for manipulation and chaos. These UBSU members who had either graduated or dropped out had a personal vendetta against the current administration had seen this as an opportunity to add one more demand to the student’s lists. They spread messages the week before the strike and even posted on their Facebook page about the ‘Lion roaring again’. Added to the campus being heavily militarized, and students initially peaceful being terrified, pushed around and acting out of fear it was a recipe for disaster.

Armed forces called to ‘protect campus property’ didn’t know (or care about) who was a student and who was not. As soon as they rocks were thrown on one side of the building, as soon as students banded hands and refuse to move as instructed they were hit with tear gas. The majority of students (off campus) had gathered around the University’s entrance to ‘see what a strike looked like’. They had no idea what had happened, or what was even being protested. But they heard the gunshot sounds of tear gas going off and all hell broke loose.

Around the streets leading to the University, police caught, abused and arrested whoever didn’t get out of their way fast enough. I saw colleagues held and kicked, I was yelled at (because I couldn’t understand French directives to not come closer to them as I tried to explain I was staff), I was pushed away as I tried to get a look at a student who had been beaten and pushed into a gutter with ground poured over him. Later, in the safety of my home I would see the videos of other areas where police went into familiar hostels, breaking down doors and arresting young people with no questions asked. Not to think of warrants. Those who were to be forces of law and order proved to be everything but.

That day passed and no explanation was offered to the public about the police violence. A rumor of a girl raped by the police caught on and depending on who told you, it would be several girls were raped, or the raped girl was dead etc. In truth the girl in question, the Vice President of the Nso Students association, was found in bed when gendarmes broke into rooms in her hostel. She had been feeling ill and was undressed, when they broke into her room, she was beaten by the police and left unconscious to be found like that by her neighbors who took pics of her brutalized body shared via social media fueling assumptions that she had been raped. The story caught on. Further fueled by the fact that no government official made a statement, not even an attempt at apology or a pitiful excuse.

Our government had the power to stop this from going further. In a show of good faith, they should have sanctioned the officers who were caught on camera breaking into room dehumanizing whoever didn’t get out of their reach fast enough. But no, representatives went on air to disregard there being an Anglophone problem, hail insults at Anglophones and further incite unrest. Some government officials outright refuted there being police brutality, claiming all the pictures and videos were fake. Other politicians attempting to calm matters asserted that all students arrested had been released. As though that ought to make up for their wrongful, abusive arrest in the first place. 

So the language of the strike continued to change. People were enraged by the open police abuse, exaggerated tales were spun as though reality were not bad enough. As more politicians came up to ignore the Anglophone problem a divide was created, this was increasingly becoming a Francophone versus Anglophone issue. Secessionists, seized this as a moment to share their dreams of ‘Ambazonia’. They made a website, a flag, an anthem. This fictional country even had its own currency and it was supposedly the strongest in the world because 1 Amba= 5000 FCFA. This would beat the British Pound and the world’s most valuable currency- the Kuwaiti Dinar. The angry population ate it up. Reason was lost to rage and rumors exaggerating circumstances continued to spread like crazy. Few people spoke up as Social Media “opinion leaders” who preached secession and encouraged the Francophone/Anglophone divide. Few people spoke up when they encouraged the burning of the Cameroonian flag and hoisting of the ‘Ambazonian flag’. Fewer still spoke up to the outline the history of these “opinion leaders” and beliefs they had tooted hence from supporting Trump to asserting that women belonged in the kitchen. Few people spoke up because anyone who had opinions contrary to those of the ‘opinion leaders’ are considered black-legs/traitors to the struggle and would be the victim of endless cyber bullying.

The “struggle” as it was termed was looking more and more confused. People called for order. Who was leading this, what were we fighting for. Some asked for a plan of action or at least a manifesto and still did not get one. The public was then told a consortium had been formed to represent both teachers and lawyers. They would be the leaders. This was supposedly a consortium of trade unions, yet no one was told how it was formed. Was there an election? How was this decision made?  Nonetheless the strike went on. We believed in the cause and perhaps these were those who opted to fight for us while others shied back. However notwithstanding there being a consortium, the government negotiated with teachers trade unions and/or lawyers trade unions directly. Splitting them up. At no time did these trade unions tell the government “We will no longer speak to you as it we now have this body represented us all”. This means both the government and unionists bypassed the consortium.

The strike went on and the strike went ‘off’ as well. Initially this was industrial action by two sets of unions, one demanding five points:
  1. The removal of Civil law Magistrates form Common Law Courts.
  2. The Creation of the a Common Law Bar School as once was.
  3. The translation of the OHADA text (unbelievable that we would have to strike for something like that eh?).
  4. Immediate end to harmonizing (read assimilating) of Common Law criminal procedure.
  5. A seat for a Common Law Supreme Court Justice (Note that these demands were made in 2015 and this union stated that if issues were not addressed they would demand a return to federalism).
And the other ‘supporting’ union demanding:
  1. Addressing the needs of lawyers.
  2. Transfer of French educated teachers from Anglophone schools.
  3. Decentralization of entrance exams into Anglophone institutions.
  4. Immediate end to plans of harmonizing (read assimilating) the educational systems etc.
But gradually this veered off to a political revolution.

Parliamentarians of the SDF party which is the main opposition party- and Anglophone based- decided to march in Buea. The strike had created an opportunity for them to show people they were on their side. So they marched and gave speeches calling for a return to federation even a majority of their audience waved signboards for ‘Ambazonia’. They did nothing to correct the people about the stand on ‘Ambazonia’. Not to be outdone, the ruling party decided to hold its own march. They called it “A rally for unity” in the Southwest region the event was attended by journalists and hired performing groups as the people heeded to strike and stayed home. In Bamenda though, young boys were encouraged by the ‘opinion leaders’ of the internet to disrupt this particular rally. And so violence broke out with at least 4 dead. At least two of those four were bystanders who were shot before they could even defend themselves.

That same night, the police reacted to the events of the day, by arresting a large number of young boys. Rather than taking them to functioning prisons in the same region however, the boys were carted off to Yaoundé. Parents could only guess where their kids were taken to. Criminal or not, you retain the right to lawful arrest and your mother retains the right to want to visit you in prison.
This spiraled more and more out of control, ghost towns were enforced by the consortium to force the government to negotiate on their terms. Despite the leaders of the consortium declaring that they were against all forms of violence, and people should sit-in during ghost towns. These days were marked with violence. Those who dared step out- Anglophone or not- were abused and had their property vandalized by ‘ghost town enforcers’. This of course led to more arrests in Mile 16, Buea, Ekona etc. The government media house CRTV did not help matters, having a reputation for omitting or outright lies telling, people no longer went to them for information, so WhatsApp group chats became sources of news with all sorts of tales shared with the speed of 17mb voice notes.

Nonetheless the ghost towns served the purpose of forcing the negotiations. Yet the government still negotiated with unions rather than recognizing the consortium as a body. Four out of five of the lawyers’ demands were met. At the last meeting with teachers 16 of 18 of the teachers’ demands were met. The only things not addressed were those with political implication. Teachers would have signed an agreement to suspend the strike action but for a false rumor claiming consortium members had been arrested which led to bike riders storming the conference grounds to “save them”. These bikers the proceeded to threaten the teachers: should they sign any agreement without the ok of the consortium (that same consortium which ought to be representing them) they would pay. The crowd of bikers made it clear that they wanted federation or secession. And so negotiations ended.

The next day a release by the consortium noted that the negotiations had failed. Nothing was reported as to what the government offered but it was clear that the strike was now no longer industrial action. The consortium officially asked for a referendum for a two-state federation. This was met with mixed reviews, while some praised the consortium for “standing up” for the end of Anglophone marginalization, other wondered when the consortium (or trade union leaders) had time between Friday Night and Saturday to go back to their respective chapters and ask the opinions of their members before taking this move. Were they really representing the members?

And if you are like me you wondered about the strategy or lack thereof and the consequences of a poor strategy. What was initially industrial action had grown violent, first by police then by cyber bullies, bikers-turned-ghost-town-enforcers. Now this was going political and still we could not see a strategy. I wondered, if people had considered just how long the strike would need to go on for if we asked this, I wondered if they had considered teachers, particularly private school teachers who were not being paid like those employed by the government, who were now reduced to petty trading to make ends meet. Were their opinions asked? Was it considered that if you switch from industrial action to political revolution the government could cut off salaries as you would no longer be fighting for better working conditions? I wondered at the likelihood of a referendum holding anytime soon, I felt it was particularly naïve to think a dictatorial government would change the system of government which suited it because people demanded so. Isn’t that akin to going on a hunger strike and expecting your enemy to yield so that you can eat? I found it ironic that we would be calling for referendum given that the majority of us aren’t even registered to vote and if we would wait to get registered and vote and “get a federation” before going to school, was that not akin to saying we were sacrificing the year of schooling? I wondered if we had lost the plot. In fact I believe we did lose it. In our anger and quest for payback we became very like the government we detest; we did not consider the ramifications of our actions.

Well the government of course reacted with their trademark careless cruelty. They banned the consortium, arrested the leaders they could catch, shut down internet without a care of the budding IT sector in this part of the country, and continue to repress people to date. They too are done negotiating and are now employing tactics colonial masters once used on our forefathers. Over three weeks later, we of the two Anglophone regions are in the same place; schools shut down, people repressed by both fear of the police and “ghost-town enforcers”, no internet access because our government did not know they could simply block access to the few social media sites and all this while the majority of the country remains more interested in Cameroon being the winner of this year’s AFCON. We still lack strategy and it is getting worse.

It’s getting worse as authorities increasingly try the divide the rule strategy, making this not only an Anglophone vs. Francophone thing but equally a Southwesterner vs. Notherwesterner issue. It’s getting worse as more young people get frustrated and likely to yield to bribes to do whatever they are told to. Worse as violence and arrests continue, like the burning down of a francophone school in Ndop the other day which led to police arresting haphazardly and the village turning up to protest at the station. It’s getting worse because the ‘new leaders’ of the now banned consortium are two guys in the diaspora who cannot adequately represent those on strike as they are neither lawyers nor teachers. It is getting worse for lack of strategy.

If one were to ask me, I would suggest this is the way forward:
We need to back track. There were other leaders of the trade unions the consortium was to represent; secretaries, vice presidents etc. They should come forward now and finish this rather than this movement being handed over to people who belong to neither trade unions and are not on the ground to negotiate. These executives could call for renewed negotiations, ask that the government release the members of the consortium arrested whose only crime was asking for a federation. These executives could propose that school will start as soon as they are freed and all political requests forestalled as long as the trade union initially raised will be addressed. In essence we need to pick our battles people. If we can bargain for those wrongfully arrested and resume normalcy then we can create time to plan. Planning for political change (relatively peaceful change) would involve using the law and its loopholes, creating a united front by pressuring opposition members to get themselves together irrespective of cultural, ethnic or linguistic divides and form a coalition. By giving us a candidate we can believe in, we can rally for massive registration in ELECAM and hold that electoral body under a microscope to ensure they serve US. We can get a new leader in power with conditions, the change of governing system to federalism if we wish can be a condition at that time. But this is my opinion.

However, should we continue in this hapless way we should expect worse. We should expect the government to stop salaries soon. They are not known for their kindness. We should know by now that they do not CARE about us, these ‘leaders’ of ours. And wouldn’t it be fair that ALL teachers striking should be without pay rather than just an unfortunate underpaid private sector? Perhaps then people will put their money where their mouths are. Can Cameroonians emulate Kenyan’s where better paid professors are giving doctors on strike stipends not to yield in but stand for their cause?
So to look on the bright side, perhaps this is a learning experience. Perhaps from this, people will learn that it takes a lot more to fight a political battle, perhaps our people will look at Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and recently the Gambia and copy what they did to have effective elections. Perhaps my people will learn that secession isn’t the way, that our enemy is not the one with a different colonial language, but our horrible national and neo-colonial governance. I am hoping that my people will see at the end of this that the government is not as threatened by two regions protesting as it would be by people uniting across regional and linguistic divides, or better yet our opposition members forming a coalition.

So my dear Cameroon, I hope to God that we are learning. I hope in the years to come we don’t repeat the same mistakes because I feel like we’re having a rerun of 1990. 



N.B
This is definitely an abbreviated version of events. I have not delved into the history leading to the Anglophone marginalization in Cameroon, I wrote a bit about that in An Open Letter to Cameroonians posted here in February of 2014 (you can find more in depth pieces on the issue of Anglophone marginalization on Dibussi Tande’s Scribbles from theDen). I have not written of the way the taunting, non-committing speeches of the president has contributed to frustration during this protest, nor have I looked at the statement every incident and disastrous rumor which has further divided this country.
This piece is limited to making it clear, that both sides of this fight are responsible for the mess we are in; whether by being intentionally cruel or by risking our collective well being with naivety and lack of strategy. 
One can however argue that, a government l(ike a parent) should be more logical and adept as addressing problems. This situation with the government’s delayed action and lack of sensitivity coupled with ‘revolutionaries’ blinded by anger can be likened to two elephants fighting. We the grass suffer

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Silent Majority

August of this year shall make five years of my blogging here on Musings. It was in August of 2012 during a trip to Nigeria for Chimamanda’s Farafina workshop that a friend of a friend, Martin Takha first introduced me to the world of blogging. Helping me with everything from the Gmail account to deciding the first template I used for a couple of years. As Cameroon’s ‘blogosphere’ has become crowded with a plethora of people aspiring to be Cameroon’s Linda Ikeji, I am proud to say I’ve stayed true to myself and the purpose of this blog. A dual purpose actually; to ensure I write regularly and to create platform through which I could share my views, defend my opinions and if possible tell a side of our story which may be otherwise missed as popular mediums echo a single often incomplete story.

I have promoted blogging through my youth advocacy as a means for young people to get their voices heard. Through BetterBreed Cameroon I have preached to young people on the necessity in telling their own story, sharing their thoughts on issues they are affected by or care passionately for through Medium, LinkedIn, as Commonwealth Youth Correspondents, via World Pulse and of course through their own blogs. I suppose I should have considered the possibility of an internet ban imposed to hush us. In fact I did consider it, for about 5 mins during two different conversations. First being about six months ago when a friend told me of her experience in Ethiopia under the internet ban and then when we laughed about Turkey’s president need to abate anxiety over the attempted Coup d’état via Face-time? after recently banning social media. My friends and I discussed these incidents shook our heads, shrugged, laughed and let it go. Then it was my turn.

Today makes a week since two regions in Cameroon have been denied internet access as the government attempts to quench protests against Anglophone marginalization in these regions via brute force. The protest leaders were arrested that night and smuggled out of the regions, simultaneously internet access was shut down so as to hamper the spread of news. During the last week I’ve had lot of time to think (the absence of social media distractions will do that for you lol), and two quotes came to mind:


These two quotes spoke to me as I lamented on how the internet ban affects budding tech-entrepreneurs in Buea’s “Silicon Mountain”, how banks (which pay Cameroon’s exorbitant taxes) are closed for lack of internet access, how those who work predominantly online either for webzines, as researchers or just communicating with clients/business partners are now grounded along with scholars (like myself) who have online classes to follow and participate in. I wondered how backwards our leaders must be to punish over 4 million people in two regions because they didn’t like criticisms of them being spread via social media and couldn’t find another way to solve a problem they let grow out of proportion. But above all I thought of HOW this could be happening. It’s 2017 for God's sake! Then the above two quotes reminded me that this happened in 2016 and I said nothing. It happened in two countries I know of (three counting Gambia during elections) and I barely tweeted my disapproval. Evil prevails because good men failed to act. A lot of people didn’t stand up in those circumstances, so it happened then, and now it is happening to me.

Yet not enough people are reacting. Within my own country, a great deal of Cameroonians in the French speaking regions are either unaware or could care less about the ban. Three days into the ban I ‘crossed the border’ into the Francophone section of the country and when I checked online only a handful of people were talking about it. Some acquaintances online even attempted to justify the government’s actions saying “social media was spurring terrorism and the government had a right to take it away”. When I told one of them he was stupid for that I was told “you shouldn’t bring in insults when we are having a peaceful debate”. How can one be peaceful when they are justifying (and therefore an accomplice in) your suppression? How?


Today I’m a bit calmer, I crossed the border this morning to find that voices- online at least- have grown against the internet ban using the hashtag #BringBackOurInternet. Yet there are not enough in my honest opinion, and there is a noticeable lack in Francophone voices. Yesterday it was Ethiopia, Turkey and Gambia, today it is my Northwest and Southwest regions, tomorrow it will likely be the whole of Cameroon as we face the 2018 elections… Please join us to speak up now. Speak now that tomorrow you still have your voice. Tweet to the Cameroonian government, our telecommunication agencies and all those you can using #BringBackOurInternet.

Remember: If you are silent, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it- Zora Neale Hurston.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Imagining My President's New Year Message- A Christmas Wish


I have been unable to do any real writing for weeks now. Between losing several friends and experiencing a peaceful strike turn into a brutal scary revolution, 2016 is leaving me drained. As I assess the year in these last days, I can only compare it to Sour Cream and Vinegar flavored Pringles. It has fed me but left a bad taste in my mouth.

My musings this month have ranged from existential questions (Is this life so fleeting, so unpredictable? What’s my Life Purpose again and what’s in it for me?) to political debates (How to best explain to outsiders and the fellow Cameroonians who don’t understand what the Anglophone problem is, Is this revolution on the right course etc.). Several pieces could be written from the thoughts this month has brought. But as I said, I am drained and I just want to think happy, hopeful thoughts.

Every year, on the 31st of December Paul Biya, the president of Cameroon for 34 years now, makes a New Year’s speech. In fact the first ‘Musings’ post of 2016 was a review of his speech heralding in this year (read that post HERE). As this year closes and we await another speech. I’ve decided to be hopeful and muse on what I wish my president would say in that speech.
I wish he would, as he did last year, look for words to describe the year our nation has experienced. I imagine the suitable words for this year would be ‘fed-up’. It seems his praise of our resilience at the beginning of the year marked our reaching the limits of tolerance. I wish he would express regrets at driving a truly resilient people to this breaking point.
In this ideal speech, I imagine my president acknowledging how those he put in power, and the foreigners who he has all but sold us to, contributed to poor maintenance of the Yaounde-Douala road and eventually the loss of lives in the Eseka train crash. I imagine my president apologizing for the laissez-faire nature of his leadership and cabinet which led to legitimate complaints of Common Law Lawyers being ignored and the strikes and protest which followed. I expect him to condemn the violence, arbitrary hoisting of flags and looting done by protesters, but I wish he would avoid branding protesters “terrorists” and acknowledge that had his administration adequately addressed early complaints and the initially peaceful sit-in strike, nipping this in the bud, things would never have gotten this bad.
In this ideal speech my president would for once address the nation in English attempting to prove that we are indeed bilingual and equal. Whilst speaking the language of the minority he would equally condemn the spirit of secession and express understanding of its origins. While I expect him to criticize those spreading hate between the Francophones and Anglophones, I pray and wish he is gutsy (or just tired enough) to acknowledge the problem rather than shy from it. I expect him to know that this is not an issue of who gets what ministerial post, nor an issue of what regions are more developed (quite frankly the South region from which the president hails is just as much- if not more- undeveloped). I pray that as president he is informed and conscious enough to know that this goes way beyond Francophones taking opportunities in Anglophone regions though these are the reasons you’ll hear brandied about.

I imagine that in his often long-winded speech he takes the time to acknowledge that while people of all regions have problems, the Anglophone problem is unique because it has institutionalized one group as superior to the other. It has made bilingualism an option for one group, while for the other bilingualism is necessary for survival irrespective of which part of the Mungo they reside.  After all you could get arrested in Limbe, never knowing your crime because the person arresting you does so while speaking French.

I pray my president acknowledges that over the years since 1972’s “unification” there has been a systematic disregard for the minority (English speaking) thus creating a bias in favor of the majority (French speaking). I would be okay with him sharing the blame for this; he could blame his predecessor - Ahidjo- and the setup which was the 1972 referendum, he could blame the bevy of present day Anglophone politicians who remain mute on the problem for fear of losing their positions, he could even blame the citizens who pretend like he’s the perfect president when they meet him, and the numerous traditional rulers of Anglophone regions who have made him “Fon of Fons” and continuously convince him they love his reign with their ‘motions of support’. He need not take all the blame, there’s enough to go around. Heck I wrote an Open Letter to Cameroonians calling them out on this same thing almost three years ago.

I shall be lenient as to just how much blame ought to be shelled out to him, but I expect my president to ‘man up” for once. I pray he truly dearly loves his country somewhere deep down beneath those double-breasted suits. That he loves the country enough to condemn the violence his armed forces used on students and other protesters. That he censures ‘forces of law and order’ who have done the opposite of their duty to protect and serve just as much as he does violent protesters who use a peaceful strike to cause chaos. I pray he recognizes that when the people fear the police rather than call on them for help, there is a problem. A grave problem.

Make Cameroon Hopeful Again!
Finally, I would be most ecstatic if my president would crown his speech with acknowledging that his aged self cannot see us into that ‘land of Canaan’ the government has painted Vision 2035 to be, and declare like Angola’s president that he, Paul Biya, will not be running for future elections. Such a declaration would give Cameroonians adequate time to shape up the electoral body ELECAM, look for new leaders to take our nation further, and calm all protesters with the hope for a new government which would potentially address the systematic inequality which is at the root of the majority of problems today and more. For this I would forgive my president. I would forgive him countless unexplained trips to Europe. I would forgive him the debts he has taken which I will be paying for years to come via taxes. I would forgive him for the mismanagement which has led to most of my friends and family fleeing the country for better prospects, and I would forgive him the division his method of ruling has bred. I would forgive it all if only he does the right thing this once. If he chooses to bow out with dignity. If only with this New Year indeed comes ‘new fashion’.


As I said, I’m trying to cling on hope. The hope that Disney stories and Nollywood movies aren’t complete fiction, the hope that at the end of it all, ones conscience prevails. This is what I want for Christmas. 





Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Straight Outta My Bookshelf: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

I consider myself an avid reader, but I must guiltily confess that I read as means of escape and entertainment than I do for the purpose of learning. For this reason it took me a while to get into literary fiction in general and African literary fiction in particular. Literary fiction is great with its ‘classics’ like Bronte’s Jane Eyre or  Sembene's God’s Bits of Wood, but not what I’d call ‘fun, curl-up-on-the-couch reading’. Though I have read and appreciate aspects of the likes of Oyono’s The Old Man and the Medal and Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow the books I have re-read, the books whose covers are worn from being carried around everywhere are those whose plots were structured to entertain me rather than pass on some satirical message. Pop-fiction is popular for a reason and up till a few years back I couldn’t say there was an African equivalent to the western pop-fiction I binged on as a young reader. Today the story is different, I can list a wide array of contemporary African literature offering a variety of themes to appeal to all sorts of readers. A new wave of Cameroonian writers are contributing to this new era in African literature and I couldn’t be happier.  


Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is one of the new additions I’m particularly pleased about. When this book was announced in 2015 with a million dollar book deal my curiosity was piqued but I made a mental note not to expect much as several first-releases are often over-hyped (and in expectation is rooted all disappointment). Upon reading it last month however I was extremely pleased to find myself agreeing with the hype this book has received.

Behold the Dreamers takes an honest look at the ‘American Dream’ from the point of view of a Cameroonian immigrant family vis a vis their upper crust employers. The reader navigates the ups and downs of the Jongas’ and Edwards’ lives. With easy-to-relate to characters readers witness how experiences, painful and foreign, mature and change people, how some things remain the same despite differences in class, race and place of birth, but above all how each character defines home and craves fulfillment in different ways.

This is a story simply told, poignant yet without heavy didacticism, and obviously written with extreme caution. For the first time I read a book with Cameroonian characters my generation could relate to. I had to stop and appreciate how the author avoided as many generalisations as possible, often specifying an attribute to natives of Limbe rather than Cameroon at large. I felt as though she was aware this book would be picked apart and sought to cover all basis. She cautiously walked a tightrope avoiding poverty porn as much as ‘Afropolitanism’ and tried her best to ensure that she wasn’t accused of “writing for a western audience” etc.
With African literature something is sure to be over-analysed nonetheless.

For me, Mbue makes a laudable attempt at depicting the immigrant struggle hidden in the small things like Jende looking for someone to rejoice with upon landing his job with Mr. Edwards “He needed to rejoice with someone who knew his name and his story” and Neni re-discovering faith and singing gospel choruses far from home where she had learned them but not practiced.

What I loved most about the story (aside from how easy it is to curl up with because you're getting an intriguing plot rather than a sermon/lesson) and what I feel has been overlooked in reviews and discussions is the transformation from aspiring after the American dream to configuring what I perceive to be the ‘Cameroonian Dream’. The former dream entails making it in the US with a middle-class income, ‘papers’, a house with a mortgage and as Neni’s friend Fatou states shopping at “fine white people store like Target”. The latter dream, the ambitions of a majority of Cameroonians which till this time had not been verbalized is, to ‘fall bush’, hustle by all means possible and return home financially able to defy the odds of unemployment, ‘buy’ a better social status and live comfortably where one knows for sure they cannot be treated as alien because they belong. The story reminds us that while it is easy to get trapped abroad either by becoming too used to the comforts or for lack of choice, the majority of us left because we had to rather than because we want to.

The Jongas may not have achieved one dream, but they retained their dignity, and left us with a happy ending inspiring hope beyond "bush".

Behold the Dreamers has been compared to Adichie’s Americannah, I am of the opinion that it’s a poor comparison. While Adichie’s third novel is essentially a love story which boldly covers a variety of themes above all an African immigrants perception on race relations in the US, Mbue’s debut novel focuses particularly on exploring immigrant survival, aspirations, adjustments and the universality of human needs, pains and flaws. To compare them would be to compare an apple to a bowl of fruit salad with chopped apples in it.


Suffice it to say I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would encourage all Cameroonians to read it. Before you go, I'm interested in you opinion on "the Cameroonian Dream" do we have one? What do we as individuals and a people envisage? I look forward to your comments! 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

An Ode to Those We've Lost


Last month I visited the United States briefly. After having spent almost seven years of my childhood there and returning home to Cameroon indefinitely, this trip was my first in fifteen years. Messages from friends spanned from "watch out for the police" to "buy me shoes" to " we hope you're coming back".
One particular writer friend wrote me asking how long I was traveling for. When I told her I was just going to be out for just over a week, she had this to say: 



"Ah okay. I'd been worried that we've lost another 😜😂😂
Not that I would have told you if you were moving. I'd just have said congratulations and all the best and stuff like that. Then wished I had all African Presidents on speed dial so I could berate Biya for losing [another] top brain"

It is this comment in particular and the experience of the trip which inspired this post. 


I traveled for a conference, my first academic conference. I was happy, proud of the achievement, but above all proud of the fact that I was going to the US on my own merit and for my own purpose after years of witnessing first-hand the lengths at which people go to leave Cameroon. As happy and proud as I was, I was also nervous. First about the conference, then about meeting family and friends I had not seen in fifteen years.
I am not the Monique I had been before, life and various experiences which had come my way had changed me to the complex being I am now. And I am still changing, and metamorphosing to my fulfillment gradually. Would they respect that, I wondered.
Or would they look at me with the prejudiced ideas a lot of those abroad have of those back home; that we are all just making do, that we all wish and pray for 1st world lives. I went in prepared to dispel myths, ready to make it clear some of us could 'choose' to be in Cameroon,  ready to snub those bushfallers who would suggest I stay indefinitely, or laugh at my decision to return home. With this sort of thinking I unwittingly went in with my own prejudice.

This prejudice however didn't last long, it began cracking on my first day in Maryland (a.k.a Cameroon annex). It was a Sunday and we were celebrating my younger brother’s baptism at Silverspring Presbyterian Church. All through the church service I ran a commentary in my mind:


Only three white people in this church? The pastor and two elderly... 
Are the rest Cameroonian then? Oh, there’s an African-American assistant pastor… probably ninety percent Cameroonian… At least ninety
Lord this might as well be P.C Bastos, I mean look at the outfits, and look at the faces… the choir is singing in Bakweri or is that Douala…The pastor must be resigned, his church has been colonized.
See these kids, most of them 1st generation Americans, singing “Everybody blow your trumpet” but without the accompanying gestures. How would they know what gestures to make? It’s close, but it can never be the same as Cameroon...


video
<==={Cameroonian choir singing in at Silverspring Presbyterian Church, Maryland-USA 







With every thought I felt slight shame and a well of pity deepen within me. It is easy to get derailed by the younger bushfallers on social media who would have you think life is forever better on the other side, easy to feel annoyed when the embassy puts you through a tedious process because others have literally used up all the lies possible to get visas and leave the country for good, it is easy to forget that these people who now generalize about Cameroon as much as western media does, are victims. Yes, victims of the government that did not care for them. Victims aren’t always blameless, they don’t need to be. They are the injured party nonetheless. 

I was reminded of this as we closed service that morning and I was enveloped by the crowd of Cameroonians welcoming me to the country they were yet to consider their own. Most of them were elderly women, my mom’s friends and senior, each of them hugged me tight as though hugging the place I came from rather than me, they each had the same questions on their lips “How is Cameroon? How is home?”

Cross-section of worshipers at Silverspring Presbyterian Church, Maryland 
If anything, it was obvious that irrespective of better standard of living (based on GDP), despite the guise most would put up about their American life, these were people walking around homesick. These were mothers who longed to retire but cannot do that with others depending on them and never ending bills, these were brothers who missed simple pleasures of a cheap cab ride to a bar where the barman might as well be a family friend.

I had hoped the people I met would recognize and respect that I was not the same Monique, but not until that moment did I respect that those people had also changed. While there were still those who could care less, the majority were more up to date on Cameroonian news than those back home. They were not all the eager bushfallers they once had been, a lot of them had left Cameroon by choice but were now trapped out of it by circumstances. They now wondered if their kids would consider Cameroon home as they do, and try not to let it matter even though it does.  

About ten days ago, after the fatal Eseka train crash rocked the country, several comments bemoaned our having a president who obviously lacks a sense of duty to our country. The nation collectively mourned the lives we had lost to negligence. In a Whatsapp group I’m in, my friends took turns comparing what the worse consequence of our president's rule has been. The corruption? The tribalism? Embezzlement? Laissez-faire culture? A failing healthcare system? The hazardous transportation system? Unemployment and underemployment? Each one of them justified their points. It was a pitiful sport but I wanted to participate and looked for a way to express how we have lost more souls than those dead in the recent crash, the regular road accidents and as casualties of our healthcare system. 

I looked for a way to briefly describe the images I had seen in Maryland, people attempting to reclaim home with overpriced imported foodstuff, clothes etc., fathers who in the course of conversation would allude to something you could only understand if you had lived in Cameroon and then experience a moment of disconnect with their children...

I tried to describe the resigned pain you feel knowing your brother will never consider Cameroon home, or that your cousin who is in Cameroon now would probably sell their own soul to leave the country for good if he could. I attempted to explain the frustration that comes with being in love with someone yet separated because one of you cannot get a visa and the other shall not return home to nothing, or finally the fear that your mother may never retire as she dreams of…

Truth is none of us can truly win such a pitiful debate. There shall be a million negative consequences of our government's cruelly careless #33years rule, but from my present vantage point, it is the brain drain, the loss of our own and loss of belief in our own that shall remain as this regime's worse legacy

Let us hope one day we can undo this and fix the rift this poor leadership has created. 


Friday, September 9, 2016

Murdering Poverty: A review

Ever heard of the ‘development-aid debate’? Well unless you are a follower of politics, news, or a scholar of the humanities, you may not recognize the debate in so many words. While the average African citizen has most likely questioned the motives of international agencies dishing out aid and the method used in dishing out aid to developing countries which constitute most of the continent, the layman wouldn’t necessarily term it the ‘development aid debate’. Terminology aside, it is one and the same thing, and this debate is what Arrey E. Ntui delves into with his inaugural publication Murdering Poverty: How to fix aid.
With this book, Ntui sets out to offer a simple, creative rendition of the development aid debate and initiatives for the turnaround of aid for the successful ‘murder of poverty. The author situates his book within the fields of development, development economics and international relations. However there is no definition of these concepts nor is there a guiding theory for his debate within these fields. On the contrary, in certain areas the author proposes his own theories, and creates analogies to better outline his personal opinions on the topic. It is exactly as he states at introduction, his creative take on this long-winding debate.
With a mixture of casual language and political jargon Ntui resurrects arguments against donor aid as we know it under the subheading ‘The 24 Sins of Development Aid’. He goes on to assess the possible efficiency of the 0.7% aid target which was set by developed countries (and is yet to met) for donations to the global south.

The author makes three main arguments; poor people as a result of their poverty have certain characteristics which contribute to their continued predicament, Africa cannot be developed from the outside, and aid must be a two-way street as the African continent has a lot to contribute to other countries as well. As the work is not written with academic guidelines in mind, there is little in terms of method or evidence to prove the veracity of these arguments.

Nonetheless the author’s values (and this is a very value-laden piece of work) are clear; the African continent cannot continue to be a short-sighted recipient of aid. Our dependency on aid as is robs us of our dignity and nothing is worth that. If the reader had yet to comprehend his stance, the author closes off by drawing lessons from a fable, specifically the Churchill-Fleming myth, which illustrates both the power of being charitable as well as the necessity of that charity being given and received with finite principles. Principles which would assure the benefactor as well as the beneficiaries are satisfied and fulfilled at the end of the day, the aid being fully thought out.

Frankly, I would have preferred some theoretical background showing what has been covered thus far by scholars and clear outlines of what the author agrees/disagrees with. I would have liked more of a Cameroonian take. The use of Cameroon to illustrate problems with aid and practical suggestion on how Cameroonians need to approach aid.  This of course would be the scholarly approach, not what the author had in mind.. This was an attempt at offering the layman a simplistic and creative perspective of this global debate is laudable and the author is commended for it. We definitely need a “Development Aid for Dummies” book; something you can give young people who hunger to know more but are put off by the long string of citations and academic lingo. Necessary though this is, it is far from easy to achieve. It is difficult to simplify and condense arguments on development aid which cut across geo-politics, economics, sociology, history and international relations and in my opinion the author fell short of his laudable goal
In avoiding theoretical jargon the author still used political lingo, analogies to Shakespeare, and made references to theories and schools of thought which are not common knowledge. Midway into the book, I was grateful for background knowledge on development theory and literary devices, they undoubtedly facilitated the read. As such I felt the book should come with a warning: If you have followed the development aid debate and would like the unique opinion of a not-so anti-intellectual Cameroonian, here you go :) 
In all, Murdering Poverty makes a unique contribution to wider literature on development aid, offering a casual op-ed style to an overly drab and serious topic which concerns us all.