By Emily Younker, The Joplin Globe, March 15, 2015
You might hear “Cameroon” and begin picturing glossy magazine images of African tribal people wearing grass skirts and sitting outside mud huts.
Or you might have begun to associate Cameroon with Boko Haram, a central African terrorist group that recently said it joined forces with Islamic extremists from the Middle East.
But for Barrett Browne, neither paints a truly accurate picture of the country. He should know — Cameroon was his home for two years while he served in the Peace Corps.
“Most Americans’ exposure (to African nations) is National Geographic, and that portrayal is really interesting, but it doesn’t really depict actual life,” said Browne, a native of Dallas who grew up spending his summers in Joplin to visit his grandparents.
Browne, 27, joined the Peace Corps in May 2011, shipping out to Cameroon about a week after a massive tornado destroyed much of Joplin. The opportunity to serve in that capacity was a no-brainer for him.
“Having grown up in America, living a relatively privileged, safe life, I knew I wanted to work internationally, and I wanted to get a sense of how people live outside of my bubble,” he said.
Cameroon is located in central Africa, bordering countries including Chad, Nigeria and Republic of the Congo. Official languages for the nation of 23.1 million people are English and French, while 24 major African languages are also spoken. Roughly 40 percent of the population subscribes to aboriginal beliefs, and another 40 percent identify as Christian; the remaining 20 percent adheres to the Islamic faith, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Browne said the country was colonized by Portugal, Germany and France, with each leaving its mark. As a result, much of Cameroon is “copy and pasted” from the European model of society, he said. The town where he lived — a hot, humid, predominantly Christian town called Lolodorf — was built by Europeans. It has all varieties of schools, including multiple high schools and a technical school; a downtown strip with several bars and a hardware store; cellphone, Internet, television and radio access; and residents who “get up and send their kids to school and then come home from work and watch TV,” just as Americans might do, he said.
This is the town center of Lolodorf, Cameroon. Some of the storefronts are a donut (beignet) shop, general store, barber and a nightclub (called Melrose place, named for the soap opera) at the end of the strip. Courtesy | Barrett Browne
Browne, who taught English and computers at a local high school there, said his daily life was “a lot less African, a lot less wild native” than Americans might expect. He showered (albeit in a bucket) every morning before walking to school, which was filled with regular high school kids filling the same niches that can be found in American high schools: jocks, popular kids, nerds, bullies. Like everyone else, he kept his iPhone in his pocket, and sometimes after school, he would go out for drinks with his co-workers.
As an American, Browne said he was routinely peppered with questions from the locals, who were enthralled with the United States’ culture and ways of life. President Barack Obama was Cameroonians’ biggest celebrity, and the fact that America had its first black president was a point of pride for them, he said.
His students were also enormous fans of the television show “24,” which chronicled days in the life of fictional counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer. In a blog he kept for friends and family that was later turned into a book, Browne told the story of one student who asked a succession of “fringe political” questions: “Do you believe that Osama bin Laden is dead? Is Barack Obama truly going to finish the world in 2012? Is Jack Bauer like a real person?”
“They were really interested in terrorism, and ‘24’ was their image of America,” Browne said. “Their perception of the U.S. is that we’re all actively engaged in the war on terror. I’d say that was the biggest image of the United States; most people wanted to know about our military.”
These days, Cameroon has begun to see terrorism on its home ground as the Nigerian-based terrorist group Boko Haram has extended its central African campaign. Boko Haram fighters shot or burned to death about 90 civilians and wounded 500 last month in the Cameroonian border town of Fotokol near Nigeria, also burning churches and mosques, razing schools and looting livestock and food. The extremists, who kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria last year in an incident that drew international condemnation, also abducted eight Cameroonian girls between the ages of 11 and 14 last month and killed seven hostages after seizing a public bus.
Some of Cameroon’s neighboring countries have begun launching counterattacks against the militants. Cameroon’s minister of defense, Edgard Alain Mebe Ngo’o, said last weekend troops from Nigeria and Chad would fight Boko Haram while soldiers from Cameroon and Niger would guard their borders to prevent the militants from escaping. Boko Haram has been using Cameroon as an escape and supply route, and residents in potential conflict zones have been asked to leave.
The United States, Britain, France and the European Union are backing the formation of a multinational force of 8,750 troops led by Nigeria and Chad with contingents from Cameroon, Niger and Benin. Several other countries also have pledged to help.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau reportedly has pledged his group’s allegiance to the Islamic State group that is in control of territory in Iraq and Syria, raising fears that the conflict largely restricted to northeast Nigeria and its neighbors’ borders could be internationalized.
Browne said he was aware of Boko Haram while he was in Cameroon, but at the time, the group was “more subdued” and largely active only in Nigeria. Even today, Cameroon has been fairly insulated from militant activity except in its border towns — even though the country is still somewhat divided between the impoverished Muslim north and the richer, more modern Christian south, he said.
But Browne worries about the future of the country that has become so dear to him. He talks of Meme, one of the villages where he taught; it’s 24 miles from the Nigerian border and Boko Haram territory. He said the area, while safe from the terrorist group, suffers indirectly in other ways. The village has been flooded with refugees, and traveling along the highways that lead out of town can be dangerous, he said. Students, especially girls, are becoming more wary of attending school, he said.
Additionally, since his time there, the Peace Corps has had to pull out of the northern region of Cameroon because of instability, which means that many young Cameroonians who are being raised in educational environments typical of traditional Muslim cultures might not have as many opportunities to be exposed to outside ideas, he said. Even though Boko Haram appears to have lost most Cameroonians’ sympathy because of their violence, those living in the northern region might still be more at risk of “disenchantment” of the Western ideals of secular education and democracy, he said.
“Peace Corps teachers are encouragers, trying to get kids to stay in school, and Americans carry a lot of weight just by the nature of who we are,” he said. “The fact that we’re not there in an entire region of the country, I think, over the long term is going to have an impact.”
Browne, who returned from Cameroon in June 2013 and is currently an intern in the Office of African Nations at the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., said Americans should be paying more attention not only to Cameroon, but to all African nations as time progresses. The continent is “growing massively,” both in terms of its economy as its countries modernize and in terms of population, he said.
“Africa will matter more than it ever has before in the next decade,” he said. “We don’t have to be actively engaged with war or allies, but we should be extending friendly relations for the future so we leave a good footprint.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Cameroon’s economy boasts “modest” oil resources and favorable agricultural conditions, yet like many underdeveloped countries, it is plagued by stagnant per capita income, inequitable distribution of income and corruption, according to the CIA World Factbook.
By: Sarah Edwards, for the Auburn Journal
March 5, 2015
“Ashia Mami, How for sleep?”
“No, fine. You want carry water?”
I awake early to the conversation of women passing by my window while searching for water. Under the shelter of my mosquito net, I prepare to start another day as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the village of Misaje, Cameroon, West Africa.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I work both to provide technical training to the community, but also to share with Cameroonians about America and share with Americans about Cameroon. I have called this community of 3,500 home since November 2013, working as an agribusiness volunteer. While my technical projects are enhancing the community, I cannot deny that the most striking part of my time is the exposure to a whole new culture.
The best description of my community or even the country as whole is vibrant. Women dress in colorful patterned “wrappa,” pieces of fabric tied as skirts, their babies tied to their back in another colorful fabric. The school children’s uniforms of bright blue jump against the dusty background of the dry soccer fields. The landscape itself is a wash of color; the green of the farms and oil palms set against the red-brown colors of the local brick houses. Even the sounds here are vibrant. From my house I can hear one neighbor calling to another across the way, the grinding mill transforming corn into flour, baby goats bleating for their mothers, and an active debate among the teenagers on their way to school down the hard-packed earthen path.
Most days, on my way home from work, I stop to visit my neighbor Florence. Today, she has just finished cooking over the fire, as most people here do. In what I have come to see as typically Cameroonian generosity, she prepares me a plate and wouldn’t bear to let me refuse. The meal of choice here is fufu and njamajama — a loaf of hot corn flour (slightly similar to polenta) and huckleberry leaves cooked with red palm oil. My plate balanced on my knees as I sit on the bamboo stool, I use my fingers to break off a piece of the steaming fufu and use it to scoop up some njamajama. We sit and chat about her new grandson, the dry season climate and her difficulty to fetch water, farm preparations and my work plans.
She always makes a point to ask after my mother, who visited here in October. Family is central to everything here.
Saying my thanks and goodbyes, I enter my house, checking to make sure my solar lamp has been charging as I do so. There’s a rumor that the village will be connected to power in the next six months, but for the time being, we all are dependent upon candles, kerosene lamps and the power of the sun.
In the time since I’ve arrived in Cameroon, I have noticed that there appears to be an overarching narrative of West Africa in the news — one of sickness and death from Ebola, one of kidnappings and terror from the actions of Boko Haram, one of hunger and loss from oppressive poverty. From my time here, I am seeing a contrast to that story.
The side of Cameroon that I have come to know, my own corner of West Africa, is one of reliance and creativity. While danger and hunger are present here, people watch out for each other, preparing extra food to share with others if they can. They develop ways to work around the gaps in the system. Facing a lack of formal banking, they have created a strong system of savings and loan groups. When I ask friends and neighbors how they are doing, the prevalent response is that they are “just managing.” While conditions are not ideal, people are finding a way to work through it.
That’s not to say that this community couldn’t use some help. The biggest need in Misaje is better access to clean drinking water. Currently, local water taps flow inconsistently or shut off altogether, driving people to collect water from the stream and consequently sending rates of typhoid and dysentery through the roof. While the local government has made effort to expand the decrepit and overworked water system, their resources are scarce. In conjunction with some local community leaders, I have developed a project to rehabilitate and expand the local water catchment. In order to ensure long-lasting success, we will work to create a strong water management committee. The project is a part of the Peace Corps Partnership Program, where funds are requested from the public to complete the project, linking our home communities with our Peace Corps adoptive communities.
The project will only begin once the donations are all collected. A quarter of the project will be provided for by my community, in the form of labor and local materials.
Once everything is prepared, the town crier will alert the community to gather and begin the work to remove the dysfunctional water catchment channels and dig them to collect more water. From there, we will build a larger catchment tank that will filter and treat the water, sending it to the town in a safe drinking form.
When the project is successfully completed, Misaje should have enough clean water for the whole population with room for expansion. This will reduce the rates of water-borne diseases and free up time that people currently have to spend looking for sources of water.
My neighbor, Florence, will no longer need to wake up so early to find water for her family before she goes to the farm to work. The project will help to improve the quality of life in Misaje and will forever create a link between the community here and the community back home.
Sarah Edwards is a Colfax native currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon.
We learned with great sadness that the victim of the latest brutality from the gun of an LADP (Los Angeles Police Department) police officer is our very own Cameroonian brother, whose life’s circumstances and stresses little known to us, rendered homeless. It is during moments like this that our existence and resolve as a vibrant diaspora community is put to test.
As we work at gathering further information and confirmations on the identity and circumstances of our fallen brother, I am calling on all members of our Cameroonian community to pull together in providing necessary community support to the memory and final dignity to our fallen brother and to put pressure on the authorities to make sure justice is served for this unfortunate situation.
We thank all the Cameroonian brothers and sisters who have in different forms shown some level of solidarity in expressing shock and outrage following this nature of death of one of theirs. We appreciate the efforts of Lady Kate of Miss Africa for her efforts in corresponding with the folks in LA to bring us updates on this issue. The ACCDF will work with Lady Kate and other community organizations and personalities to come up with acceptable, collective and effective ways of dealing with this situation as a united Cameroonian community.
We are also comforted by the awareness that we have a well-organized and supportive Cameroonian community that has projected throughout the years the spirit of unity and community. We will contact the President of the Cameroon Group, USA, Dr. John Chato and the Secretary, Mr. John Asombang, to come up with ways of collaborating and working together in the face of this new challenge and how to help avoid similar situations in the future as we continue our quest towards building a united and vibrant Cameroonian diaspora community in the USA. We also recognize and appreciate the continuous community building spirit of one of the founding fathers of Cameroon Group, USA, Dr. Mal Fobi.
We express the strongest condemnation of this senseless killing of a Cameroonian. Let us pull together to seek honor and justice.
Richard G. Mbakop
Executive Director, ACCDF
Boko Haram fighters have shot or burned to death about 90 civilians and wounded 500 in ongoing fighting in a Cameroonian border town near Nigeria, officials in Cameroon said Thursday.
Many Cameroonians are resident in the United States and have formed cultural associations. They are welcoming to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and many have annual conventions and festivals that bring aspects of the cultural together, such as food, dancing, and more. The All Cameroonian Cultural and Development Foundation (ACCDF) is the umbrella organization that coordinates and organiozes activities for all Check them out at: http://accdf.org/home.php
The ACCDF Inc. is an IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit public foundation registered in the State of Maryland, USA. Cultural education and appreciation influence economic growth and advance a rewarding intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual life of a people. Community development is a collaborative and facilitative process undertaken by the community that shares a common purpose of building capacity. The All Cameroonian Cultural & Development Foundation (ACCDF) combines cultural sustenance and community development to promote understanding, social cohesion and peace among Cameroonians, collaboratively planned and led initiatives, and external partnerships to enhance resource development. ACCDF’S overriding objective is to maintain and improve positive professional, cultural, social and economic engagements in order to enhance the quality of life in the Cameroonian Diaspora and to assist in the transfer of brain gain to our motherland and Africa.
In June 2001, Limbe in Cameroon, experienced one of the worst tragedies imaginable. Two days of torrential rains drove a cataclysmic flood through this town, triggering landslides that destroyed most of the city and killed many of its residents. A new book – As Waters Gone By: A family’s Story of Tragedy, Faith, and Love – set in Cameroon and in America, is an account of that event and its aftermath.
Here with the links:
Asome Bide, Author
(from Facebook–Peace Corps Cameroon page:
Below is the story of Education Volunteer Danny Thomas, who currently serves in Yang, a village of the Boyo Division, in the North-West region of Cameroon. Read Danny’s testimonial and enjoy the photos.
“A couple weeks ago I got to be a Juju dancer at a cry-die. It took a bit of work to make it happen. And there was a pretty intense debate about whether I could even be allowed to do it since it would clearly disrupt the anonymity surrounding Juju dancers (since Jujus are traditionally said to be spirits, not people). But it happened and was a blast! I was told by many people that I made Kom history and that I’m the first white person ever to dance Juju in Kom.”