Former Peace Corps volunteer says Cameroon a nation to watch

March 17th, 2015 by bobebill

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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.

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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.

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“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.

Challenges

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.


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