Mongo Beti and the Anglophone Crisis

Over the course of the Cameroonian Literature class I have been taking through the Middlebury Program, I’ve had the opportunity to read so many works of fiction and non-fiction, all written by Cameroonian writers. One of the writers that made an impression on me was Mongo Beti. Beti was an author who grew up in a tiny rural village about an hour outside of Yaoundé. He grew up as many people do here, without electricity or clean water and without being surrounded by educated individuals. Nevertheless, Beti attended school and eventually moved to France to study at the Sorbonne and to become a teacher. He wrote his first novel when he was just 20 years old. He lived in exile for most of his life, before being convinced to come back to Cameroon by his good friend, Professor Ambroise Kom. Some of you reading this blog might recognize Professor Kom’s name. He taught at Holy Cross and headed a study abroad program to Cameroon before moving back here to retire a few years ago. We were invited by Professor Kom, to a debate honoring the late Mongo Beti (he died 18 years ago this year) which would focus on Beti’s view on the current Anglophone Crisis.

The famous cameroonian taxis!

The event was supposed to start a 4pm, but in true Cameroonian fashion, it started over an hour late (we’ll call the torrential rain a good excuse). The thing that shocked me the most about the event was how few people were there. Mongo Beti is a hugely famous writer who is known all over the world and who has had his work translated into many languages. But his own people don’t want to remember him because he was considered by many to be an enemy of the state. His views on the Cameroonian government were very radical and threatening to those in power. We met in the back of the Librairie des Peuples Noirs, a bookstore started by Beti which has since been taken over by Professor Kom. To the professor, the bookstore, usually mostly empty, symbolizes all that is wrong with the Cameroonian view of literature and of education. He told us that most people here don’t or can’t read. They don’t care about books or authors and they aren’t interested in broadening their knowledge. This is a sad reality that is being fought day in and day out by members of SAMBE (Société des Amis de Mongo Beti).

The debate was led by three professors, two Francophone, one Anglophone, who discussed their opinions and possible solutions to the Anglophone Crisis that threatens to turn Cameroon into a Civil War-zone.  I won’t go into the details of each opinion, but it was interesting to see the different viewpoints of the Anglophone professor and the Francophone professors (they were NOT in agreement). This showed me the complexity of the issue and inspired me to consider my own opinions as to who is at fault and how it can be resolved.

Professor Fofack in front of the paintings
Paintings of the late Mongo Beti and a famous Cameroonian philosopher

A few days later, we accompanied Professor Kom to Mongo Beti’s village to visit his grave and to attend a ceremony. Upon arrival, the extreme poverty and deprivation of the villagers was clear. The houses were mud buildings full of holes with tall grass and weeds growing around the sites. The people were often outside their houses, sitting in the sun, some were drinking although it was barely 10am. Professor Kom told us the somewhat depressing story of how a successful, wealthy Mongo Beti returned to his village in order to try to help his people escape poverty. He started a bakery, a plantation that grew all different fruits and vegetables and even a pig farm and butcher. However, after his death, it became clear that he was what held his village together. The establishments he had created quickly fell into disrepair and were abandoned by the villagers, who returned to their desperate poverty. The professor explained how this shows the complexity of poverty. People, even if provided with the tools necessary to exit their poverty, don’t always know how to or even want to use them. We were able to visit the plantations which were utterly abandoned and overgrown.

The talk allowed us to see the perspectives of the villagers, who didn’t understand the reason for our gathering. One man, clearly intoxicated, stood up to say that we should be ashamed to come visit the village without bringing food, money and clothes to provide the villagers with. He didn’t understand that we were coming to honor a great writer and that paying to do this wasn’t necessary. For him, if we were coming to the village, we should have brought supplies for everyone there. This is somewhat typical in the villages; the people always want something in return, even if you are only walking through. But as the professor said, this is only a way to keep the villagers in their poverty-stricken lives. Beti tried to provide them with the tools necessary to learn how to climb out of poverty themselves, but they chose not to use them.

It was a sobering visit that showed us how difficult the situation of the poor is in Cameroon. It isn’t enough to provide people with basic necessities on a daily basis, they have to be educated and taught how to obtain these necessities themselves in order to break the cycle of poverty.

A woman selling mandarines on our way to the village

A Typical School Day at l’Université Catholique d’Afrique Centrale

Two weeks ago I started my class at the Catholic University of Central Africa. I only have to take one class there because I am taking two with the Middlebury Program and my internship at Promhandicam counts as another. Registering for a class at UCAC is a process. New classes begin every week starting in October and the semester runs until February when there is an exam period. As we won’t be here then, we had to pick a class the very first week so that we would be done relatively early and would be able to focus on other things for our last few weeks here. Picking a class entailed taking two taxis to the university early Monday morning on the opening day. The campus was full of students starting school again, including many students training to be priests and nuns as the religious orders program at UCAC is very popular. We spoke to Victoria, our Cameroonian friend and a student at the university about how it’s different seeing a religious program that is so popular! In the U.S. and even in Europe it seems like there are fewer and fewer men and women who want to work in the church. She replied that it is the most popular program at the university because it not only provides good education, but it provides a good, relatively comfortable, stable life afterwards which is appealing to many students and their families.

The chapel
The sign outside the university

We checked out the list of new classes that are posted on a bulletin board every Saturday and chose Introduction to Cameroonian Criminal Law or Droit Pénal Général.  It is a class that has 4 hour class sessions (this is no joke), twice a week until 12 sessions are complete. However the hours and days can change each week so while we had class Monday and Tuesday that week, we could have class Wednesday and Friday next week. This makes for an interesting week for sure… After choosing our class, we were introduced to Driss, a french student studying and living at UCAC for the whole year! He gave us a tour of the stunning campus. It is up on one of the many hills surrounding the city and has a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains and rainforest as well as the city below. It is very calm and quiet compared to central Yaoundé and the campus is covered in lush grass, fruit trees and tropical flowers. It also has an outdoor swimming pool! I guess you’re not allowed to use it during the day though because it’s not considered polite for professors and staff to see students in bathing suits. The campus also has a large chapel, a library which was voted best in Yaoundé, three small restaurants, classrooms, a basketball court and dormitories. There are only about 40 students who live at the university (about 1000 students attend the university in total), but we visited the dorm room of Driss to see what it was like. While the campus is nice, we are glad that we are staying with host families. Being in a single room on a campus far from central Yaoundé would be lonely.

View from the pool of one of the surrounding mountains

We started our class the following day with no idea what to expect. We had been warned that often professors come to class up to an hour late, or they don’t come at all, with no notice given to the students. Luckily our professor, a catholic nun named Dr. Ngono Bounougou Regine, is very prompt. She immediately enforced her rule of punctuality in making several late students sit outside the classroom for the entire class, peeping in through the windows. We quickly learned that class in Cameroon is nothing like class in the U.S. Instead of having the liberty to take notes on what we deemed important, we were forced to write dictée-style, meaning the professor read from a handout and we had to furiously write down EVERY WORD. She stops every once in a while to give an anecdote or to explain, but most of the class is spent writing and trying to keep up with her quick reading. We have a break halfway through in which we walked around the campus to get the blood flowing again. Two of our three classes had a half hour break in the middle, so we assumed the same for our third class with this professor. However, after 20 minutes, class had started again and we crept in late with another few girls to a severe telling-off about how she “specifically said 15 minutes” when no one had heard any such thing. At least we didn’t have to sit outside! The classroom with over 50 students, is stifling at all times and is constantly noisy with students talking in the back (the professor is relatively unconcerned). Four hours is also a LONG time to be sitting and is much longer than we’re used to, but the content is relatively interesting and the class will be done in less than 4 weeks!

We also tried out one of the restaurants available to students and got full, hot meals of pan-fried, fresh fish, plantains and rice with sauce for $1! One of the other two restaurants is more fancy and expensive and the last is student-run and is mostly snacks and fast-food.

A view of part of the campus from the chapel steps
Random, but cute photo of my host family headed off to church!


Grocery Shopping Cameroon-Style and the Mvog-Betsi Zoo

Last weekend Maman Lisette, Arjun’s host mom, invited us both to go with her on her weekly trip to the market. Cameroonians (mainly the women) do almost all their shopping at one of the many outdoor markets around the city. Hence why there are very few grocery stores and most of them have empty shelves and very old, very dusty items. If you want to buy food here, your best bet is buying it off the street. It is fresher, MUCH cheaper and bartering with the locals has definitely helped us feel like we fit in a bit more. So, early Saturday morning, we headed off in Maman Lisette’s old-fashioned, vintage-looking Mercedes. The market we went to is only a few minutes from our street and is called the Marché Rond Point Express. We got out of the car to an already humid, hot day and headed into the market.

At first glance, the market is chaotic, busy, unorganized and would NEVER meet U.S. or European health and safety standards. It is set up along a series of dirt roads (which are constantly mud here because it’s the rainy season) and stalls are set up on either side with more people selling goods down on the ground so there is maybe a foot-wide path in the middle to walk on. Meat hangs dripping from hooks with flies swarming, every tropical vegetable and fruit you can think of is displayed on plastic sheets, propped against steps or even held in a plastic tub on top of someone’s head. We passed a meat stall first, stopping to watch a man with a machete hoist an entire pig up onto a wooden table and begin to butcher it. He asked us if we wanted the head, but we politely declined. The ears, the hooves and the tail were also up for grabs and are delicacies… (we’ve already eaten cow hoof here). Maman Lisette had to stop by a stall that crushes hot peppers because Cameroonians cannot let a meal go by without using hot peppers. The sauce is put on everything! It is delicious though. The peppers when raw are vibrant red, orange, yellow and green, depending on the variety and the degree of heat.

A display of different hot peppers which are dried and crushed into a paste
Arjun checking out some of the stalls
Butchering a whole pig
Powdered Kassava which is sold this way to make couscous

Next was the fish stall where the smell was overpowering and the area was crowded so we waited outside and watched a young girl de-scale, clean and fillet fish with dizzying speed. Scales and blood flew everywhere, but we got our fresh fish quickly. Maman Lisette was able to pick out live fish from a tub and have them wrapped up. We walked through the busiest part of the market passing anything from enormous avocados to cassava to dried eels, stopping to measure out huge quantities of rice, flour, and beans. Maman Lisette was getting enough dry ingredients to last three months! At this point, my arms were breaking from holding the bags stuffed with fruit, vegetables and fish (no such thing as cross-contamination here apparently) so we hailed a boy with a wheelbarrow to load our things into. These boys help people bring all their goods home or to their cars in the wheelbarrows. How they navigate a wheelbarrow through that market is beyond me! Luckily, we were there on a relatively cloudy, cool morning, because I can’t imagine the market with the sun as another heat factor. Already the smells and the number of people were dizzying and slightly overwhelming. It is very common for people to do their shopping Saturday morning because everyone works all week and Sundays are a day of rest (almost nothing is open). Suffice to say, it seemed like all of Yaoundé was at the market! But it is experiences like these that show what it is really like to live in Yaoundé.

Avocados, tomatoes, onions and fresh herbs

View of the market from the entrance

We also recently made a trip to the Mvog-Betsi Zoo that is a few minutes’ drive from the Middlebury Center where we have some of our classes. We didn’t have high hopes that the zoo would have clean conditions, well-trained staff or humanely-treated animals, but we wanted to give it a try. The entrance had a faded, peeling sign for the zoo and we were greeted by a sole woman who gave us a hard time about having a camera and tried to make us pay the equivalent of $20 extra to take photos with it. People here tend to be VERY picky and sensitive about any kind of photos or videos. I don’t know what they think I’m going to use them for…but we brushed it off and headed in. The zoo was a ghost town, slightly creepy because it had a bunch of old playground equipment that when new (maybe in the 1950s when the zoo was built), was part of a play center. We saw many different kinds of monkeys and baboons, some of them in relatively open, spacious cages with grass and trees, some of them in wire cages barely large enough to hold them. They were utterly unafraid of us and came right up to the fences (which, by the way, had gaping holes and did not look like they were doing much to keep the little guys in). One plus side of this being a relatively non-professional operation: we were able to get within touching distance of the animals. We could put our hands right up against the cages (we didn’t though because…rabies). We then visited the lions who were slightly battered and bloody, the snakes and lizards and the birds. The African Grey-Faced parrots were very cool as was the hilarious monkey that escaped from its cage right next to us and was running around. It went back in by itself in the end. We saw two crocodiles (one being a Nile Crocodile) which didn’t move an inch and we got propositioned by a random man who wanted to be our tour guide (for a small fee, of course). We politely declined although the offer to hold the snakes was tempting.

One of the lions
A monkey with his carrots- he was reaching both arms outside of the cage at one point, trying to get a carrot that had fallen.
One of the more spacious monkey enclosures
A Nile Crocodile
An African Eagle

All in all it was a fun, different experience that really showed us some differences between the way animals are treated here and the way they are generally expected to be treated in the Western world. Cameroonians visiting the Mvog-Betsi zoo don’t think anything of the cramped, poorly cleaned conditions, the tied-up monkeys or the bleeding ears of the lions. It reminded me of something our professor (a catholic nun) had said during our Cameroonian Criminal Law class at the University of Central Africa. She said that she doesn’t believe Cameroon should have any laws that punish people who abuse animals. To our dismay, the whole class nodded and murmured in agreement. Animals here are considered to be only good when they are useful, whether to get rid of vermin, to protect a home or to eat. Keeping pets is a luxury of the rich and is considered to be something that only Westerners do. Even in our neighborhood, Montée Jouvence, there are stores selling cats and dogs to eat, and we have seen such animals being cooked in the street. It is sobering and shocking for us coming from outside of the country, but here in Cameroon, it is part of the culture. As Arjun’s host sister Morgane said, “It’s just like eating cow!”. I don’t agree with her, but it’s yet another example of trying to embrace a different culture and a different context to the one I am used to.