In this post, Kelsey Suggitt, who has just begun her PhD on Francophone Africa at the University of Portsmouth, reflects on her 9 month internship in Cameroon with the World Wide Fund for Nature.
About a year ago I flew out to Central Africa to begin an incredible communications internship with World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
Despite studying Francophone Africa for the past five years (first as part of my BA in Combined Modern Languages and then on the MA Francophone Africa programme, both at the University of Portsmouth), this was a place I knew very little about. In fact, the first time I heard about the opportunity, I had to google Yaoundé to find out where it is. Even after that I still could only have told you it’s in a bilingual country (English and French), politically stable and located between Nigeria, Chad, CAR, the Congo and Gabon.
As you can probably guess, I had a lot to learn and a very short amount of time to do it in. For the first three months I was a sponge; watching, listening and drinking everything in, both in the office and out of it. Yaoundé is the capital of Cameroon and is located in the heart of the Francophone part of the country. It is also known as the ‘political capital’ of the country, with Douala, the largest city, the ‘business capital’. Here, in the city, just about everyone speaks French and few are able to communicate more than the odd phrase in English. With a degree in French and experience living and studying in France, I assumed that I’d be able to get by. However, my difficulty with understanding the strong accent and the speed at which people speak, along with the language peppered with ‘Cameroonianisms’ meant that I became a rather silent observer.
But it’s not just the spoken language that is very different, even body language is not the same, with simple gestures such as “come here” and counting numbers on fingers, being almost as alien to me as Chinese.
One thing that was made clear to me is that Cameroon is so much more than just an ex-colony of France. This is a country of cultural diversity. Every Cameroonian belongs to one of the 250 or so tribes in Cameroon and every tribe has its own history, culture and even dialect. Now, when I talk about tribes, this is not an alien concept, I don’t mean these people live in huts, wear little clothing and paint their faces. These are modern people like you and I. Their young people live on their mobile phones, download music and live and breathe the internet, just as they do in Europe. They have office jobs and drive cars just like the rest of us. Tribes here can be understood just as communities, that is to say they come from the same family or ethnicity, and have a shared history, traditions and values.
During my time here I’ve come to make some friends who are from the Bassa tribe. The Bassa are a very proud people who can trace their lines back thousands of years to Egypt, long before the arrival of the French and British in Central Africa. Their language is unlike any I have heard before and exists almost entirely in spoken form (although there are accounts written in Bassa, and even French/Bassa dictionaries), yet this language unites this tribe, which boasts that their ‘patois’ is the ‘language of Cameroon’ and it can transform social situations. For example, I’ve seen two complete strangers meet in a bar, discover that they’re both Bassa and immediately become joyful at finding another ‘brother’.
It is through these friends that I have had the opportunity to travel within the country. ‘Bassa country’ extends from Douala to Yaoundé, with the many of the villages in between belonging to the tribe. This is because of the path the Bassa took in their retreat from the German colonists, and also because of the Douala/Yaoundé train track which many from the tribe worked on as forced labourers.
Not only have I been fortunate enough to travel this route a couple of times, by bus, but I have also been able to visit Limbé, located west of Douala near Mount Cameroon National Park. This was my first trip out of Yaoundé, and my first time experiencing a black beach (so coloured because of the nearby volcanoes) and also visiting the Anglophone part of the country. From here I also went to Buea, which is best known in Cameroon for its prestigious university, but it was here that I truly understood that Anglophone does not necessarily mean ‘English-speaking’, but more ‘English-influenced’. This is because most Anglophones are not exposed to ‘British’ English, but a Cameroonian version, with many understanding a German accent in English, easier than my own native-speech. And, in fact, many prefer not to speak English at all, but their own patois or pidgin-English.
Unfortunately my internship limited me somewhat to the Yaoundé office, where the Central Africa office is based for WWF, although I researched and wrote about these other countries, nothing compares to getting out of the office and visiting some of the places that we cover. This was so with Limbé, where one of the Cameroon offices is based, and also with Kribi; one of the best tourist spots in Cameroon. The latter is a small town south of Douala, and not far from the border with Gabon. This is a site with beautiful white beaches as far as the eye can see, on the edge of dense, moist rainforest. Because it’s such a calm, isolated location, I found it a perfect contrast from the hectic, noisy, traffic filled cities of Douala and Yaoundé, plus there was the added advantage of swimming in the bath temperature sea!
Spending only 9 months in the country meant that I was unable to truly ‘know’ the place and I am doubtful of becoming an encyclopaedia on all-things Cameroon. But I certainly know more than I did before I took up this adventure. Furthermore, I have finally experienced life in a Francophone Africa country, and one thing I feel I have as an advantage over the many books and internet articles on Cameroon news, history and politics, is that I have lived with and around this diverse people, whose lives and opinions cannot be simply summed up in a few thousand words. Often the published stories are very far from the reality, and there are many more narratives just crying out to be told.