Six months after Cameroon

Posted March 11, 2010 by ourman
Categories: cameroon


I was prompted to write this after I read the following poem posted by a fellow VSO volunteer.

I knew her in my time in Cameroon but she has only just finished her placement.

I will never see a plant
Nor a flower
From this barren ground
Despite my tears.

As I was filling-up my suitcase,
I realized how many masks you have given me –
Masks that made me smile,
Masks that hid my tears,
Masks that shielded my fears.

I will leave them all behind –

All these masks
I wore
Because of you.

I didn’t leave a kiss,
An embrace
Nor a note
To say goodbye.

I am scared
That once you know of
My leaving
You will haunt
And hurt me once more.

I am so scared
Of you.

My fears are now greater
Than my affection for you.

I am sorry
For leaving you this way.

Bamenda, 11 January 2010

I am living now in Hanoi, Vietnam and loving it.

On Thursday night I play football with an international group of players.  Afterwards we head for a small Italian restaurant for beers and a pizza and the chat invariably turns to football.  Recently, talking about the upcoming World Cup someone said the word “Cameroon”.

I visibly shuddered.

Like the Filipino VSO volunteer who wrote the poem above I felt guilty about leaving but very happy to be free of Cameroon.

When I lived in Cameroon I used to think..what of all those Cameroonians who have escaped?  Why aren’t they pushing for change in their Motherland from the relatively safety of North America and Europe? They seemed in the best position to safely publicise what is happening there and hopefully put pressure on world leaders.

I vowed to write a “Free Cameroon” post that would sit atop of my finished blog. In it I would criticise world leaders and countries who turned a blind eye to what is happening in Cameroon.  I would add my tiny voice to the calls for change.

In the end though I did what everyone does.  I didn’t just leave.  I ran and I didn’t look back.

In the six months since I left, I have settled in Hanoi, met someone, got engaged, and we are to be married in October. Life, despite the usual day to day pressures of simply earning a living, is very very good.

However,  I feel like I have failed Cameroon since I left – just as I felt I failed to make any impact while I was there.

Such wonderful people in such a sad country.

In the end what I love most about Vietnam is the optimism.  What I found hardest about Cameroon was that there seemed to be neither hope nor ambition beyond simply leaving.

Unfortunately all the volunteers and all the NGOs can’t turn that around.

Leaving Cameroon is proving trickier than I thought

Posted September 11, 2009 by ourman
Categories: cameroon, volunteering

Tags: , , ,

Me,Marcy and local kids

NB: My time in Cameroon is now over.  This is the first post of two summing up my thoughts.

With two months to go in Cameroon a wave of euphoria washed over me – the feeling being that after a tough time I would soon be going home.

Then, with less than a month left it was replaced by…nothing.  That was how I felt.  Almost as if with thoughts and emotions too confusing and contradictory it was easier just to blank them out.  A situation not helped by the fact that friends had left town and those last few weeks included little socialising.

The future was one of family, good food and ultimately returning to Hanoi and yet the departure left me in a haze.

Even now, after two weeks at home, I feel I’m still emotionally thawing from Cameroon.  As if somewhere along the line I gave up on feeling anything in an attempt to simply finish my post.  Keep your head down, I reasoned, and just keep on going.

I’m aware there’s still a fug.  Hopefully one that will lift.  As I set off for Hanoi?  As I arrive in Hanoi?  The first time I walk those tree lined streets?

Or will it be gradual?  A slow easing back to the old me?  Perhaps even the euphoric Hanoi me of old.

I think it’s more than just self-preservation.  It’s not just a hangover from shielding heart and mind from the relative isolation of my Bamenda life.

I think there’s also a feeling of betrayal in there.  As ever the bottom line was “I could leave”.  I was doing what every last Cameroonian I have ever met wanted to do.

However bad it  got when I was there – it would never be entirely unbearable because I always had that get out.  There were a set number of days and they could be counted.

All those lovely people who looked after me and showed me such kindness?  They are still there. It’s unlikely that any will ever leave.

While rationally speaking leaving was the only course of action it’s hard to shake that thought.  And I think till the thaw is complete I will continue to carry Bamenda with me.  Cameroon is not going to leave me easily.

That’s probably just as it should be.

Some final thoughts on VSO

Posted August 27, 2009 by ourman
Categories: volunteering

Tags: , ,

The important point that you need to remember is: while VSO’s recent performance has, at times, been inexcusable –  it’s still no reason not to volunteer with them.

Because while it can be an awfully run organisation, it remains a wonderful concept and opportunity. And you should do it.

Mostly, because it’s my own area of relative expertise, it’s the communications where I see how they are incredibly weak. And in particular their absolute refusal to demonstrate any value in their volunteers.

So where do I start?  Well, in my last in-country meeting the request for a counselling service was turned down.  While other international volunteers organisations offer a free phone line for volunteers, VSO deemed it impossible (I’m guessing expense-wise but it could have been logistically).

This was requested by a Filipino volunteer who has suffered an overly physical bag snatching in the street.  We were told..if you want counselling you will have to find someone local to do it.  Without wanting to decry local skills the chances of finding a suitable candidate locally seems little more than zero.

It’s recently come to my notice that I should have had a pension contribution paid to me while I was away but it hasn’t been made.  Emails to VSO email addresses just tend to bounce back with a standard message (and as I have said before, there is no one there whose job it is to actually look after volunteers in the field)  – so I tried sending a message to them via Twitter. Someone would be manning that, right?

No, message ignored.  I’m wondering how many other messages to their Twitter accounts are ignored too.  Are potential new volunteers ignored? Are potential donors ignored?  Is it just volunteers that are ignored?

Okay, just checked that VSO Twitterfeed – it hasn’t been updated in a week. The last direct/interactive message was over a month ago – to me.  Which suggests that if anyone else is referencing them or asking questions – they really are being ignored. It reaches a point where you think…there really is no reason in opening up new ways to communicate if you once more use it as another way to ignore your supporters.

It would be easy to suggest perhaps then that more traditional communications methods are being used instead.  Check the news page and you’ll find that although (PR sin) the releases aren’t dated – the content of the last press release does appear to be about a month old.

Meanwhile VSO Ireland has also signed up to Twitter. Kudos to them for at least trying to share some interesting links but they too don’t respond to any questions.  They also have put a system in place where volunteer blog posts are fed directly into their Twitter feed.  Put it this way, if I was an Irish volunteer they’d be just about to automatically broadcast this litany of complaints to their own audience.

In addition, in the two months it has been operating it has managed to attract a rather poor 36 followers. Probably not helped by them only being bothered to follow 12 themselves.  Their Canadian counterparts CUSO-VSO have been going almost a month longer and have managed a whopping 24 followers and in almost three months 12 tweets and yes, you guessed it, not one direct response or interaction.

Moving on, in June I was asked to take part in a(nother) VSO review.  Tired of talking shops – I declined.

I got talked into it eventually – taking part in a long phone interview and writing up the discussion as a report.  I was assured these would be seen by the right people to make progress.

A few weeks back I had heard nothing and emailed …something was about to happen, I was assured again.

Today got an email from somebody as cheesed off with this whole thing as I am.  And by all accounts I am not the only who gave their time who is frustrated by the absolute lack of activity or even response.  Nothing is happening.

I’ve written before of my surprise that when I went to visit VSO I met nobody who had ever been a volunteer.  A fact that, partly explains while when a recent VIP visited they were told to bring a fortnight’s worth of cereal bars because there’d be nothing to eat here (hey it’s Africa, there’s no food in Africa, right?).

There’s an issue here and a serious one.  Firstly VSO absolutely does not value its volunteers.  There is no way that it could claim to and yet so wilfully ignore them. This is hardly even an area for debate.

In wider communications what is happening?  Why can’t they manage to even pretend to try and master Twitter? Why can’t they answer queries -whoever they may come from?

Why do all my dealings with VSO take so long?  Why do promises on action and intent to change always prove to be hollow?

Why are VSO such technophobes? Not just in their attitude to communication but also in the volunteers they place.  We’re still thinking classrooms when those economies that escape from poverty do so, as often as not, through the increased opportunities available through technology and communications.

This is an organisation that preaches advocacy – and it can’t even run a Twitter feed.  What? Are we still doing petitions and leaflets?  Wearing badges is not enough (in days like these).

Why when Peace Corps volunteers can fundraise online via their own organisation for small projects like this was I told by VSO that the same thing would be absolutely technically impossible for them to offer.

It feels like this should be VSO’s golden age.  It should be using new tools to reach new people. It should be using those same tools to lift people out of poverty as well as giving them a voice.

It should be building a community.  It’s a worldwide organisation now.  Imagine the power it might wield if it could only be bothered to communicate with all the people who believe so passionately in its ideals.

I was the only long serving Brit in Bamenda – alongside a half dozen Filipinos and a half dozen Kenyans and Ugandans.  Have we given up on recruitment?  Are we even outsourcing volunteering now?  Probably not – but it feels like it.

We’ve heard of new brooms, changes, an international approach etc etc.

Instead we’ve got increased short term volunteers – volunteering on secondment they get a VSO allowance as well as pay from their employers.  They stay for two months earning several times more than long term volunteers never mind local people. This is what VSO used to be so strongly against…but this just feels like business. Growth through partnership.

Never mind the quality – feel the width.  It’s a numbers game now.

As a whole though, we’ve got even less support for overseas volunteers than ever before – we have got new tools put in place for communications but no one willing or capable of using them.

This is the biggest independent international volunteer organisation in the world and this is how it is run.

And I will end by reiterating that you should still do it.

Persevere with your application when you get the maddening standard emails in return.

Stick with the training that still revolves around “break into groups and draw a picture of how you’d like everything to be”.

Get out there and then do what you can.  Enjoy the experience because it can be wonderful.  Know that you are largely on your own.  Certainly as far as your country of recruitment is concerned.

Use whatever tools you can to make a difference but don’t expect support from HQ if you want to fundraise internationally.

I may be signing off with a grump – but that still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sign up.

Because that’s how wonderful I think this organisation can be.

While you wait

Posted August 24, 2009 by ourman
Categories: cameroon

Tags: , , , ,

This shaky one shot video was taken by a colleague and given to me as part of a whole stack of other recordings that he wanted me to make into a movie for him.

I cut all his interviews and spliced them with the market shots, added the music, and handed it over.

But, personally, I preferred just the market and the song.  It says more about Bamenda life than a thousand of my blog posts.

I’ll be posting some final thoughts on Cameroon once I am back in the UK – I hope this will suffice in the mean time.

The leaving of COPAAP

Posted August 22, 2009 by ourman
Categories: cameroon, volunteering

Tags: , , , ,


As predicted there was no way of getting through the leaving do without wearing traditonal dress.

The event, as always, started late but with good reason. Perhaps the heaviest storm of the year hit Bamenda knocking out power and subsequently water for the best part of the last 24 hours.

This apocalyptic ending was compared to my boss to the conditions that are said to traditionally occur when a Fon (chief) dies (I think a Fon is technically said to “go missing” rather than die).

The heavens themselves were marking the occasion.

Personally I was worried the weather would block my escape route. Currently roads around the North West seem to be disintegrating and closing daily.  I imagined myself months, maybe years hence, shaking my head and thinking: “One day! I was one day away from getting out.”

Either way, I was very generously thanked and was allowed to say a few words to the kind and wonderful people of COPAAP and Mezam Poly Clinic.

It’s something I want to expand upon in a later post but while I’ve struggled in my volunteer placement and with living in the country as a whole, I have nothing but positive things to say about Cameroonian people.

People working in developing countries use the word “humbled” a lot and until you get the chance to live and work somewhere like this you don’t realise that the usage is neither cliche nor hyperbole.

Because it is exactly the right word.  I am humbled.  Humbled by kindness, by generosity, by spirit in the face of adversity, by the fact that most people simply don’t give up or resort to more underhand, desperate and damaging ways to get what they need to feed their families.

They are stronger than I will ever be.

Thank you COPAAP and the staff at Mezam PolyClinic.  Thank you for your kindness.

Corruption *IS* killing Cameroon

Posted August 19, 2009 by ourman
Categories: cameroon

Tags: ,


During a wider discussion on whether corruption can ever be excused, or even in the case of corrupt cop versus “rich suv driving ass” it’s fair to make the cop the hero, the above tweet was tweeted.

It absolutely stopped me in my tracks.

Alanna Shaikh is no slouch – her own Twitter bio reads:

International development optimist and skeptic, global health blogger, writer for UN Dispatch

Certainly on the kudos count I’m not even coming close. I can also add to that how engaging I find her writing on development and her on-going thoughts via Twitter.

In which case, it is reasonable to believe her take on corruption is also held by many within international development communities.

But here’s the thing – I live in Cameroon.  A country where it’s hard to see a single cause of the awful poverty that isn’t directly related to corruption.  That mantra again – Cameroon has had no recent wars, no famine, no natural disasters etc etc and yet..this is how it is.

I’ve been mulling that Tweet over in my head for some days now.  It was hard to come up with a response that wasn’t “…but…but… but just look at THIS and THIS and THIS etc.”

And then, I picked up The Undercover Economist a book that I had been wading through for sometime.  I started a new chapter entitled “Why Poor Countries are Poor”.  Within two seconds I noted with surprise that it was specifically about Cameroon – within four I realised I had read it before.

I’d read it online, way back before I even set foot in the country.  Back then I thought I had lived in countries where corruption was a major issue – Vietnam and Nicaragua.  I thought I knew corruption. But I have seen nothing like this.  I’ve never seen a country so absolutely stifled – not just financially or in terms of infrastructure but also in terms of sheer hope and optimism.

Anyway, I read it again and found the article on line once more.  It’s an excellent piece and you can read it in full here.  I’ve cut and pasted the summing up below which best outlines how this country has been systematically wrecked and how, despite Alanna’s statement, corruption is not only *A* significant barrier to growth – it’s *THE* barrier.

Does Development Have a Chance?
Development specialists often focus on helping poor countries become richer by improving primary education and infrastructure such as roads and telephones. That’s surely sensible. Unfortunately, it’s only a small part of the problem.

Economists who have pulled apart the statistics, or studied unusual data such as the earnings of Cameroonians in Cameroon and the earnings of Cameroonians who immigrate to the United States, have found that education, infrastructure, and factories only begin to explain the gap between rich and poor.

Because of its lousy education system, Cameroon is perhaps twice as poor as it could be. Because of its terrible infrastructure, it’s roughly twice as poor again. So we would expect Cameroon to be four times poorer than the United States. But it is 50 times poorer.

More important, why can’t the Cameroonian people seem to do anything about it? Couldn’t Cameroonian communities improve their schools? Wouldn’t the benefits easily outweigh the costs? Couldn’t Cameroonian businessmen build factories, license technology, seek foreign partners, and make a fortune?

Evidently not…. Having a thief for president doesn’t necessarily spell doom; the president might prefer to boost the economy and then take a slice of a bigger pie. But in general, looting will be widespread either because the dictator is not confident of his tenure or because he needs to allow others to steal in order to keep their support.

The rot starts with government, but it afflicts the entire society. There’s no point investing in a business because the government will not protect you against thieves. (So you might as well become a thief yourself.) There’s no point in paying your phone bill because no court can make you pay. (So there’s no point being a phone company.) There’s no point setting up an import business because the customs officers will be the ones to benefit. (So the customs office is underfunded and looks even harder for bribes.) There’s no point getting an education because jobs are not handed out on merit. (And in any case, you can’t borrow money for school fees because the bank can’t collect on the loan.)

It is not news that corruption and perverse incentives matter. But perhaps it is news that the problem of twisted rules and institutions explains not just a little bit of the gap between Cameroon and rich countries but almost all of the gap.

Countries like Cameroon fall far below their potential even considering their poor infrastructure, low investment, and minimal education. Worse, the web of corruption foils every effort to improve the infrastructure, attract investment, and raise educational standards.

We still don’t have a good word to describe what is missing in Cameroon and in poor countries across the world. But we are starting to understand what it is. Some people call it “social capital,” or maybe “trust.” Others call it “the rule of law,” or “institutions.” But these are just labels. The problem is that Cameroon, like other poor countries, is a topsy-turvy place where it’s in most people’s interest to take actions that directly or indirectly damage everyone else. The incentives to create wealth are turned on their heads…

Some more reading?

Try this – a more practical demonstration of how corruption is strangling Cameroon.

A Country Tale

Posted August 18, 2009 by ourman
Categories: cameroon, volunteering

Tags: , , , ,

Guest houses in Babessi

Recently I had cause to spend a rare night outside of Bamenda and stay in rural Babessi.

Travel isn’t so much hard in Cameroon as just not much fun. While longer travels necessitate a maddeningly slow and bumpy bus ride – short trips are arguably worse.

If it’s local transport you’re after then a share taxi is what you are looking for. That means a car so full that it’s not uncommon for the driver to sell half his seat. It’s warm and musty with back windows jammed shut. Then there’s the awful roads.

So as much as I yearned to break free of the monotony of this small city it never seemed worth the hanging around, the crush, the stops and the general aggravation. Another day staring at the four walls of my house seemed a less worse option than spending half my day wedged into a creaking taxi.

Others braved it, but to me it appeared that your ratio for a day out, even locally, was two thirds travel time to one third at your destination.

But a couple of weeks back I was asked to get involved with the visit of British MP Andrew Love who was taking part in the VSO Participation and Governance programme with Babessi Council. It meant a couple of days and an overnight in the sticks…better still it meant a private car to my destination.

As you might imagine I jumped at the chance and only an hour after we set off, despite some pretty wet and muddy roads, we were there.

Beautiful, it was. My digs were a small free-standing guest house with the backdrop of a magnificent waterfall. On one side were the homes of VSO volunteers Shamsul from India and Esther from Kenya. They’d been there a year and three years respectively.

Putting aside the isolation it wasn’t hard to see the attraction. The peace, the quiet and the setting were incredible. The only noise was coming from a set of bright yellow palm birds nesting outside Shamsul’s door.

It felt like the Africa I had expected to come to almost a year ago.

I later interviewed the MP, the task I was there to complete, and later still as he went on an official visit, I typed it up as a release for a press event later that week. My laptop battery was just enough to get the task done as there was no power before darkness.

In the evenings as the lights came on I charged the laptop and even managed to get online.  We dined at Shamsul’s who provided incredible Indian food – a trick he had learned out of necessity in Cameroon having never previously cooked for himself.

It was a beautiful evening. I brought beer, the MP bought wine and we chatted, ate and drank before we all called it a night ahead of the next day’s schedule.

In the morning I saw another side of the rural volunteer’s life. Shamsul and the MP hosted a workshop with the local council aimed, as ever, at boosting the democratic process locally and increasing local accountability.

Obviously keen to impress the MP the councillors took turns to praise Shamsul’s wonderful work and recount the progress that had been made. I was impressed. Impressed not just at what had been achieved but also just how much this small community had taken the hard working Shamsul to their hearts.

The work may have been rurally based and a day’s travel from the capital yet it still seemed the absolute crux of what Cameroon needs. This was tackling democracy, albeit at grass roots, with the hope of not only real local results but also the knock-on affect of wider advocacy and a clearly demonstrated good example.

I was more than a little jealous and for the first time I wondered if I would actually have found it easier in a remote posting – despite the relative comforts of the city.

People seemed happier without the grime and traffic of the city.

The sight that most haunts me in Bamenda is my motorcycle trip through the market as they pack up in early evening.

People, to my mind, all look worried. Worn down.  They look like their day’s taking weren’t nearly enough and they were heading home on the back of an unsuccessful day.

That Bamenda haunted look seemed to follow me – once I looked around a venue with a live band and drinks on a Friday night. Despite people being dressed up and out with partners I noted everyone had the same look. Not so much beaten as just knowing they’d never win.

The relative happines of the international volunteers I was with made me feel uneasier still. Smiles seemed out of place and the smilers somehow spoilt and insensitive.

But the countryside seemed different. It seemed more positive. It seemed happier. Less complicated. Ugandan and Kenyan volunteers had argued with me that Africans are farmers and it was the wider developed-world-imposed ambitions that were at the heart of modern problems.

For a while I started to believe them. The haunted look, for once, wasn’t haunting me. These people seemed genuinely happy.

And so the workshop back in Babessi came to an end. Shamsul wrapped it all up skilfully, the MP said a few words and everyone else added their own thanks – it even ended with  MP and wife, Ruth, both in traditional dress. Smiles all around.

We waited for our transport at the front and chatted with the locals. Still lots of smiles.

And then it happened. Bubble. Burst.

A lady who had been talking to me about international volunteers and where I was from, said: “So many volunteers who teach us so much and help us. But you never tell us what we really want to know.”

I was intrigued and asked what that might be.

“What we all want to know, “ she said, “is how to get out of here. How can we get to Europe and America. That is what we most want”.

In the end, I suppose, life may be simpler in the countryside but it’s no easier.

Somewhat deflated I returned to Bamenda contemplating the same as the old lady, my escape.