Paul, the Cameroonian journalist who accompanied our ICA team on the trip through the Lebialem Highlands in the Southwest of Cameroon, had one simple answer to all the questions he couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. “This is Africa!” he exclaimed with a big disarming smile whenever “his” Canadians met something unfamiliar, unknown or unexpected. The rugged roads, the dilapidated bridges, the daily power outages, oversized beetles, the immense heat and humidity, the very warm beer – all of this, according to Paul, was “Africa”. Yet “Africa” embodied also the beautiful mountain ranges of Southwestern Cameroon, the lush vegetation of the jungle we hiked through, and the graceful bats which circled our tents in the twilight. Even the exceptional hospitality of the local people was thus covered by the big and colorful – if somewhat thin and patchy – umbrella of the continental designation.
All of us started to use the journalist’s expression, albeit with a healthy dose of self-irony, fully aware that there is no such easily identifiable thing as Africa. We all knew that Morocco is not very similar to South Africa or that South Sudan struggles with different problems than, say, the Ivory Coast. Still, “This is Africa!” became a common idiom for things we visitors from the North found remarkable and wanted to comment on without being judgmental and/or ignorant. We used it for the pronounced spiciness of homemade sauces – and the amazing taste of fresh pineapple. We sighed the words when trying discreetly to get rid of the numerous ants in the freely offered palm wine. And I myself reflected on the saying – silently – during a visit to a local Fon, a traditional ruler of the region. As always on such festive occasions, a cleric spoke a short prayer to bless the shared meal. While he made the cross, I glanced at the three women sitting next to the throne of the host; the Fon was happily married to each and every one of them. When the prayer was done, we crossed ourselves again. And I noted with a smile that the local branch of the Catholic Church lived and let live by the same motto as the ICA-team: “This is Africa!”
During our 2017 trip to Cameroon, the lighthearted quip unfortunately took on a darker meaning too, because being in Africa at times means witnessing difficult conflicts that date back to the imperialist past of the continent. The territory of the today’s independent state Cameroon for example consisted once of French and English colonies. Tensions between the English speaking minority, about 20 Percent of the 22 Million Cameroonians, and the Francophone majority have lately come to the surface. It is a conflict that should sound a bit familiar to people from Canada with its French speaking province of Québec.
When we visited Cameroon this February, world history and politics in a manner of speaking crossed our own small humanitarian expedition. As you know, once a year ICA volunteers from Canada, together with their Cameroonian partners from CIC (Center for International Cooperation), visit the schools in the Anglophone region of the Lebialem Highlands that were built and are maintained with ICA support. Interviews with teachers and students on-site are an important part of this yearly assessment. Unfortunately, this year – since all villages on our route were part of the strike against Francophone rule – we could not see any schools in session. Instead of learning in the classroom, school age children played outside, took care of younger siblings or helped their parents with fetching water or gardening.
The adults, principals, teachers and villagers, were caught between a rock and a hard place: they wanted to remain loyal to the strike but they also wanted to welcome and honor their development partners visiting from Canada. In the end, our hosts found many creative ways to do this balancing act between political action and traditional hospitality with great elegance and style. In the face of difficult circumstances, and along the way, they taught us a lesson of amazing resilience, confidence and steadfast affirmation of life. And yes, this for sure is Africa.
Lotta, ICA volunteer