Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What's Wrong with Cameroon I - Reading

March 25, 2008

The national crisis a couple of weeks ago pushed back my “What’s Wrong with Cameroon” blog. So here’s the first installment. I’ll add the disclaimer again: I’m not professing to be any kind of expert in stating my opinions of what I see wrong with Cameroon. They’re just that – opinions. I’ve been living in Cameroon for almost 10 months now. I’ve been living a little better than the average Cameroonian, but no where close to the luxury of the average ex-patriot. I’ve been living among and working with Cameroonians on a day to day basis and this is what I see.

Reading, or lack thereof, is a problem with Cameroon. It took me a while to realize. It was actually another Peace Corps Volunteer, Autumn, that brought it to my attention first. In America I remember having existential conversations well into the morning about God, the meaning of life, and why we’re here. Autumn and I have similar feeling conversations about what’s wrong with the Country we’re living in and the best theoretical “fixes.”

“Cameroonians don’t read for pleasure.” She said. And right then I realized, she was right. I just doesn’t happen here. Whether for pleasure, for current events, or to further their own knowledge, Cameroonians, or the vast vast majority of them, don’t read. Autumn, although a Small Enterprise Development volunteer like me, has been teaching English classes at her local HS and trying to promote reading to her students. Most know how to read and write. That’s taught in schools, but once they’re out, and even while they’re in school, there are no books in their hands. That’s right, not even textbooks. They’re too expensive for most to afford. They average Cameroonian class consists of the teacher reading their notes and the students copying them down, essentially creating their own textbooks that they can study at home.

The only way to buy books in my town is from people on the sidewalks with 4 or 5 large stacks (and this is a big town – 200,000+). Most are “textbooks,” all used, all outdated, and all too expensive. Looking for something to help teach my business management classes, they didn’t have what I wanted and they wanted too much. Ten dollars is what he started at. I probably could have gotten him down to six, but for a used, outdated, 150 page softcover textbook in the developing world, it was too much. 20¢ for 5 tomatoes but $6 for a crappy book?

Let me jump back to my midnight conversation with Autumn. I was showing her a book that my mom had sent me in a package. It was a new release paperback that cost $14.99. Taking an average Cameroonian salary of $1920 (80,000F/month is estimating high), a 15 dollar book is 0.78% of their annual income. Taking an average American income of $30,000(estimating low), 0.78% is $234.00! Would you pay $234 for a new release paperback? No wonder no one reads and no wonder there are no real bookstores outside of the two largest cities in the country. To sell that book at the equivalent price in Cameroon based on the income difference would be to reduce the price to 96¢. Not only would that be impossible for publishers to do, but no one is accustomed to reading, and so they probably wouldn’t even pay 96¢ for a book.

That brings me to my business proposition, the 100F Bookshop, the final result of my midnight conversation with Autumn. My plans for after Peace Corps might include starting up a non-profit. The idea would be to collect used books in the states, ship them over to Cameroon (to one of the Anglophone provinces), and sell them for 100F (20¢). The books would be donated by average Americans, anything from trashy romance novels to quantum physics textbooks. The money to ship them would come from tax-deductible contributions. And the booksalses would pay the salary of a Cameroonian working in the shop. Everyone that I’ve talked to so far, Cameroonian and American, seems to like the idea.

And here’s where you come in. Beyond whether my idea is economically feasible or not, I want to know what kind of impact it can have. I want to get some experience putting books into people’s hands. So if you’ve got the money to ship them here, give me your books!

You can send ‘em here:
Rev. Tim Hartman
c/o US Embassy
B.P. 215 Yaoundé

Cameroon’s got some things wrong with it, but maybe you can help me slowly get things going on the right track.


Saturday, March 15, 2008


March 6, 2008

You probably missed it, but there was a national crisis in Cameroon last week. It was bad enough that Peace Corps in Washington almost evacuated all of us. It started Monday, the 25th, with a strike of all the taxi and moto drivers because of the price of gas. It should be noted that this halted probably 95% of transportation as only the rich own cars. After the drivers decided to strike, the rest of the population soon followed. They decided that the cost of living had gotten too high and that they would strike too, to lower the price of soap, cooking oil, and other products – prices all controlled by the government. So on Monday morning, everyone was on foot, and by the afternoon, all businesses were closed. At this point, Peace Corps told us that we were on ALERT status, meaning we shouldn’t travel (not like we could), we should be keeping up to date with the news and letting administration know what was going on in our towns.

Dan, who lives in a tiny town in the mountains, was planning on traveling to Baré that day. He never got the ALERT from Peace Corps on his cell phone, so he tried to travel anyway. He got all the way to Nkongsamba before realizing he couldn’t get any further so he ended up crashing at my place until it was all over.

The next day, the strike continued. It was kind of creepy to see the country on lockdown. There were a few people on the streets, but no stores were open. Talking with my Cameroonian friends, everyone was mad. They weren’t happy with their quality of life and were ready to tell you about it. This kind of frustrated me, being a political organizer in what feels like another life. The real strike was for gas prices, something that, while controlled by the government is totally dependent on foreign oil prices. Cameroon has oil that they drill and export, but don’t have refineries big enough for changing it to gasoline. Therefore, they import all the gas and are at the mercy of the foreign market. Not a great reason for the whole country to go on strike. They were demanding lower prices for other goods, but the movement wasn’t organized. It was just angry people on the street airing their complaints to TV station cameras without any leader to actually talk to the government.

Cameroonians do have real reasons to be mad about their quality of life, though. One of their actual problems is that the salaries of public servants (anyone paid by the government) were cut by half or more in the ’90s. Public servants, including teachers, represent the vast majority of non-entrepreneurial jobs in Cameroon. If they had double their salary, they wouldn’t have as much trouble paying a little extra for soap. Another problem is corruption. Cameroon just moved up from number three to number one. We’re now the most corrupt country in the world according to a study from a couple of weeks ago. So gas and soap…I didn’t get it.

That afternoon, Tara and Abby, with the help of a friend with a car, got a ride from Baré to my house. The logic was that the house was safer and that we could worry all together about what was going to happen. With this addition, we were now four in the house.

The next day, according to Cameroonian news sources, the gas prices had been lowered to where they were two weeks ago and a lot of taxis were back on the streets. The reduction of about 17 francs worked out to about 10 cents/gallon. What I saw on the ground was very little taxis operating and only a few businesses open, the ones selling essential food products. BBC was reporting that there were burnings of some government buildings and some deaths during the previous night. Peace Corps told us to stay put; they were working on plans for what to do if things got worse. That night, the president addressed the nation saying that the streets were not the place to have this discussion, that everyone should go back to work, and something else about sorcery that I didn’t understand.

The next morning, Peace Corps moved from ALERT to STANDFAST status, meaning pack a bag in case we have to CONSOLIDATE in a few strategic places around the country and/or EVACUATE. Cameroonian news was still showing taxis back on the streets, but the night after the speech that didn’t include any acknowledgement of the struggles people were going through, was when most of the violence took place – looting and burning of buildings (not in Nkongsamba, even though there was a rumor that the mayor’s office was burnt down). For Nkongsamba and elsewhere, that morning was when things, strangely, started going back to normal. Shops were open, taxis were running, and only a very small military presence which in Nkongsamba is normal because of the military base here. People were on the streets and going about their business. Talking with my Cameroonian friends again, everyone was happy. This frustrated me again. They were livid just a couple of days ago, they didn’t get what they wanted, and now they were acting like nothing ever happened. When pressed, they would say “We’re a peaceful country. We didn’t want a war.” But I didn’t get it. They didn’t even get cheaper soap. Peace Corps wasn’t convinced either. There were rumors that more riots were going to take place on Monday. They decided to take advantage of the calm and the available transportation and CONSOLIDATE everyone on Saturday.

Mickie and Autumn, from Kumba and Kekem, came to consolidate with the four of us here at my house in Nkongsamba. Kumba was where the riots were probably the worst in the country. Mickie heard gunshots and helicopters as he was going to bed one night. But by now, as I said, things were getting back to normal. My neighbors didn’t even understand why everyone was at my house and not going back to work. The situation worked out in our favor, though. The markets were open with everything we needed and we weren’t worried about our safety at all. It was like a little vacation – a CONSOLIDATION vacation. We relaxed, played games, read, and ate great food. During the vacation we had two pizza nights, a lasagna night, an enchilada night, and a movie night where we had popcorn, peanuts, and cookies for dinner while watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone did their share of keeping the place clean, and while we spent a pretty penny on cheese for all of our dinners, I think it was a big success.

Monday rolled around and there was no change, still peaceful. Tuesday, the same. On Wednesday morning, Peace Corps gave the all clear for everyone to go back to their posts – catastrophe averted.

While it was a fun vacation with friends, it gave me a lot to think about too. I didn’t want the Cameroonian people to go to war and force me to evacuate, but I did want them to fight a little harder for a better life. If they’re not ready to work for it, then what am I doing here? So that’s what’s on my plate – figure out what I want to give and get out of the rest of my service. Tim