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