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 Most are “textbooks,” all used, all outdated, and all too expensive.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 I probably could have gotten him down to six, but for a used, outdated, 150 page softcover textbook in the developing world, it was too much. 20¢ for 5 tomatoes but $6 for a crappy book?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.



Anonymous said...

A US-based Cameroonian professor is doing something similar in Buea. check out the cover story in "Sucess Story" magazine:

Anonymous said...

See also this article on writing in Anglophone cameroon:

and a list of novels by a Cameroonian publisher -

MBunt said...

I think this sounds like a wonderful idea, and if I don't end up in Cameroon myself, in June, when I finish my degree (and have time), I would like to help out in this endeavor. I am a mother of 2 wonderful 1/2 Cameroonian children and am wanting to find a way to help out in Cameroon myself, and I am also an avid reader and believe very strongly in your cause. Where I live, there is always great books for really good prices at resale shops etc..., and I have a library that I can't keep up with myself!

I signed up to get further comments to this post, so keep me informed!! Also, I am wanting to find other Americans in Cameroon to talk with and get a feel about living there; what it is like, and such (I have had 2 trips there myself, one was GREAT and the other HORRIBLE, but all in all - it is not the same as living there...)! Thanks for sharing!

Tim Hartman - Cameroon said...

MBlunt: Thanks for your comments! Send me an email at and we'll keep in touch.

You left comment on another blog with regards to cultural consideration and social change. I'll paste it for everyone else's sake:

"With my bit of experience, it seems that the culture, in some cases, has enough differences (from a typical American Peace Corp mindset), to where one needs to gather that into all considerations - like in one of your posts you commented that you did not understand what the President was rambling about w/regards to sorcery. This (witchcraft), I believe, from my experience, is so deeply ingrained in cultural thoughts that create choices in actions - that it cannot be overlooked in enabling social changes that can, in a "bigger picture" help society there, as a whole. Thoughts?"

I would have to say that you are absolutely right. There are certain parts of the culture that must be taken into account, and not changed, while social change takes place. Not taking cultural considerations into account is one reason that a lot "developmental" efforts fail. Sometimes without realizing it we can start to think that the definition of "developed" is that which is more like our own culture. While I believe that whole-heartedly, there are certain parts of culture that can keep society from developing. If it is engrained in my head that the instant I don't understand something I am going to blame sorcery, that is going to inhibit my ability to be proactive and to have a desire to learn. Those are two qualities I think are very important for the development of a society or country. And what about showing up two hours late to a meeting? What is good culture and what are bad habits? Where do you draw the line? Should you draw the line? Welcome to my world. It's not black and white and there's no blueprints for success. Every "development worker" works a little bit (or a lot) differently because everyone sees "developed" and the road to being "developed" differently.