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Opinions of Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Columnist: The Median Newspaper

What future for the poor in Cameroon?


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Rather than celebrating Barack Obama’s package for Africa, Cameroonians, whose country is beset by poverty, neglect and myriad social ills, should rather be asking themselves what the future holds in store for them. Just take a look at the picture below. Take a really hard look at the picture and tell me what you see…

Let me help out. What you see is not an abandoned latrine. It is a school: Government School (GS) Pomla near Figuil in the North region of Cameroon. That building serves as classroom for all the different grades of the school. The blackboards (or what passes for that) for different classes are pasted on different walls and at different angles of the classroom. That’s the face of poverty in most parts of the Greater North of Cameroon. Other parts of the country are not too different.

There are classrooms in despicable conditions in many parts of Cameroon. Some are built with thatch, others with wood that have lasted 34 years; so you may say that a broken mud building is not the worst you’ve seen. But what makes all the difference here is that GS Pomla is located barely a dozen kilometers from Figuil, the town where the main cement manufacturing plant in Cameroon is located.

Figuil is white with dust from the CIMENCAM (Cimenterie du Cameroun) cement factory. The roofs of houses are covered with white dust, just like the leaves of the Sahelian trees that line the streets of Figuil. So much dust; so much pollution you may want to say.

Unfortunately, not a single bag of cement in the thousands or millions that leave this factory was ever dropped at the Government Primary School Pomla so that children from around Figuil could also have the kind of education that may one day give them a good job at Cimencam or elsewhere.

It was approximately 2:45pm when that photo was taken on Monday 21 January 2011. But there were no kids at school. According to our driver and guide, they may have closed early to help out their parents as it was a ‘big’ market day in Figuil. If it were not for the green-red-yellow flag we would not have noticed the school.

In fact, I was in a car with a team of journalists that I was leading on a field trip to report the threats facing Cameroon due to climate change. But none could believe it was a school until I asked the driver to stop and reverse.

How could a cement factory (43% shares owned by government and 55% by French group Lafarge) be so close to a crumbling school built with mud? How could this be possible?

The situation of GS Pomla is the kind of situation that the World Social Forum (WSF) takes interest in. WSF is “an open meeting place where social movements, networks, NGOs, and other civil society organizations opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, to formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action.”

It is the sort of place where the world social movements converge to discuss poverty and other issues that need to be handled to make the world a better place for all. The slogan of the WSF is “Another World is Possible”. Do you think another world is possible for those kids attending that primary school in the picture? Do you think that would be possible by the converging of alternative forces as in the WSF?

Can another world be possible? The people of Ndian in the South West region of Cameroon should have this question on their lips each day. There is hardly any all-weather road in that part of Cameroon and the populations mostly use fuel that is smuggled in from Nigeria whereas they live along the Rio del Rey from where most of Cameroon’s oil is extracted for export.

Is another world really possible? A world in which the youth of Doumé, Belabo and Yokadouma (East region of Cameroon) whence trees are felled for export could also have a volleyball or handball court with a wooden playing surface like those on which NBA stars strut their stuff in the USA?

Do you think another world is possible? One in which farmers and civil society activists working in their interest would not be jailed for organizing a protest to question why funding and material support that was meant for them ended up in the pockets and farms of big government officials?

Do you think if this other world were to be possible, it would be the result of conclaves like the WSF? Is it not a matter for people like you, me, the bosses of the extractive industry in Cameroon and that corrupt mayor and minister friend of yours to start making a difference?

Just minutes before stumbling on that school we had visited the calm and beautiful residential area meant for Cimencam staff. The contrast with the school was so sharp that one of the members of my team wondered if the top brass of that company ever travelled through this road to Garoua – the regional capital – because the school is by the roadside.

From a purely public relations and social responsibility perspective; couldn’t the management of Cimencam develop a project to support the construction of schools around Figuil, at least, to make locals feel that this factory was giving back something to them apart from just the dust?

Can change ever come to the lives of the poor in Cameroon?

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