I remember Friday 18th November 2016 very clearly. The principal of my school gave his daily morning announcements as usual, but he told us that we shouldn’t return to school on Monday, as the teachers would start a ‘’stay at home strike’’ to protest the “francophonization” of the English system of education in Cameroon (more on this later). At first, my fellow students and I thought, “Wow, this is amazing, we’ll have a free day or even a week!” This was despite a harsh warning from our principal, who told us that the last time our country had had a strike, things had quickly spiraled out of control. He told us a story about how the students at the boarding school where he had worked defiantly decided to remain in school, but they were soon visited by motorcycle riders who swarmed the students with whips and stones, forcing both teachers and students alike out of the school to trek a certain distance to safety.
Even as our principal emphatically repeated that we must stay away from school on Monday, I could only imagine him running away from motorcyclists, which made me laugh. As I left the classroom that Friday afternoon, I thought “I’m sure my physics teacher will be happy to be free of us for at least a day,” and looked forward to what promised to be a long weekend.
Photo: Melissa Banigan
I learned just how naïve I was Monday morning when my father came rushing indoors from the street and slammed the door shut behind him. “The streets have been blocked by protesters, vehicles, and armed forces, and the air is filled with tear gas,” he said, breathlessly. Soldiers were trying to hold the protestors back by any means necessary. They shouldered guns while civilians were armed only with stones. I was reminded of David and Goliath. The unrest was just beginning.
To understand why all of this was happening, you must first know some of the complicated history of my country. Cameroon is divided into ten regions. Eight of these regions are the Francophone majority (which were once occupied by the French before gaining independence in 1961), while two are the Anglophone minority (which were, once under British rule, united with French Cameroun to form an independent republic in 1961). Despite my country having its independence, we’ve retained much of the French and English judicial and educational systems implemented by our old colonist masters. President Biya, who has maintained control of the presidency as a dictator since 1982, is an ardent supporter of the Francophone majority and its systems, and for years, has discriminated against those who live in the English-speaking regions.
For many years, protests have cropped up in the two Anglophone regions, but things came to a head in 2016. Two weeks before our principal made his announcement, lawyers in these regions went on strike, demanding that the government establish a common law system that would work for the entire country rather than just the Francophone regions. Then, the teachers organized to demand that unpaid salaries be issued and they spoke of their grievances against a government that clearly preferred the French system of education. To make things even more complicated, politics in my country are multiethnic and are often deeply tribalist, which has led even more to separatism between the Anglophone and Francophone regions.
My city of Bamenda, which is in the North West region (one of the minority areas of the country), has been at the heart of the protests. After a sleepless, loud, terrifying first night of protesting, Tuesday started the same as Monday, and the days after that only got worse. Forced to stay indoors, every day started to look like what we call “country Sundays,” which traditionally are times when no activities whatsoever are allowed except for church. Only now, even church has ended. My city, and all cities and towns and villages in the North West and South West regions, have become ghost towns.
When the protests first began, government armed forces were all over the place, and they reminded me of bees around a flower full of nectar. They really played a major role in the terror that unfolded. First, they broke into private citizens’ houses without warrants. “We’re looking for ‘terrorists,’’’ they said, which is what they called the leaders of the strike and journalists who dared to report the facts. The violence grew — university students who had been forced out of their classrooms were beaten.
The government said, “we are open to dialogue,” but then they shut off the Internet in both the minority regions, and they criminalized disseminating information about the strike. Shutting off the Internet probably didn’t have the silencing affect the government had hoped for — we’re accustomed to having international media ignore us – with the exception of a handful of isolated stories in publications such as Al Jazeera, the BBC, and the Washington Post, the problems in my West African nation went largely ignored. With the Internet off, people instead used gongs and drums to let people know that they should collect to receive information and communication.
Although Goliath continues trying to suffocate us, David isn't backing down. Our cities, towns, and villages are still ghost towns. A few people try to defy this by selling or moving from one place to the other with cars, but they then watch their market stalls being burned down and their cars destroyed. Some brave students try to attempt returning to school, but they are beaten by their own classmates and their homes are burned to the ground. Some schools attempt to reopen, but there are no teachers to teach the few students who show up, and most parents are too scared to allow their children to attend.
The government planned a couple of meetings with the leaders of the strike, but they wouldn’t yield to any of the demands for equality, and as of today, no further meetings have been planned. The main actors in the continued strike are bike riders who maneuver from place to place and the true media (as opposed to puppet media outlets installed by the government).
I’ve always taken care of my family. My mother lives far away, and I’ve always been responsible for the care of my younger brothers. When I was in school, I woke very early in the morning to handle housework before leaving to get my education. Now, with the strike, everything has changed. For the first time in my life, I’m working outside of my home. I asked for a job and am now cleaning shoes for 5,000 CFA (about $8.00 USD) per month. This isn’t easy, and there’s rarely a break — I’ve learned the hard way that men wear shoes every day of the month.
I dream of being a doctor who will work for my people. Yet as the days go by, I see my future being delayed, and a year of my life has been taken from me. It was a fast transition from student to shoe cleaner, but more than ever, I firmly believe that education must be a basic right for the children of any country. If this education is taken away, then it’s hard to imagine how that country can have a future.
I don’t blame anyone, not really. I mean, it’s hard to blame cowards for running and doing nothing and stupid people for doing stupid things. The strike has a noble purpose, but the majority leaders of Cameroon who should be working for all our citizens are stalling. They are watching us watch them as though we were in a showdown. What can I do? It hasn’t been easy going from being a student to a shoe cleaner. For now, I’ll just have to continue being a member of the audience as the drama unfolds.
Nji Remi Adams is a teen journalist with Advice Project Media in the North West region of Cameroon. Having published work with the Advice Project's The Hub and on The Huffington Post, she's also a student holding four awards of excellence at school and was a fellow of the 2015 Advice Project Leadership and Empowerment Summit in the Peruvian rainforest.