“Cameroon is bilingual country,” the taxi driver said, as he smiled and continued to drive me into the city center of Buea, in Southwest Cameroon. “But everyone knows that that’s a lie. The Francophones can’t even say ‘hello.’ At least us Anglophones try.” I wanted to protest, to argue and defend my ‘people’ but to an extent I felt defeated, when all I could think of was the majority of my students who struggle to answer even the simplest of questions past what is your name? in English. As he politely drove me to my destination, only asking a short question or two, our conversation was slightly challenging for me, as I realized that Pidgen English wasn’t quite so easy to understand as French. I felt ironically lost in this Anglophone land, where despite the label didn’t sound like English at all, which drove me crazy. Aside from a few survival words like “chop” (food) and “fine” (fine), I struggled to somehow to understand the following conversation (which I have translated into Grammar English for our general audience):
– “Where are you from?” he asked.
– “I’m from Bafia, in the Centre Region” I smiled, amused at the confusion on his face.
– “But you aren’t Cameroonian. You can’t be.”
– “What? You don’t recognize your own fellow Cameroonian?” I teased him, dramatically open my eyes wide.
I waited for him to state the obvious about my skin color, which is often how people greet me back in Bafia with a nice “La blanche!” but he didn’t. He paused for a second, hesitating, until he produced a polite chuckle, finally getting the joke. It was then I realized that my sarcasm and jokes were lost on this polite soul, to whom I handed exact change, as I got out of the taxi. With a nice “goodbye,” he didn’t even protest, demand for more money, or even ask for my phone number and call me pretty. This was the moment I realized I wasn’t in Francophone land anymore. No wonder nobody understands me here, I thought.
Officially, Cameroon has been a “bilingual country” for decades, ever since the unification of the Anglophone and Francophone parts which were held by England and France until 196……But in reality, the country is multilingual, with hundreds of local dialects pouring in from every region, with numbers that vary from 50 to 250 languages. Even though everyone probably speaks two or three languages each, oftentimes only one of those languages is French OR English. Not both. Which is rather ironic for this so called “bilingual country,” where all advertisements, signs, laws, books, you name it, are written in one, or both of these languages, which aren’t even native to any group of people. It makes for an interesting law degree I imagine, shuffling through countless articles and amendments, potentially only understanding half of what you are reading.
The more troublesome part of being a bilingual country, however, appears to be the major rift it causes between the people. There’s something absolutely powerful about being able to communicate with language, so much so that often language can become a barrier to so much, and can marginalize people, whether intended or not. And with language comes culture. And conflict.
This is mainly a problem for the minority Anglophone regions, who constantly complain about how the government is ruled in French, and that there is little room for their voice in how their country is run. Oftentimes they speak of the Francophones negatively, blaming them for their problems. “Those Francophones have everything. The government loves them, they don’t have to work at all,” I’ve heard said so many times before. “Only Francophones can work in the government,” my Anglophone friends would complain, “so they get all of the good jobs, and their communities benefit. While we suffer with poor schools, and unfair treatment.”
After my measly 8 months spent in Cameroon, I have tried over and over again to find evidence of this unfair treatment when it comes to Anglophone schools, since this is the only sphere of life that I am involved in….and yet, every school I have been to has been so unique and different, it’s hard to compare them, unless you count the delightful box style concrete classrooms with the same wooden benches which are found in almost every school in the country. It seems like the only major difference between Anglophone and Francophone schools is their school system itself, in whether they follow the British or the French education system. I often wonder if in some ways the Anglophone schools are better, if only for this reason alone (although of course I am biased since the British system is slightly more similar to the American one than the French system, which I do not like at all).
Ironically, before the advent of “Anglophone” and “Francophone” regions, some of the regions of Cameroon were quite similar to each other (for example Francophone West and Anglophone Northwest regions, which to this day have a strong culture of chiefs that few other regions have). This “Anglophone” “Francophone” divide has created new cultural differences, which make for fun conversation starters at parties.
My colleagues tried to explain this to me. “You see, Laura,” my Northwest Anglophone colleague explained, “In some ways, he (pointing to our Francophone Western colleague) and I are more similar than any other group of Cameroonians. We have similar culture, similar traditions, even some similar foods and ways of dressing.” He nodded in agreement, responding in French, “We may tease each other a lot, but in some ways we get along better than the other regions do.” “We are the people of the field grass,” he added in broken English, as we all laughed. “But it’s true that we like to tease each other.” They explained that if you ask a Francophone about Anglophones, she will tell you that they are serious, eat weird food, and speak like crazy people. Ask an Anglophone about the Francophones, he will tell you they are noisy, lazy, and just plain rude.
When I returned to Francophone land after a week and a half in the Southwest, I hopped in a taxi, chatting away with the driver as if he were an old friend. Not only could I understand him perfectly, but he laughed at my sarcasm and dry humor, throwing it back at me without skipping a beat. As I got out of the car and gave him exact change he replied, “Hey, where’s my New Year bonus?” I shouted out, “The only New Year bonus I’ll give you is this: Happy New Year!” I sang out as I shook his hand. I let go just in time to avoid him asking for my number, and as he drove away, shouting au revoir la blanche! I smiled. I was home.