Because sometimes it's better to see what's on the other side...

The Power of Language: Politically Speaking

Bamenda, Northwest region, December 2015.

When I first wrote about the bilingualism of Cameroon, I was amused by the challenges set before Cameroon as a country of two official languages. It seemed rather laughable, watching people from the same country attempt to converse on the side of the street over mundane affairs such as cab fare, as if they came from opposite ends of the planet. Cameroon has been French and English almost as long as it has been an independent country. Never in a million years did I imagine how deep the scars of language were, nor to what extent they truly impacted Cameroonians and how much power politically language can hold. Not until now.

In November, political unrest in the Anglophone regions started to rise, as Anglophone Cameroonians, tense from years of challenges finally spoke out against their government.  First it was the lawyers, who were frustrated by the law which was practiced and handled in French. Then came the teachers, who saw Francophone teachers being sent by the government to their schools to teach many subjects, even though their English was nonexistent. Many accounts were published internationally about the protests that took place in Bamenda and Buea (not to mention the complete shutdown of the school system in all Anglophone regions), and even my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in Anglophone Regions spoke up about the situation, upset, frustrated, and stressed. A good account of the climate for the “Anglophone problem” was written by my fellow PCV Daniel Stevenson, who explained the situation quite well in his blog. 

My closest Anglophone friends were especially in shock, especially my friend Janet, who for the first time since I have known her, really seemed distracted, and unable to focus on her work. The only thing she could think of was her family and friends back home who were living in difficult times.

And yet, here in the heart of the Francophone part of the country, next door to the capital, was silence. Life went on as usual. Schools were still bustling with students frantically writing the last set of notes before the holidays, courthouses were still crowded with citizens demanding help, and the streets were in full swing with Christmas shopping. 

I sat in the staff room, waiting, as always as a fly on the wall for my colleagues to at least mention the gravity of the situation in the Northwest and Southwest. Eventually the topic was breached, but as I looked around the room, my friends were more confused than upset, and shrugged their shoulders, unaware, and unconcerned by the protests. “If they want to leave our country and be independent,” said one friend, “Let them go. Let them have what they want,” he said flippantly, going back to his work.

While the Anglophone region went through protests, we hosted a massive event at our school, business as usual.

I wondered if this is how the white population in the U.S. reacted during the Civil Rights Movement, or the French when they had to deal with the independence of their colonies. It was almost eerie as I realized just how easy it was for me to not even notice, or feel the challenges that a minority group in this country faced. Worse, it was even easier to not do anything about it, and just sit here and live my life as I had before.

The saddest irony of the situation is how these perceived groups were invented during colonial times, and have no ethnic or racial ties. In fact, the West and Northwest regions of Cameroon which are Francophone and Anglophone respectively have much in common, as do the Southwest and the Littoral. Culturally and ancestrally speaking, the way the British and the French divided up Cameroon didn’t make sense, nor did it made sense when the Germans had taken over before them. And today a minority group is protesting the country, a group that was defined by colonial times, nothing more.  

As the conflicts started to calm at the turn of 2017, I still wonder if and how this problem can ever truly be resolved. For the first time, I see the extent of the power of language to control law, education, and so much more. I can only hope that my friends in the Anglophone region will see their students back in school, lawyers back at the court, and people back in the markets. And that somehow, the conversation can be moved in a peaceful progressive direction, whatever that may be.


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