This past weekend, Autumn invited me to attend a Cameroonian forum with her. Dr. Chris Foumunyo is a leading advocate for democracy in Africa who happens to be Cameroonian. I came in contact with him while raising money for my library project, Books For Cameroon. I was happy to attend the talk, and more so, to meet some Cameroonians in London!
The entire evening was wildly entertaining in that while in Central London, I was transformed back to that crazy country. I felt as if I was sitting in a fancy conference room at the Hilton with Cameroonians. The talk was held at the Knightsbridge Business Center and wasn’t an easy venue to find. We got quite lost and was really late. The invitation said the talk would begin at 4:30pm. When we showed up nearly an hour late, the event still hasn’t started. In fact, true to Cameroon form, we began at 6pm.
Although there were roughly 30 of us in a room, at least half were taking pictures as if it were the UN General Assembly. This is typical; Cameroonians love photos and giving events legitimacy. They always loved the certificates that I would give out when they “graduate” from business classes. Later, cell phone rang throughout the talk. My favorite part, though, was when people ask questions, they don’t just get to the point. They would take 5 minutes to introduce themselves, give some background opinions, and then ask the question. This quirky habit gets really painful in ceremonies when speeches are given. Finally, there naturally needed to be a photo de la famille at the end. Cameroonians always insist on taking a large group photo at the end of every event.
All the quirkiness warmed my heart. I was glad to see that even though these elites are in London, they didn’t lose their Cameroonian ways. So often, when you move to another country and spend many years abroad, your culture gets assimilated, myself included. It’s nice to see quirky traditions living on. The talk was very interesting; it concerned the state of democracy in Cameroon and the upcoming 2011 election. It was encouraging to see the dialogue taking place and that Cameroonians are concerned about the future of their country even from abroad.
After the event, people came up to Autumn and me, as they would in Cameroon, curious about our presence. When they found out that we had both lived in Cameroon for two years, really lively conversations took place. Their enthusiasms showed that they appreciate Westerners like us spending time getting to know their country in such deep and profound way. One guy asked, “weren’t you scared? I am from that country, but even now when I go back, sometimes I can get scared.” These exchanged once again validated just exactly why I spent two years there, and made me feel better after a classmate from the LSE told me that personal experiences don’t contribute to “development” discussions. I was reminded that in order to devise effective policy, you have to first understand the people and the culture. Policies shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all framework, but instead, country specific. Science and numbers can only take you so far.
After the event, Autumn and I went to dinner and talked about our time in Cameroon. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe the kind of ridiculous things that we went through, or put up with, for two entire years.