Access denied: Visa Policies


Unequally Glocalised Worlds, Bamenda 2010 @Sjoerd Sijsma

I am in Cameroon, working with Marius, a student from central Africa. Cameroon, Buea, is for him a writing environment. The situation in Bangui does not allow him space to reflect and write. He should have been in the Netherlands. I am here because Marius’ visa for the Netherlands was refused four times over the past year. The repeated reason given at the French Embassy in Bangui: ‘this young man will probably not return to his homeland’. And this is where the story ends and begins. Marius has been accepted as a PhD student at Leiden University, we had produced all letters necessary. There was no reason to not give him the visa. We thought by confidently insisting on his application, and thus repeating it, the Embassy staff would realize their misjudgment. All other diplomatic efforts we tried failed. Marius reflects on it: ‘why do they deny me access to a world where I can learn more? Where I can develop myself into an academic so that I can help my country?’

I could not agree more. It is very unfortunate that the inequalities in our world are played out at this level. Are we not in the right corrupt position? A question that is raised by the recent convocation of the French Ambassador in Bangui, amongst others also for : « délivrance de visas en situation de conflit d’intérêts ».
As the responsible person in the visa demand I feel humiliated and hopeless.. As an academic the only thing I can do is to write and to visualize difficulties and inequalities that are the realities of every day for many young people in Africa, so that others know. One of such realities is Marius’.

And Marius is not alone. A Chadian friend told me how, when he went to pick up his visa for the Netherlands at the French Embassy in N’djaména, from all the (mainly) young men only one or two got a visa. His was also refused. Another case where all things were in order with the necessary letters of invitation, return ticket, insurance, but refused on the same grounds. This young artist – Rasta hair – has no fixed income but is always having assignments and is managing his own studio. One can imagine the authorities think: ‘Certainly a youth who wants to stay in Europe.’ He was invited to come to the Netherlands to finalize a film project with his Dutch colleague-cineastes and me. This is a film that might reach out to festivals and critical film competitions. But to get there we need to be able to join forces. The topic of this film is youth and inequality in the world and at home, and the socio-political dynamics this creates. The story of visas should probably be integrated into the project. I will have to travel again to Chad to work on this project; I am not denied a visa: I can freely go were my work and aspirations take me. That is how it should be.

Aspirations Denied
In many African countries we cannot deny that aspirations of young people are killed by the governance systems and economies. Many young men from countries such as the conflict ridden Central African Republic long for a life elsewhere. The images and stories about the ‘other’ world that are circulating on social media are alluring. Why not try? The situation at home is rather hopeless, so it would be good to go out.
The widespread protests that we see in many countries in West and Central Africa are related to the same feelings of ‘let’s try’. Of course each country has its own special dynamics, political structures, dictatorships and histories of violence, but there is a common denominator. Youth make up more than 60% of the population. Due to the rapid urbanization process the towns become large reservoirs of youth who have left the rural areas, at times forced because their land has been bought by Chinese, European or African businessmen with international relations, transforming the former farmers into cheap wage laborers. Hence, they take on small jobs in the urban economy and enter a new world, including the world of social media.

In some countries, like Chad, there are other ongoing processes that are, to say the least, unjust and incite people to protest. Here, the elites have been stealing from the people for decades while the population suffers from cuts in salary, rising prices, and impossibility to send children to school. Their consequent strikes make the economy even less performing. The poor get poorer and the rich richer.

When I record all this…. it is so logical that protests are rising and youth want to escape their situation. This is the case especially today because we are connected. The Marxist and pan-African writers like Fanon, Aime Cesare and DuBois, and the killed leaders Sankara and Lumumba, are alive again and referred to in Facebook posts. Protests in Africa and attempts by the youth to escape their situation will not stop until the present day leaders are gone, the international community comes to reason and inequalities have reduced tremendously.

Denying visa
Why deny these you men a visa? Do they not have the right to travel, without any explanation? Many of these young people will, like Marius’, come to learn, to work and to discover. Denying a visa to youth who have the right to be mobile is against justice.


Cameroon Alert!


Text from a Facebook post 23 June 2016: Common lawyers rubbish new penal code Bill: A penal code that says ministers cannot be arrested or tried (immunity). A penal code that says any judge who tries  a minister and sentences him will be sent to jail. Wonders!!

Gradually we’re starting to get more information from West Cameroon, where a strike by lawyers has been evolving into a general strike among teachers and finally protestsscreenshot_20161212-085944 in several towns in this part of Cameroon that were met with violence by the State. Today, 12 December: A call is being made on the internet for declaring a Ghost Town in Southern Cameroon (see Facebook post); what will be the response? The essence of the argument in the protest is the imposition of the Francophone laws, teaching etc. on the Anglophones, a discourse that stands for so much more.

Common Lawyers strike
It started with the strike of the Anglophone Common Lawyers. I witnessed through the eyes of a former student from Leiden the long process leading up to the strike: the first steps were made this summer. It went from a peaceful protest to a harsh and violent encounter between the lawyers and the government. On Thursday 10 November 2016, several lawyers in Buea were beaten, and their wigs and gowns seized.

From a Facebook Post summarizing the process, beginning December:

Hello Prof. Mirjam! The Common Law Lawyers of Anglophone extraction have been on strike across the entire Common law jurisdictions of the North West and South West regions. This is on account of the systemic extinction of the Common Law principles by officials of ‘La République’. Prior to this strike action we had tabled a series of demands to the head of state. It is a shame that instead of responding to our demands, the government turned a deaf ear and instead employs its traditional policy of divide and rule as a means of frustrating our cause.
Consequently, we have resorted to remain resolute, determined and steadfast to our cause. We are henceforth synergizing with other unions to advance the cause.

Cameroon on fire?
Are the protests that we are witnessing today an outcry over years of neglect and oppression? And will they finally lead to change in Cameroon? For long, journalists and academics have been wondering why there was not more protest in Cameroon. I asked this question several times to my Cameroonian friends whose answers would vary; from ‘we do not like conflict’ to ‘oppression is too harsh’. Are today’s protests a turn in Cameroonian history? Will the Anglophone grievances be picked up by the Francophones who suffer similar marginality, who are also neglected by the state and have a ruler whose family has been bathing in wealth for the past 34 years? The splitting of the country in Francophone and Anglophone parts at independence (1961) has ever since served as a language to formulate anger and to search for justice.


@From the blog post of Vera Bakker

I cite from a friend’s detailed report to me (in the week of 12 December). He was writing this in a cybercafé while the protests were ongoing on 30 November 2016:

But the unique aspect of the union of French speaking and English speaking Cameroonians is that it was not one through a formal union treaty. It was an informal arrangement between the peoples of the Cameroons who only share the commonality of German colonization from 1884 to 1916 who decided to cohabitate from October 1961. That is why the union has been described as a ‘Tontine Union’ in reference to the commonly found informal associations which function on the basis of unwritten agreements.

We preach no violence. At least not before peaceful options have been exhausted! But it was high time we got Yaoundé to understand that we have inalienable rights. It was high time we got Yaoundé  to understand that we are all children of God, made in his own image and lines. That we have been recognized by the international community as a people; and so we stand side by side with them as two peoples equal in status. That, flowing from that, we shall never again glorify the status of second class citizens.

Deep roots
Walter Nkwi, University Professor in Buea,  shared his analysis with me per e-mail (12 December 2016):
‘(…) Of course the problem of Bamenda [the anglophone capital of the North West Region, MdB] cannot be explained in a single email. It has deep historical roots and cannot be separated from the political upheavals of the 1990s. Over the years, the city has been abandoned by the ruling government to the extent that there is virtually no road.fb_img_1481529808525
This time around the story started with the lawyers who insisted that the government should translate the OHADA Law, which is a business law for the whole of French Africa. Interestingly this law has been there since 1999 or so. Apart from the translation the lawyers also demanded that the government should withdraw all the Francophone magistrates, who cannot pass and write judgment in English, from the Anglophone courts. This was also because the government had been insensitive to the fact that while the Francophones are trained in civil law the Anglophones were trained in common law. After a persistent plea to the government and the government stubbornness to listen to their plight they now called a strike.
In the midst of the strike, Anglophone teachers of secondary and higher education called a strike, firstly, in solidarity with the lawyers and also because the francophone had adulterated the English education; University of Buea [the capital of the anglophone South West Region, MdB] and Bamenda joined and all now are asking for a federal system of government while others are asking for complete secession with the francophone government. An attempt to diffuse this problem by the Prime Minister in Bamenda failed. This led to a rally in Buea to preach national unity by the CPDM [main political party, of president Paul Biya, MdB] stakeholders. This was happening just after Frundi [opposition leader, central in the riots in the 1990s] had visited Buea to attend the students who had gone on rampage on 28 November demanding for their bonuses, also known as the Presidential excellent award. Their names were omitted at the level of the Ministry of Higher Education and the university authorities were still in the process of getting the problem resolved. However, in Buea the rally “went well” but the attendance was very timid.
The CPDM delegation left for Bamenda where they met stiff resistance from the population, mostly the youths who put up barricades, blocking all the entrances into the city. The military replied with grenades and life bullets and in the confusion some youths were killed. The other youths resorted to burning down the electric and telephone poles as well as the police station at the Meta quarters and military cars. CPDM vote holders were even taken hostage at Ayaba hotel, one of the big hotels in Bamenda.
Bamenda, Buea and Cameroon at large are very tense. Anything can start at any time. The personnel of the University of Buea has been on strike for one month now and nothing is moving. Administrators have abandoned their offices and once in a while the police, in full combat gear, comes round. Nobody can say what will happen next. Like during the French revolution of 1789.  All the ingredients for a great outburst in Cameroon are present. There is an inefficient and corrupt government; a dismembered civil society; a very high level of unemployment; an efficient military; popular masses suffering from the main base of the state; a lousy 300 parties democracy; inadequate health facilities; inadequate portable water; very poor road infrastructure etc. All need a single spark to set everything alight. The conflagration can come at any time.

I have told you in trust my mind.’

Walter permitted me to publish this text that hardly contains his anger but is also an analysis that needs to reach the eyes of the readers.


Escaping polarization

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Mirjam de Bruijn meeting Croquemort (in grey suit) and his friends. Croquemort is one of the Counter Voices she has written about in this blog.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo shakes the Western world. Such attacks lead to and are a consequence of polarization; that hurts and denies rights of freedom, claimed to be ‘our’ Western values, so highly esteemed. The polarization also stretches to wealth inequalities; it confronts us every day in the media, on the market, in the streets. As a normality it has become part of us. Difficult to escape! Difficult even to notice.

Complex situations elsewhere
Being caught ourselves in this process of polarization will hopefully lead to a better understanding and hence a different relation to similar but often more complex situations elsewhere in the world. It might (finally) open our eyes for the difficulties that Chadians, Cameroonians, Nigerians (to name just a few) face and that they are fighting against. Boko Haram and Al Qaida attacks and dominance in the Sahel multiplies existing polarization tendencies. The present day oppressive regimes of Cameroon and Chad for instance ‘use’ these threats to ‘improve’ their repression. The attempt to get a bill through Parliament allowing the arrest of any suspected individual and the closing of the borders between Cameroon and Nigeria are examples of how this works. Chad joined the French and UN in Mali to fight against terrorism, and joined CAR fights with similar explanations, and just recently they joined the Cameroonian forces to fight Boko Haram in Northern Cameroon. This might be a noble stance, and it certainly has the effect of adding to the jubilant international image of President Déby. It is also a false excuse to continue the practices of dominant clans to feed on oil money and deny access to ordinary people, who are arrested or killed while fighting for their simple well-being, under the pretext of them being a threat for the stability of the State. A recent example is the demonstration in Doba, in the south of Chad (read

Escaping logic
The Counter Voices and Voices for Thought we have presented in this blog so far are confronted today with this new polarization, built on older ones. What I admire is how they try to escape this logic in which they are brought up. For them, much more than for us, the polarization has been part of life, built in their families, villages and towns, and has become a way of thinking. Falling back in these oppositions is the easiest of languages. Fighting against them is the most difficult, as it will not be very much appreciated by both sides. However, will the Voices be able to keep to their mission in the extreme polarization that is turning increasingly into a threat to their own families and friends?

Struggling with polarization
Chadian society is divided in North and South, the civil wars have been explained in these terms. A division that is a heritage of the French colonial regime, that defined the South le Tchad utile, and the North le Tchad inutile. This simplicity has been translated into ethnic and religious oppositions. This heritage feeds into the new opposition of ‘Muslim terrorists’ against ‘the Others’, non-terrorists. To fight new divisions, old divisions have to be eradicated. Croquemort, Selma, Beral, Eli, the Cameroonian Joky and the other Counter Voices are all in their own way experiencing and fighting against such oppositions. They refuse to be part of this heritage, but for how long?

DSC_1930 smallWe all met in January during events, meetings at the bar, face-to-face conversations in N’Djamena. Discussions about Boko Haram and the polarization in their societies were inevitable. The experience of Boko Haram’s violence in the family of Salma (who live in Maiduguri), in the family of Joky (in Cameroon), the trucks with refugees from Nigeria in the streets of N’Djamena and the many discussions and debates in the newspapers made the topic part of life. On the streets, young men greet each other with the word Ebola to which the answer is either Ebola or Boko Haram.

Bridging oppositions through art
These people being the intelligentsia of Chad (or the coming one) try to reason and discuss. They had already taken their position in earlier years. Let me present the efforts of two of the Counter Voices already presented in this blog: Salma and Croquemort.
Salma is a Muslim woman, in her artistic and social work concentrating on the position of women. All her work is in a way directed towards bridging gaps: between religions, between her society in the Guera (Central Chad) and the cities, and probably especially towards bridging the polars within herself: being a Muslim woman of the Hadjeray people, whose strict rules do not allow her to be the intellectual artist that she wants to be. She has to behave according to the gender rules. She is especially moved by the stories of violence and afraid that such violence may exacerbate existing relations of violence. She will continue to bridge oppositions in her society with her photography and organization of meetings for women and youth in N’Djamena.
Croquemort, from the Southern part of Chad and raised as a Christian (but now an agnost), composed the song ‘Je suis du Nord, je suis du Sud’, registered on his new CD that was presented end of January in the Chadian press. It is a song about the division of Chad and how he, as a traveler, manoeuvres in between, repeating that it is nice to meet the other, eat and drink together, being proud to be a Chadian who has so much cultural diversity.

‘Je suis du sud, je suis de l’est, je viens du nord je viens de l’ouest
Je me sente chez moi
C’est me ballade là où je veux
A la découverte de déserts, déserter la savane rester à découvrir

Saluer les nomades sur leurs chameaux, demander de l’eau
Aller dans le centre partager un repas
Sous la reine du Guera
Entrer dans les tentes et demander l’hospitalité
Ecouter le chante du berger et boire le lait caillé
voir la jeune fille de BET

Me sente chez moi c’est slamer partout..
Découvrir l’ouest pas pour les militaires mais pour entendre le voix de muezzin
Me sentir chez moi c’est regarder le musulman et le regarder dans les yeux
Un frère un cousin et neveux

Unité unité
Un peuple
Une idée

On chantera la paix
Unité d’un peuple une idée

Listen to the entire song (8th song of the list shown).

Discussing positions
Béral, a friend of Croquemort, a writer/singer himself and part of the opposition in Parliament, questioned the cartoon issue: Would Christians react the same when their God would be mocked? Muslims became angry and he cannot understand why. God is greater than all this blasphemy. Is each individual Muslim a God, a judge of these cartoons or of football players? Béral supports the move of Chad to send soldiers to Cameroon, and hopes that they will make it. They will; I also hear a certain pride in his voice, despite himself. He is a real opponent of Déby and the regime, but this time national pride is present.

Salma, Croquemort and Béral are part of an emerging group of (relatively) young people who ‘y en marre’ (‘are fed up with it’) and want to change the world. Their fight is based on experiencing violent polarization, injustice and inequalities that were created by their governments and in endless violent actions of the State, rebels, colonial regimes, etc. The new polarization we are facing as a world is building on this and embedded in it; that is why it will be so difficult to eradicate it. More will be needed, but the start has been made by these young people’s efforts.

The recent turn in world politics, however, makes them reflect differently on the situation between groups in their own countries. It is difficult to accept that Muslims are against ‘Je suis Charlie’ manifestations. Take for example the football match between people from the North and people from the South, where T-shirts with ‘Je suis Charlie’ on them were worn. Instead of a peaceful match it became a match of hatred. People who were offended by the cartoons molested the youngsters.

More of such incidents occurred, leading these young people to reflect differently on, and discuss more fatalistic about the polarization in their society, reflecting like Béral does on what it means to be Muslim within their society and for their society.

Borders under duress

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Bus station in Enugu, Nigeria, where my travels began.

My recent experience in crossing borders reflects how Boko Haram and Ebola steer many daily encounters and feed into feelings of insecurity in Central Africa.

December 20, 9.00 pm: The moment I went to Douala Airport to go home, back to the Netherlands, I felt nervous. We always prepare well to travel: having all our papers in order, but this time it worked out differently. My passport did have the visa but lacked the essential entry-stamp. Without coming in, one cannot get out. Although most of my friends and colleagues in Cameroon expressed their confidence that I would get out, I was not convinced. They seem to have opined that a white lady would have no problems: immigration would let me pass, if I eventually paid. It felt awkward to be illegal.
I was in Douala airport after a long travel, as I combined supervision work in Nigeria and Cameroon, to follow the PhD research of Inge Ligtvoet in Nigeria (having the relations between Nigeria and Cameroon as one of its angles) and to follow the writing process of PhD candidates from Cameroon, Chad and the Netherlands in a writing workshop in Cameroon. It seemed a good plan to combine the two tasks as the areas of research and workshop were at both sides of the border, hence travel costs would be reduced. But it all went differently.

I did pass. Maybe because the (immigration) policewoman behind the counter was in a Christmas mood. One of my friends, a lawyer, insisted on accompanying me to this point – despite opposition of various airport officials – and later I understood why. He explained the situation in legal terms to her and she stamped my passport. I found it peculiar that the lady did not ask any further specifics about my illegality, or about where I had entered the country. Neither did she ask for a gift, allowing us to simply show our gratitude. While sharing a drink before I would pass all other controls, my friend said that he had not been so very certain about me going. Also others admitted later they had deemed it a risky affair; the Cameroonian State is in a very high condition of alert. It is important to be certain about your citizens’ intentions and hence to ‘brand’ them well.

The alerts have arisen from the various crises that plague some parts of Africa. Cameroon is, so far, Ebola-free, a status they’d rather keep. As one of the Cameroonian migration officers at the border explained: although Nigeria has been declared Ebola-free, it is clear that it is a potential danger to Cameroon as its borders are extremely permeable. Answer: close the borders.
Another insecurity is Boko Haram. Boko Haram declared the Caliphate in the north-east of Nigeria and has practically included the northern part of Cameroon. The area is the scene of a real war that easily crosses borders. Every day people die, and many are the stories of attacks and deaths of military and Boko Haram soldiers also in Northern Cameroon. Nigeria, accused of having reacted far too late to stop the Boko Haram invasion, has increased the Cameroonian counter operations. The recent suggestion of a terrorism bill is only one element of the aggressive attitude of the Cameroonian government. And again the answer is: close the borders. However, the centuries old smuggle routes are very difficult to control.

Crossing borders
Consequently, the border between Nigeria and Cameroon is quasi hermetically closed. Cameroonians from Nigeria are allowed in, but they cannot go back to Nigeria. The crossing points are down, trade has gone illegal or has dissipated; taximen are without work, as are the migration officers. Officially nobody crosses, though boats cross the river at Ekok illegally. The presidential declaration is forceful. From Ikom-Ekok I decided to go to Calabar, from where I would possibly be able to find a flight or a boat.

Hilarious scenes
Calabar preparing for Christmas and Carnival was a super experience: the large Christmas market, people performing and acting as the other sex, hilarious scenes. Seemingly no insecurities here, life goes on and so will the celebration of carnival, entertaining the many diaspora Nigerians who are having holidays. Here I felt everything could be possible. However, there were no flights to Douala, only through Lagos, Accra, Abidjan and then Douala: no option, too costly. The alternative was presented by an immigration officer, who knew how to pass by boat. From Calabar by taxi to XX and from there a boat to XX beach, over the river through the creeks. The Nigerian and Cameroonian side had agreed on letting people pass. However, I had to come immediately. Accompanied by the immigration officer I felt secure. At the Nigerian side, they made a serious effort to make my passport look official with the right stamps. They said they would call the other side to announce my coming. I felt treated like a VIP at a rather obscure crossing place, where Cameroonians dominate the ‘cuisine’ and where, despite the impossibilities, border crossing is a lively affair.

Flying boat
Three hours later the boat was ready to leave. The boat that should contain six people left with twenty and all their luggage. It felt like the escapes to the Canary islands, off the coast of Morocco. I was accompanied by Cameroonian female traders, Cameroonian and Nigerian men who simply wanted to return and two Nigerian journalists who were assured by the Cameroonian Embassy that they could cross here. A two hour journey over a rough river and a literally flying boat followed. I could not be afraid as I master swimming, but most people in the boat did not. The security vests were not so secure. And as the BIR (Brigade Intervention Rapide, Cameroonian Police force) agent at the border in the river told me: ‘Madame, what you are doing is too dangerous’. Well, I was with twenty others.
At the Cameroonian side all my hope was crushed when the Cameroonian immigration officer clarified that despite the 5000 FCFA (about 8 Euros) I had to pay, they would not give me a stamp of entry, but they would return my passport. One of the boatpeople helped us to find a taxi to Kumba. The Nigerian journalists were experiencing what they had never hoped to experience: ‘Don’t like to be illegal!’ But that was it… We had crossed.

Permitted illegality
At the first stop of gendarme, we had to pay 2000 FCFA (3 Euros) per person. One of the policemen told me that I should never disclose where I had crossed, as this would be a disaster for them: a certainty to losing their job. I would not; and in the end, the woman at the airport did not ask! In Kumba, the colleagues from Buea were waiting for me. It was 10.00 pm and we had had a drive with a car that injected smoke, so we were terribly derailed. At midnight, we arrived in Buea.

Experiencing borders
What does this story reflect? Borders are points of contact, moments of travel and moments of control. They are moments of uncertainty and experiences of duress. They hold the contradiction of liberty and complete immobility; they manifest power and fluidity. Border experiences reflect hardship. I felt submitted like any other; being a stranger was not a positive emotion here, let alone the white color; Being white made things worse as the assumptions about the privileged whites that we apparently still share, were no longer at play.
These are the conditions of life in Central Africa plagued by Boko Haram, Ebola and inimical governments. This story is also data that feeds into our empirical presentations and analysis of the experience of crisis and conflict, i.e. duress; it is research!

‘Exhibiting Africa’: Whose voices?

Call boxes from Cameroon in the Science Museum in London.

Call box from Cameroon in the Science Museum in London.

Africa’s image
Ebola and civil unrest turn Africa’s image back into a negative spiral. (Dutch) media publish terrifying pictures. Universities forbid their students to go to Africa for training and research. Africa is back in the media with horrifying stories. To counter this trend we should portray Africa as just another part of the world. That this is not easy is shown in our recent experience with the London Science Museum (LSM). How do we portray Africa in a museum as part of world history, and whose voices do we allow to tell the stories?

The Science Museum opened the exhibition ‘The Information Age’ on 27 October 2014. We started to collaborate with the museum in 2011, when one of the  exhibition organizers contacted me about our research on mobile telephony in Africa. He came over to Leiden, which was the beginning of a discussion about ‘Africa at display’, resulting in the presentation of a Cameroonian call box and phone repair shop at the current exhibit.

Banner of the exhibition "Information Age" at the London Science Museum.

Banner of the exhibition “Information Age” at the London Science Museum.

Caged objects
The Queen of the UK, who opened the exhibition, seemed surprised to see so many nice colours and to see Africa included in the presentation. Joe, a volunteer at the museum, assured me that it was one of the more interesting parts of the exhibition. At first I was a little shocked to see our materials had been caged, like turning Africa into a colourful but still backward ‘country’. This was not the image that we had worked on. How had this part of the exhibition come to life? And whose representation was it? Did I see it right?

When the exhibition organizer at the museum had explained their ideas and invited me to make our research part of the exhibition, I was of course flattered and eager to make it happen. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea that  academics have to share their work with the public. Indeed, we have a responsibility to help present Africa as just another part of the world. Modern communication technology did change the African societies where we have worked and they show a very inventive Africa, which should indeed be part of the story about the information age.

Walter Nkwi and I did research on the objects and presented these to the museum crew. In London we held a meeting to decide which objects the museum should buy. The next step was a trip to Cameroon with the museum crew, Walter and Sjoerd Sijsma (film and cameraman). Negotiations with the owners of the objects were sometimes tough, but in the end everybody co-operated, we interviewed the users and owners of the objects and made visual documentation of the objects while they were being used. Then the objects – sometimes literally in 1000 pieces (like the big call box) – were put in boxes and were shipped to England. After being stored for a while, some objects were chosen to be part of the exhibition.

Have a look at the pictures of the process:

The first time we met this  call box owner in Cameroon.

The first time we met this call box owner in Cameroon.

Just before dismantling.

Yellow call box, just before dismantling. dismantled

Yellow call box dismantled for the journey to the UK (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Yellow call box in the museum: caged.

Yellow call box in the museum: caged.

Whose Africa?
How then was this ‘representation’ for the exhibition decided on? Who had the authority to decide which objects to display and accompanied by which story? The museum adopted a participatory approach in which Cameroonians living in London together with the museum curators and museum community workers decided on the main stories and how to tell them. I was involved in some of the discussions that took place with the London-based Cameroonians. They are participants in several ways: as diaspora community they use mobile telephony to connect to their family and friends at home. They are also among the expected visitors of the museum.

Hence, the voices that were competing for the representation of Africa were the curator of the museum, the diaspora community, academics, and a cameraman. It was a long process in which the authority of voices was well defined: the community had the final say. But then there was the last step to be taken: the technical ways of the museum and the rules according to which its exhibitions are set up. In the end the objects were put in glass boxes, as is the LSM way. Short films and images were on display next to the glass boxes.

in the museum 2

Africa in the world
After a longer stroll through the exhibition, I kind of accepted the idea of the colourful and explicitly social representation of Africa-in-a-box. After all, it had become ‘a’ representation of communication technology in the long world history, and I think it is good that Africa is explicitly part of that. However, we should add African voices to this exhibit, captured in texts and longer films. A book and film should follow.

in the museum

‘Authority of voice’, and ‘who chooses which voices should be heard’, are issues that are not only at the core of museum exhibitions, they are also at the core of our project Voice4Thought, of which this blog is part. The three day conference at the museum in London was a good moment for reflection. ‘Giving voice’ and ‘processes of co-creation’ are never neutral. As one of the presenters said: ‘the voice we invite into the museum turns into our own voice in the interaction’. Often indeed, interaction leads to a middle ground, but also to a changing mindset, and then the authenticity of the voice is at stake.


So after all, the exhibition is again another representation of Africa. Volunteer Joe compared what he saw with his own experiences regarding technology as a young boy, about 50 years ago, and expressed his respect and understanding of the situation in Cameroon. Hence this ‘show box’ generates a reflection on Africa in relation to our own lives, and to the world. It might become a counter voice for the negative spiral of the image of Africa-in-crisis.

Benedicta Mukalla Neng, feminist avant la lettre

Benedicta and Walter Gam Nkwi browsing through the photo album (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Benedicta and Walter Gam Nkwi browsing through the photo album of Benedicta’s predecessors (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Co-author: Walter Gam Nkwi,historian from Buea University, Cameroon

‘(On women’s day) This year I had so many messages, (…)
congratulations for doing such a great job.(…)
I was in bed, so they were missing me in the whole process..’.
‘We started breaking the tradition.’

This is a fragment of an interview we did with Benedicta, born in 1932, in March 2014. We knew that this could be our last meeting with her. She was very sick and on her way out. She did not seem to regret her situation, her life was fulfilled. A life as a counter voice. She is one of these rare African women who have been fighting for women’s rights from early independence in the 1960s, when Feminism was still to be discovered in her country, Cameroon. In this interview she looked back on her life as a fighter for women’s rights. She passed away a month after we interviewed her.

‘In Africa in the past a woman was not even supposed to sit among men to say anything or to discuss… but through my effort, things have balanced… The men were even organizing to shoot me down… This woman is a problem in the society.’

Women in Grassfield societies
Benedicta is from the Grassfields, the North West Province of Cameroon. Most societies here are organized in strict, patriarchal hierarchies, kingdoms, with the semi-divine king at the top performing quasi-religious functions. Most of these societies follow patrilineal styles in which inheritance is through male family lines, and women are subject to male rule, though they are exercising power at the backstage. For instance through relations with the Queen mother, who is the most powerful woman in this system. The king could marry more than 100 wives.
Yet some of the kingdoms are based on matrilineal societies, like Benedicta’s kingdom: Kom. The concept suggests women’s rule, but in fact it turns out differently. Instead of liberating women, these societies are very efficient in controlling them. In a matrilineal society, real or fictive kinship is claimed through maternal ties, meant to keep the siblings together. Women then are distributed between husbands and brothers, which is in fact a double control of women’s labour, sexuality and reproductive powers. Until today these kinship relations continue to exert power in the Grassfields.

photo Mirjam de Bruijn

The picture of the founders of the Presbyterian church in Baaba I, on the wall in the church (photo: Mirjam de Bruijn).

Fleeing to be free
Indeed, a system that is rather unfriendly to women. The empowerment of women in this kind of situation is rare, until the women themselves emancipate. Benedicta had to fight these cultural and ‘political’ patterns of women’s unfreedom. She found inspiration by some strong ladies: her predecessors who sought refuge in the new forms of religious organization that entered the Grassfields at the beginning of the 19th century during colonial rule.

Susana, the leader of the women founders of the Presbyterian church in Baaba I.

Susana, leader of the women founders of the Presbyterian church in Baaba I.

Already in those days, women decided to get rid of this patriarchal jug. For instance in Baaba I, a small chiefdom, women fled the palace in the 1940s when there was a struggle about the implantation of the church. The women did not want to follow the king’s choice of church, and decided to step out. By doing so they created a new church (the Presbyterian church) that until today wears the liberation mood of these women. A picture of the women decorates a wall of the church in the village Baaba I. The grave of their leader Susana is behind the church, where people regularly visit, memorizing the deeds of their grand-mother. Another example comes from Benedicta’s Kom. Between the 1920s and 1960s many women from the palace at its traditional headquarters, Laikom, fled to Njinikom where a Roman Catholic Church was established in the early 1920s. These women had liberated themselves from the high-handedness of patriarchal controls. For them the mission and/or church was a liberator.

The pastor in the church in Baaba I holding the picture of the female founders of the Presbyterian church as a fetish.

The pastor in the church in Baaba I, holding the picture of the female founders of the Presbyterian church as a fetish (photo: Mirjam de Bruijn).

How she became a feminist
These examples paved the way for Benedicta’s development and ideas. Other ingredients for her becoming a feminist were her intelligence and her experiences overseas. She also went to nursery school. ‘To further my education, I migrated to England’, she told us. She left her country at the beginning of the 1960s, independent Cameroon. And at independence, people like Benedicta, the intelligentia of the country, had high hopes for a better future. They were building the nation, integrating modern ideas about freedom for all. These hopes vanished with time, which led to Benedicta’s children to move out of the country to find jobs and a better life in Germany and the USA. The last years of her life, Benedicta lived alone in a big house in her village of origin, seeming not very optimistic about life. Keeping as a treasure a big photo album in which the marks of her life were the death of President Kennedy, the reception of the honorary degree from the Governor ‘that showed the women I did important work’, and the pictures of her travels to Europe, first as a nurse and later to visit her son in Germany. She lost contact with her other son in the States.

Watch the documentary ‘Connecting Dreams. Life histories, crossing borders & new communication technologies in Africa’ (Sjoerd Sijsma & Mirjam de Bruijn)

Despite the sometimes impossible fight, Benedicta kept her promise of being an activist for women liberation until the end of her life. ‘We have come out to be liberated, not to oppress the men… We were still housewives, noble housewives and we still do our noble work, in each speech I included that…’

Fabric especially made for International Women's Day.

Fabric especially made for International Women’s Day (photo: Mirjam de Bruijn).

Gently revolutionary
Benedicta speeched in her function as president of the Njinikom area women development forum (NAWODEF) that was approved on 19 August 2000. This new development in the women’s movement in Cameroon was part of worldwide attention for women’s rights after the Beijing conference in 1995, that declared the Decade for women and women’s day celebrations. Excerpts from her speeches reveal the gentle and very balanced way in which Benedicta brought her fight to the fore, without being harsh to the patriarchal society she was part of.

8 March 2001, the second International Day of the Woman was celebrated in Njinikom. From Benedicta’s speech:
‘ ….With joy, on this occasion of the 3rd millennium celebration I stand here on behalf of the women of Njinikom Valley (…) Thank God Almighty (…). With time, the woman has not only been a bed partner but also a responsible mother sharing in the family burden, especially in the education of the child. All these activities fall under the name of Development which we must intensify without discrimination. ’

Benedicta in April 2014, a month before she died (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Benedicta in April 2014, a month before she died (photo: Sjoerd Sijsma).

Her last speech on 8 March 2003 was thus:
‘….You are all warmly welcome to enjoy with us during this [coming] August celebration. The Theme for this year 2003 runs thus: Gender: Partnership between Men and Women and the Millennium Development Goals. N.B. Our Head of State President Paul Biya was part of this decision taken during the United Nations Congress held in New York from the 6th to 8th September 2000. Isn’t it wonderful? This simply means that we should work hand in hand with our husbands, children and the whole community. Allow us to be part of you in everything we might undertake with the love and peace our society greatly requires. Not even the greatest man on earth can boast of his success without the support of the Woman. In fact, the Woman is all and all, no matter the nature. When we started off in 1998, the men thought we wanted to take their position, now they have discovered for themselves that we need only this Gender approach to materialise. It would be wonderful if we strive to achieve these millennium goals with ease and understanding. NAWODEF; STAND UP, work hard, think positively and be ambassadors of your area both here and elsewhere. I will like to thank you all for coming. Have a marvellous time with us.

Long live NAWODEF,
Long live the Ministry of Womens’ Affairs,
Long live President Paul Biya
Long live Cameroon’

Benedicta closed her last interview with us with these words:
‘It has not come to an end, as there are still so many women ignorant.’
We will forever remember her!



‘Life is misery’, Ismael alias ‘Izmo le Rapologue’

DSC_2583Cameroonian music is famous in West and Central Africa. The Makossa rhythm makes one dance so well. Rhythm is like beer, and still the hunger for freedom. Dance makes man feel free. Dance and music hide the illusion of freedom. Music and beer are allowed as long as they are not leading to criticism about the regime. But songs can bite! The recent death of artists tells a different story. We meet George in Douala. He is one of the ‘combatants’, member of the opposition party SDF, critical about the regime, critical about the role of France in Cameroon. ‘They keep the regime going’. He follows the critical music scene and relates the last suspicious deaths of artists: La Pirogue de Banga was imprisoned and died later in the USA where he was given asylum. It is told that he died of the maltreatment of his cancer in prison, or that he was poisoned. And the writer Charles Atena Eyene died a few weeks ago, also under suspicious circumstances, and Prof. Pius Ottou, and Pius Njawe…. Being an artist in Cameroon is not safe.

P1210300Izmo was present at the SLAM festival organized by Croquemort in N’Djamena a few weeks ago. He is an experienced artist, a rapper-slammeur. He is a good friend of Croquemort whose music he adores, and whose vocation he shares. In N’Djamena we spent some late night-hours together in the popular disco in the neighbourhood Moursal. He was drinking his beer, while I was dancing. We exchanged some words and sympathized. He is a giant, 1 meter 98 centimeter, with Rasta hair, and a very charismatic personality. His voice is magic. As he explains: ‘my voice is just there’, no schooling. He holds a BA in Law that did not give him access to a job. Since eight years he is into song-writing and music composing; he is now 30 years old.

Rotary members from Congo
We met again in Yaoundé on 8 April and he invited us to Emergence, a bar with life music. A small band was playing all kinds of songs, both African and other, not per se his nor my taste, but technically well done, which is enough for the techno musician he is. Being there also seemed an anomaly. The visitors to the bar were the relatively, sometimes ugly, rich who Ismael considers with a certain pity. Next to us a group of Rotary-Congo members were enjoying their evening. They were in Yaoundé for a Rotary meeting, spending money on poverty, and coming to these chique bars to dance with the Cameroonian girls they invited. These girls seemed rather non-interested in the fat men from Congo. Izmo does not need their money. He considers them part of the problems his songs are about.

Banal, shocking deaths
The next day we visited Izmo in ‘his quarter’, where he and his friends have a studio. It is here that he creates. These days he has been occupied with composing music for the new CD of Croquemort that will be launched mid-May.
Izmo is born out of wedlock. At the age of seven, he had to accept the death of his father. His father left Izmo three half-brothers from the marriage with his legal wife. These three brothers all left for the USA and it has been years since he heard from them. Izmo admires his mother, who tragically passed away a few years ago. During her working life as a nurse she took care of psychiatric patients. After retirement she turned mad herself, which became her death. She (also a giant, 1,84 meter) ran on the street in Douala, foolish and wild, people attacked her and she was killed by the mob. At that moment Izmo was in town for a concert. He found his mother’s body in the street, still warm. A shocking death of the woman he loved most in his life.
His daughter too died a tragic death in 2011: she needed urgent help in the hospital, but the main roads were closed because the president was passing. A sick child was no reason to let them cross. His daughter died in his arms.
Banal deaths are still common in Cameroon, but these deaths should not be forgotten. Izmo’s songs make us ponder.
These events have informed Izmo’s life, and music that talks critically and emotionally about the present day, the everyday tragic that is so common for citizens in the shadows of the world. His explanations about life and the injustices in his neighborhood, country and the world in general, are inspired by theories that embrace anti-colonial ideas, a form of Marxism, and foremost anger. It can be summarized as a sincere vocation of youth without chances.

DSC_2586Movement of musicians
Ismael wants to reach out to the wider Cameroonian, African and why not global public, preferably to the youth; youth that should be the backbone of uprisings and revolution, of protest. But how does Izmo relate to the other youth, who are oriented on consumption, who long to go to Europe or the US, and imitate the soaps on TV? They come on holiday in Cameroon and show off their bling bling. ‘This can be considered another form of protest; despite all uncertainty they have been successful and survive well materially. Showing bling bling is also a protest against their subordinate condition.’ In fact Izmo and his friends and these bling bling youth send out the same message.
‘Masters of the Game’ is a label of music producer Alain Balibi, alias Faucon. The label is like a movement and unites engaged and radical musicians, like Valsero and Izmo le Rapologue. In contrast to Chadian musicians, these artists do not receive funding from the Centre Culturel Francais, instead they receive threat messages from the Government and some of their songs are forbidden on radio or TV.
Izmo is tired of it. He feels that after twelve years of hard work he is still caged by the Cameroonian state. He has been in contact with several Europeans who were all delighted by his music, but never helped him make a career. His friend states over and over again that his talent is ‘dying’ here…

He deserves a much broader audience.

Chanson: CARINE

Carine n’a que 16 ans et déjà meurtrie dans sa chair;
il parait qu’elle souffre d’un cancer ; chaque jour elle se rend
chez le médecin et reçoit des coups de bistouri dans le sein.

Première couplet:
Pour elle ce n’est plus qu’une histoire de secondes;
le temps se compte c’est une course contre la montre;
elle a perdu l’éclat de son tendre visage comme si on retirait un soleil à un paysage;
une tumeur lui vole sa jeunesse, ronge sa chair;
impossible de lui passer une caresse, son corps est une boule de feu comme dit Kery:
il n’y a que la tristesse que tu peux lire dans ses yeux.

Refrain (2x)

Deuxième couplet:
Ce matin, un brin de sourire dès le réveil, elle a le soutien de toute la famille à son chevet, sa situation n’a pas du tout changé;
déjà habituée au piqure de seringue après le déjeuner, Carine s’inquiète de la fortune qu’elle coute à ses parents, car l’instituteur a renvoyé son jeune frère de l’école hier faute d’argent;
tout se dépense entre les médicaments et les poches de sang. Souvent sa maman se cache pour pleurer, entre le docteur et elle il n’y a plus de secret. On se rapproche du jour J, puisque la petite étoile va s’ éteindre comme la flamme d’une bougie.

Refrain (2x)

Troisième couplet:
Aujourd’hui nous sommes une matinée du 15 Juin, et désormais la petite Carine se compte parmi les victimes du destin;
c’est la consternation après constat et avis du médecin. Dans ce monde il n’ y a que les anges qui laissent leurs plumes, tu as été si vaillante jusqu’à la dernière minute, va puisqu’on est juste des traces du temps si fragile et si frêle telles des feuilles balayées par le vent.

Refrain (3x)

Translation of CARINE

Carine is only 16 years old and already dying in her body
She is ailing with cancer, every day she goes to
the doctor and receives ‘shots of scalpel’ in her breast

Verse 1
For her it is not more than a history of a few seconds
Time is short; it is a race against the clock
She lost the brilliance of her tender face, as if the sun was removed from the landscape;
A tumor steals her youthfulness, and eats her flesh
It is impossible to caress her, her body being like a fire ball; as Kery told: there is only sadness that one can read in her eyes

Chorus 2X

Verse 2
This morning starts with a little hope, a little smile since awakening, with the support of the whole family at her bedside; her situation has not changed at all.
Already used to the bites of the vaccination needles, after lunch, Carine is worried about the fortune that her parents spend on her, while the teacher sent her younger brother away from school; Lack of money to pay the fees, because of the high costs for medicine and sacks of blood.
Often her mother hides crying.
Between the doctor and her there is no secret, instead they come closer every day, the little star will extinguish like a candle flame.

Chorus 2X

Verse 3
Today we live in the morning of June 15, when the petite Carine belongs to the victims of destiny;
In the dismay after the conclusion and advice of the doctor, in this world it is only angels who leave their feathers behind. You have been so brave, until the last minute, go…, we are just traces of time, so fragile and brittle like the leaves that dance with the wind.

Chorus 3X