Updates from the Africa Program

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Robert Millock, pictured below, playing in a pick-up soccer game with kids in Biyem-Assi.
Robert Millock, pictured below, playing in a pick-up soccer game with kids in Biyem-Assi.

After spending six days in Nairobi, the Lauder Africa French track has been in Cameroon for the past two weeks.  We are based in the capital of Yaoundé, Cameroon’s second largest city, living in pairs at homestays with local families.

Before arriving, we were told that in many ways Cameroon is a mini-Africa.  It has everything from the Sahara to the Savannah, rainforests to beaches, and a multi-lingual society that has maintained local social structures while becoming a business hub for Central Africa.   Though our time here has been short, we have been exposed to many aspects of this richly diverse country.  In the past week, we’ve traveled to the business center of Douala, the beaches of Limbé, and climbed through rainforests to the (almost) peak of Mount Cameroon. In every way, the country continues to surprise us.

Tanty is a food processing company that was started in 2003 by still current CEO Thierry Nyamen. Students are pictured with buckets of soy porridge mix, a Tanty best-seller.
Tanty is a food processing company that was started in 2003 by still current CEO Thierry Nyamen. Students are pictured with buckets of soy porridge mix, a Tanty best-seller.

 

However, what has been perhaps most unexpected, is not what Cameroon is, but rather what it is not.  It doesn’t boast skyscrapers and lavish hotels like Nairobi.  There isn’t a vibrant expatriate community, African or Non-African, like those that exist in Abidjan and Dakar.  Running water is a luxury and hot water is practically unknown.  Driving is an experience akin to riding a rollercoaster at an amusement park, except with potholes.  Cameroonians LOVE talking politics, and eagerly anticipate the results of the 2016 U.S. election, but are resigned to the fact that their own system is broken and corrupt.  Outside of family, soccer is the most important aspect of social life and pickup games can be found at all hours of the day.

After a meeting with the King of Bana, students were granted “Honorary Citizenship” to the Kingdom. Local Kings still possess considerable influence on local economics and politics.
After a meeting with the King of Bana, students were granted “Honorary Citizenship” to the Kingdom. Local Kings still possess considerable influence on local economics and politics.

Cameroon is also not a country just for NGO and Peace Corps workers or a country that should be dismissed as too dangerous or unstable to do business because of its political cronyism or the threat of Boko Haram. We met with the Managing Director of Emerging Capital Partners, a private equity firm here on Friday and learned about the immense level of opportunities in the Central African private sector. While he emphasized the importance of having a local presence in individual African countries, he explained that his firm’s best investments had been the ones with a Pan-African view.  As a country with a population of 25 million, many of whom participate only in the informal economy, Cameroon is on its own a difficult place to grow and scale a business.  In another meeting with an incubator ActivSpaces, Business Development Manager Steve Tchoumba echoed this sentiment when describing many of Cameroon’s tech startups, which find more success after expanding to neighboring countries.

We are heading back to Yaoundé on Sunday for our last three weeks in Cameroon before heading to Ethiopia and Johannesburg.  In addition to our history, French and political science classes, we will be taking traditional dance lessons and attending the U.S. Embassy’s July 4th celebration.  We are looking forward to meeting with more business leaders, politicians, and local Cameroonians as we begin the second half of our five-week stay.

Blog post written by students in the Africa Program: Julia Enyart, Nick Olson, Ross Caton, Michael Khasin, Robert Millock, & Ross Ionta (WG’18)

Students in Douala after a visit with insurance company NSIA.
Students in Douala after a visit with insurance company NSIA.
Students with Middlebury Professor and track leader Ariane Ngabeu at the base of Mount Cameroon.
Students with Middlebury Professor and track leader Ariane Ngabeu at the base of Mount Cameroon.