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Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis – fuelled by student rejects and poor spelling

Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis – fuelled by student rejects and poor spelling

A young woman cheering on graduation day - generic shot

A young woman cheering on graduation day – generic shot

In our series of letters from African journalists, Tony Vinyoh examines how the rejection of his cousin’s medical school was one of many examples of why a secessionist rebellion dogged Cameroon’s English-speaking regions for nearly six years.

Short gray presentation line

Short gray presentation line

It is easy to categorize the war in the Anglophone North West and South West regions of Cameroon as a linguistic clash. However, what this conflict really embodies is a battle for fairness and access.

When I accompanied my uncle and his daughter in 2016 to check her medical school entrance results, I knew she wouldn’t make it.

At the entrance to a campus in Bamenda – the North West region’s main city – were hundreds of science students, all of whom had passed their A-Levels, scrambling to find their names on the board display. Most of them had failed.

Some were puzzled, some were crying, some were laughing. Together, they all shared their first real life experience as English-speaking Cameroonians.

The odds were against my cousin – and against all Cameroonian English-speaking applicants – trying to get into a government-run medical school.

It was a stark example of their marginalization by Cameroon’s French-speaking majority.

"Some French-speaking students and even lecturers threw insults when they heard English or took the accent in our well-honed French""Source: Journalist Tony Vinyoh, Description of source: , Image: Tony Vinyoh

“Some French-speaking students and even teachers threw insults when they heard English or took the accent in our well-honed French”, Source: Journalist Tony Vinyoh, Description of source: , Image: Tony Vinyoh

My cousin’s medical school entrance paper was in English – with questions often mistranslated from French, making some of them incomprehensible and marked by those with no command of English. So very few English-speaking students are accepted.

It effectively prevents many English speakers from attending public universities, where students receive subsidized tuition. It is also common to hear allegations of corruption, which is rampant across Cameroon, with wealthy parents “buying” a place for their child.

We were just one of many families to be disappointed in the Anglophone zone of Cameroon – and in November 2016, demands for education, justice and other reforms turned into calls for a two-state federation . It then erupted into a secessionist war that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

lost in translation

The system in force means that there are fewer doctors in the North-West and South-West of Cameroon practicing at home. Even for French-speaking physicians who speak English, it is difficult for them to identify with a culture and an environment in which they were not raised.



Those I have met are dedicated to their work, but sometimes it takes more than a desire to apply medicine. Doctors at a North West Region hospital told me about a man who underwent surgery for testicular cancer and went home believing he was cured.

His French-speaking doctor can’t make him understand that he has to come back for a follow-up. He only came back when he started feeling pain. The man is dead.

In rural areas, for example, not everyone can speak lingua francas like English or Pidgin.

I once interviewed a woman from my village for an article I was writing about cataracts. She only spoke Lamnso, which I know but not fluently, so I hired a translator to put us both at ease.

The fact that she didn’t see me as a stranger also allowed her to speak freely about her eye surgery and encourage others to try it.

Some medical professionals believe that the government’s efforts to improve problems in the medical field have paid off over the past six years.

There are now two government-run medical schools in the two English-speaking regions – there was only one when my cousin applied – and an oversight committee to implement the reforms. Students also report better translations of exam questions, but far from professional standards.

Trainers say more is being done to improve the cultural awareness of doctors and they are seeing more English-speaking Cameroonians in their classrooms than they ever encountered when they were in medical school themselves .

Although medicine is slowly beginning to improve, there is still much to be done in public life.

Harassment and humiliation

Many English speakers believe that French was used as a language of intimidation from the earliest days of the union between French Cameroun and what was a British-held territory.

And since the start of the uprising, many other French-speaking police officers have been sent to patrol the streets of Bamenda, where they constantly check identity documents. They get angry if someone doesn’t speak French, ask for money at roadblocks and sometimes force young women to share their phone numbers.

When I go around Bamenda with those who speak administrative French fluently, we don’t mind this kind of harassment. I’m impressed with how their use of French gives me a pass in my hometown.

A photo of a Cameroonian textbook

Stupid mistakes and misspellings are common in government-chosen textbooks for English-speaking schools

The challenge for English speakers is that we simply cannot hide.

During my biochemistry studies at the University of Yaoundé, I – like many English-speaking students – never bothered to ask questions in class because of the abuse we received. Some French-speaking students and even teachers hurled insults when they heard English or picked up the accent in our well-honed French.

Thousands of public universities have to buy translated grades or pay for extra courses in English to compensate.

Our parents are often humiliated by French-speaking civil servants when they have to go to Yaoundé to collect their unpaid pensions, victims of a bureaucracy that seems to want to defraud them.

Plus the Anglophone crisis:

The texts set for English schools, chosen by the government, are often poorly edited and written, leading to lower standards.

Yet it is ironic that despite the conflict, prestigious private English schools have become sought after by affluent Cameroonian parents who do not speak a word of English themselves.

They understand that the best opportunities will eventually go to graduates who are immersed in both cultures, fluent in both English and French.

A graduate who grew up speaking French at home while studying English in kindergarten is a great asset. They are ideal for scholarships and international jobs in organizations like the UN.

Even during a war sparked by discrimination, they are the right fit for global organizations trying to navigate the bureaucracy in Cameroon.

Some Anglophones see this influx as an opportunity for their children to learn French, but others worry about the change.

A burned down school in Bamenda, Cameroon

Schools were destroyed during the conflict – the one in Bamenda has now been rebuilt, but most are abandoned

With a focus on those who can pay fees up front – and can make generous donations – English speakers have a harder time getting to these schools.

Until the late 1990s, some parents in English-speaking areas, like my mother, still paid the fees in installments or with food crops such as beans, maize and vegetables. Their children received an education and the food was used to feed the students.

The reality now is that the vast majority of children in conflict-affected areas have gone from substandard education to little or no education at all.

Would-be students with too much free time have turned to crime, scams, and the all-too-easy life that bitcoin trading promises. At a time when they should be in school, many teenage girls are raising babies from unplanned pregnancies and rape.

In 2016, after months of anguish, my uncle took out a huge loan and sent my cousin to Uganda to pursue her dream because she couldn’t make it in her own country – and when she qualifies she can choose to not go home.

The war is also driving out many health workers, teachers and students, a trend that will have disastrous consequences for the region and the economy.

But what most English-speaking regions want – from those who call for federalism to those who want secession – is to live in a country where their children won’t have to start life with an insurmountable handicap.

More letters from Africa:

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A composite image showing the BBC Africa logo and a man reading on his smartphone.