19 April 2009

closing thoughts on cameroon: mamoudou's question

This will be my last post on Cameroon, apart from directing you to Kate’s posts on our trip, which she is now unrolling. In fact I’m going to take a short break from the blog altogether, since my adventures have put me in a bad spot with schoolwork and deadlines. I am embarking on what I only half-jokingly refer to as a 2-week “reign of terror”—an all-out academic effort that will consume most of my waking hours. On the bright side, next time you hear from me I will likely be enjoying a (hopefully well-deserved) weekend in Copenhagen. You could say that the Danish capital is in some ways the anti-Douala: clean, safe, sedate.

I cannot for the life of me remember who told me this, but somebody remarked recently that the worst tragedy of global poverty is that it’s an enormous waste of human talent. Warren Buffett, of all people, has made a similar point: “If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you'll find out how much this talent is going to product in the wrong kind of soil. I will be struggling thirty years later.” I’m not sure that wasted talent is the worst thing, but Cameroon did introduce me to several amazing human beings who are being blocked and held back from their full potential by the poverty of their country. It’s stories like theirs that help keep me motivated to do what I’m doing, even in the midst of an academic reign of terror.

One was John, a young teacher in Kate’s town. John is very smart (his proficient English is self-taught, from a dictionary no less), quietly determined, and wise beyond his years. He’s exactly the kind of male role model you’d want for kids, boys especially. He’s visibly impatient with the corruption and inefficiency that are rife in Cameroon. I learned that he would like to attend a three-year teacher’s college in Maroua, which would open up lots of career opportunities for him, but it’s not affordable. I asked him how much it would cost, and I felt a lump in my throat as I realized that the enrollment fee and 3 years' tuition comes to approximately the amount of CFA that I withdrew on my first trip to the ATM in N’Djaména.

I also met Mamoudou, who runs a small development NGO (non-governmental organization) and is of Kate’s local “counterparts,” in Peace Corps lingo. He won funding from the U.S. embassy through an extremely competitive process to provide fuel-efficent stoves to local households. It’s the kind of effort that is needed on a larger scale to help curb deforestation and desertification in Cameroon’s North. Mamoudou has lots of ambitions, but the funding is hard to come by. As we sat in his modest home, he told me about what he was doing, and then he turned the tables on me. Hearing that I am in a Development Studies program, he asked me for my definition of development. Wow, I thought—this guy goes right for the jugular. Later, he asked what I was going to bring back with me from Cameroon. Among other things, I told him that I was going to tell people about him. He struck me as the epitome of a “Searcher” in Bill Easterly’s terminology—the kind of grassroots innovator who is needed for real development to happen.

In studying development it’s easy to fall into the trap of “problematizing” the people development is supposed to benefit—in other words, seeing them in terms of unmet needs and deprivations rather than possibilities. John and Mamoudou are salutary reminders of why that mindset doesn’t work. Yet it’s also impossible for me not to feel a little bit of grief for the thwarted ambitions of the world’s Johns and Mamoudous. I’ve met enough gifted people in my life to know that they’re everywhere. Perhaps the best response I can think of to Mamoudou’s first question is that the task of development is to set them free.

1 comment:

lucinda said...

Amen! Well said. The same can be said for my students. This system often discusses what's wrong with them or what they can't do, but I have come to realize I just need to support them and set them free to learn and grow.