“Remembering Is an Act of Protest”: A Conversation with Monique Kwachou

December 13, 2021   •   By Grégory Pierrot

MONIQUE KWACHOU, a post-doctoral researcher of gender and development at the University of the Free State, South Africa, is the founder and executive director of Better Breed Cameroon, a nonprofit organization devoted to youth development. In addition to her PhD in Development Studies at the University of the Free State, she holds a dual honors BSc in Gender Studies and Sociology from the University of Buea in Cameroon and an MA in Education, Gender, and International Development from Institute of Education at University College London. She has worked for almost a decade at the intersection of gender, higher education, and youth development within academia and the NGO sector.

A few days before Monique and I spoke, Cameroonian police had just shot and killed a little girl at a checkpoint when the vehicle she was traveling in failed to stop. The incident was intimately related to the so-called Anglophone Crisis, which has been shaking Cameroon since 2016. A German colony before World War I, Cameroon was split in two after the conflict, with Great Britain and France controlling separate territories. After they obtained independence, the two territories agreed to reunite as a federal republic in 1961. Cameroon became a unitary state in 1972, a system that has asymmetrically benefited the Francophone element. Rising Anglophone resentment came to a head in 2016, when protests in the Northwest and Southwest regions were brutally repressed by the central government, triggering a proclamation of the independence of the Anglophone regions under the name of Ambazonia in 2017. Following the subsequent military crackdown by the government, the situation escalated into a violent conflict between separatist troops and Cameroonian authorities. Needless to say, victims of the war have overwhelmingly been civilians, and more specifically women. 

Monique and I spoke about this crisis, about her work with Cameroonian youth, and about the challenges facing the country in the years ahead.

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GRÉGORY PIERROT: Better Breed Cameroon, a youth development organization you founded, runs quarterly youth-development projects ranging from national writing contests to book drives and career days. Can you describe your path up to the creation of BBCam: why it was needed, what creating it was like, what it takes for the group to function?

MONIQUE KWACHOU: I’d say the story of BBCam began with me volunteering. Growing up, I wanted to be independent from my family, so one of the ways I thought I’d address the risk of being unemployed after my undergraduate education — where I studied gender studies and sociology — was to get work experience before I graduated. I started volunteering while I was an undergrad at the University of Buea in Southwest Cameroon. Since I was trying to get as much volunteering experience as possible, I was working with community-based organizations, other NGOs (such as Reach Out Cameroon and the National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms) in the Buea municipality.

Experiences with two different organizations I’d volunteered for spurred me to start BBCam. One was a women’s microfinance project: we’d give very poor women 100,000 CFA francs (about $200 then) to encourage them to set up a business. According to the project of poverty alleviation, we would follow up to make sure their business management strategy worked, etc. But we’d follow up and ask what they did with the money, and they’d respond, “Oh, I lent my husband 20,000 CFA,” or, “My husband told me that we should divide it this way” — something completely different from what we’d given the whole workshop on financing and business management on! That was the first time I saw the difference between the theory that we learn in class and the action in practice. Because in practice, these women were obviously right. If their child had malaria, or somebody died, and you gave them 100,000 CFA, well … just because somebody told them to do just this doesn’t mean they won’t use it for something that matters.

You can’t just carry theory into practice like that. Unless you can change the way people think, you’re not going to help them develop. It really starts with the mentality.

What was the other experience?

I spent part of my childhood in the US, between the ages of six and 12, as an undocumented immigrant with my mother. When I was there, I did have a lot of exposure to a learning system that is interactive, that encourages creative thinking, thinking outside of the box and questioning; more so than in Cameroon, where we tend to rely on rote learning and memorization. When I was working with a girls club in Tole, an impoverished area in the Southwest province, we tried to help girls at risk — out of school, helping their families on the farm, aspiring to get married. We had low prospects to get them out of the cycle of poverty. We were supposed to teach them trades or skills they could monetize, like how to make snacks, etc. There, I realized: Basically, you’re trying to save these girls by teaching them things that will keep them under you. Teaching them how to make slippers or other handcrafted things will provide for them in that moment, but it will not break the cycle of poverty.

By the time I was graduating, I had a whole portfolio full of ideas inspired by my experiences. I was proposing all these projects to organizations that I was hoping would employ me, and their response was: “We don’t have funding for this.” Funding follows trends. For instance, we have our own way of recycling — we use bottles a hundred times until they can’t be possibly be used anymore; we reuse plastic a hundred times, etc. Recycling is not an issue with us! But if recycling was in fashion, we’d write project proposals about recycling because that was what organizations gave money for. So, if you come in with your own project, they’d say: “It’s a good idea, it’s ‘nice,’” but not really something that they can see themselves giving funding for. So, none of my projects would kick in and I wasn’t actually employed.

But when I graduated, I received an award for academic excellence worth $400. A friend told me that, rather than walking from office to office trying to pitch my projects, perhaps I could set up my own organization and start from there. So that’s how I set up BBCam in January 2013.

What do you do at BBCam?

Generally, we share and discuss information. We were doing this even before the crisis started. Back in 2014, I believe, when Paul Biya came for the first time to visit the South region, we outlined the history of the merger of Francophone and Anglophone Cameroon through blog posts. We did a voxpop on Cameroon’s history, gave prizes for correct answers, etc. We’ve had town halls with small groups of young people where we give them opportunities to dialogue.

We’re speaking in a time of profound distress for Cameroon, with the so-called Anglophone Crisis. The past few years have seen a drastic increase in state and opposition violence. Can you explain the origins of this crisis?

I don’t know where to start … it’s a lot. I would say the crisis is a convoluted mess right now. I remember something a boss of mine said before, against the fight for Ambazonian recognition — the Struggle as we call it: “Striking is a careless thing to do.” When somebody starts striking at the bottom of the hill because he’s hungry, he’ll start climbing up the hill. Two people will join him to add their voices to his. As they progress up the hill, three more people will join them with their own problems, not because they’re hungry. By the time you get to the top of the hill, you’ll have a mass of people, but nobody knows what the original problem was. As people add in, the original voice easily changes, and that’s how violence breaks out. In his opinion, the Struggle was a careless and dangerous thing.

When he said this, I was offended, but looking back he has a point, although it is not the point he was making. It’s not a matter of not striking but a matter of making sure that the original voice and purpose is kept throughout. You do not cancel the Struggle. The difficulty is in maintaining the Struggle. The crisis is historical; it’s from way back in the colonial era, by way of the Foumban Conference [when representatives from the two former colonies wrote the constitution of the federal republic] and the 1972 referendum, when federalism was stolen from us [after President Ahmadou Ahidjo unconstitutionally converted the federal state into a unitary republic on May 20, 1972, which is now Cameroon’s National Day].

Gradually, the Northwest and the Southwest regions and their systems have been assimilated into the Francophone system. French civil law has been applied where British common law was applied, and French lawyers appointed to common law courts. One legal system superseded another.

The most recent chapter of the crisis began in 2016. Anglophone lawyers went on strike because they were abused and ignored. The lecturers syndicate (to which I was subject as a part-time instructor) came out in support of lawyers because the same thing is happening in education: Francophone teachers are being appointed in English schools although they can’t teach students in English. Over the years, the Anglo-Saxon educational system has also been assimilated into the French, Francophone one. We supported the lawyers and called for a sit-in strike — i.e., pretty much just stay at home; the streets should be empty and nobody should operate their businesses. That’s what we call a ghost town: nobody outside, except ghosts.

How did the situation evolve in the wake of the strike?

It was at first a very good form of peaceful protest, but it’s been abused. People respected it for a bit. But you know how some people won’t show respect unless there’s force of some sort. That’s when things became dangerous. Some bloggers and online influencers not even based in the country started calling for there to be ghost town enforcers. Some young men took it upon themselves to go out and rough up people they’d find attempting to go to school or to work. They put the videos online to let people know that they were serious.

After these initial street attacks, people started getting afraid. It progressed to cars being burned, then everything just unraveled: the initial movement turned into a request for federalism, and now to a war for the independence of Ambazonia, over the course of five years. But let’s not forget the police, and the gendarmes, and the state people who are also outside. It got to the point where, in order to punish people respecting ghost towns, the mayor of Buea would lock up businesses that were already locked up. So, you’re now being punished for respecting your right to stay at home!

The mismanagement of the government’s response to a legitimate problem escalated this into an unnecessary war. The Struggle is harming the people it’s supposed to be saving. The war is never fought between the people that need to be fighting the war, that are calling for war and bloodshed. The war is fought where the weak are; the people at the bottom who have no voice are the ones actually feeling it. We haven’t had anybody attack people in power in the central region, but we hear on a regular basis about women being attacked in the Northwest and Southwest regions. Since 2018, ghost towns have become systematic and very serious. What began as an agreed-upon form of protest has become a form of imprisonment, because we’re forced to accept it.

The crisis as it is now is very different from what it originally was. The original problem is still there, and still matters, but it has been taken away from us.

How are the many instances of violence against women and children related to the ghost towns?

Women and children are the greatest victims of the crisis. Recently, for instance, General No Pity, one of the Ambazonian separatist generals fighting in the Northwest region, led an attack against the army. None of us had any say in this: we didn’t appoint the military or the generals. It was a bloody fight, this recent one, the army lost a lot of people, so they wanted to exact revenge. The only person they could find close enough to No Pity was his ex-girlfriend, who is currently pregnant from somebody else. The army and one of the chiefs loyal to them arrested this woman and abused her, imprisoned her. These people are considered law enforcement, in a country where the law says you cannot imprison a pregnant woman because you’re imprisoning her child. But they don’t respect the laws they themselves made …

Or consider the fact that we have checkpoints all over. I typically joke that I get checked more within the small Buea municipality than when I travel internationally. I’m more scared of losing my ID card than I am of losing my passport. We have police and gendarme checkpoints every mile. Checks stop as you get closer to the richer neighborhoods. It’s a way of oppressing the poor. They give taxi drivers a list of documents and taxes they must pay, which they can’t possibly do. Whenever they pass a police checkpoint, they give 500 francs, about a dollar, to escape, because it seems cheaper than following the long process needed to get all these documents.

Recently, a police check ended in the death of a five-year-old child. [A similar incident occurred a month later.] She was with her mother, going to school in a hired car. While the driver was being held, a trigger-happy gendarme just shot at the car and took the life of a child.

The government claims that the police and gendarmes are there to protect us against separatist fighters who have been attacking schools to make us stay home as a form of protest. People are tired of the same forms of protests, the same strategies, using children and education as sacrifice for the Struggle. They’d like to do something else or see militants go to the central region and do something that’ll affect the people in power, not us. We can’t continue sacrificing ourselves.

What connection exists between the ghost town enforcers and the separatist army? What are their claims to legitimacy in relation to the broader Anglophone population?

It is complicated. People in the diaspora — like Chris Anu and Samuel Ikome Sako in the US, Ayaba Cho Lucas in Norway — declare the ghost towns. Nowadays every Monday is a fixed ghost town, to show that we are in spirit with Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, the first president of unrecognized Ambazonia, who was arrested in Nigeria, extradited, and is now in prison in Cameroon. This is how the international community added to this: if Nigerian authorities had not helped in his arrest in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Ambazonian leaders were tried for secession, terrorism, and many other charges and are now in prison for life. We have been in prison with them for a number of years now.

But it bears noting: Every Ambazonian leader is out of the country; that’s why I say the Struggle is no longer what it should be. Our current president, Paul Biya, is criticized for living abroad: he’s called the Roaming President; we count the number of days he spends out of the country, etc. None of the people calling the ghost towns are home.

In 2019, I was supposed to travel to the US for a UN women’s conference. I applied for a visa in Yaoundé, so I traveled out of my home in the Southwest to go to the capital. While there, I received a voice note sent on WhatsApp about a lockdown — i.e., a long-term ghost town. This is the age of voice phishing: we don’t even know these people, we can’t recognize them; I would not be able to tell Chris Anu from Jesus! But somebody based in the US can make a voice note and send it along the Ambazonian networks, it trickles down to the ghost town enforcers, and we civilians get a notice on WhatsApp. I got stuck in Yaoundé and I couldn’t go back home. That’s how they control us.

Are the people you mention Ambazonian officials in exile?

They’re Cameroonians in the diaspora; they’ve never been exiled. Most of these people are Cameroonians of the diaspora who finally got their chance to rule! I’m not saying that the diaspora’s all bad. The Struggle wouldn’t be where it is right now without the diaspora. But often, when they declare these things, they’re not worrying about the lives of the people on the ground. They’re going about their lives in the US; their kids are going to school, good schools; they’re saving up money, working three jobs. But whatever they declare has an impact on us directly. Making somebody already living in a poor country not do business for two weeks; making a woman whose business is selling perishable goods lose her stock because you keep them in the house for two weeks: that’s the impact that they don’t consider. It’s aggravating.

I’ve never been so disillusioned. One of the growing pains has been discovering how useless the UN is, and how useless the international community is, for actually helping people. The US issued a strong statement to these people late last year. Prior to that, they had done nothing, even knowing that these people are on US soil. Nigeria harbors many refugees, still it doesn’t want to get too involved because the Ambazonians are pretty much like their own Biafra fighters next door. So, they take care of people without getting involved. Cameroon is pretty much one of the best countries in CEMAC [Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa], considering that the others are worse off, so nobody’s going to check Paul Biya. Thus, we haven’t really had that much help.

People in the diaspora have helped bring attention to the crisis, notably by protesting in front of foreign embassies (they have protested abroad in front of Cameroonian embassies as well, but Cameroonian authorities do not care); but it’s not something I admire. It makes me wonder: “What do you want those people to do? Come colonize us again?”

Physical distance makes such a difference. True help demands forms of humility that rarely come with this kind of action.

The majority of our diasporas tend to be patronizing. We’ve had exposure, so we think we know better than the people on the ground. I remember in 2018, they declared a lockdown on Christmas Day, saying we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas and New Year’s, because fighters are in the bush, and therefore we too should not go out. Ghost town enforcers went into churches on Christmas day and beat people, took people out of church. This of course is always happening in the poor neighborhoods, those they have access to. And so, people in the diaspora wore black on Christmas Day, posted on Facebook … Wearing black on Christmas doesn’t mean anything! You can’t relate with somebody who went to church with their kids and got thrown out. They believe they’re saving the country when they’re actually sending guns into the country, putting guns in the hands of separatist fighters, and they do not know who the guns are going to end up with.

I can’t blame just the diaspora. Responsibility is about 65 percent on the part of the government: they’re supposed to be in control, they have the most resources, etc. Separatists have been pushed to the wall; they’re acting out of passion and anger. The government created this mess in the first place.

BBCam has also gotten involved, notably with very poignant video of testimonies, “Young Bards for Peace.” How have you been able to do this work and continue with your youth development mission, which I imagine demands that you work alongside the same authorities responsible for some of the abuses you denounce?

The advantage of being a small organization that doesn’t solicit funding is that BBCam doesn’t work with any of the ministries, or administration, or anybody that’s contributed to the crisis. We hold four projects quarterly, sponsored by our members. Just now, we’re trying to find more sustainable financial strategies, like selling merchandise (slogan T-shirts, etc.) or doing research consultancies, training research assistants that will take on projects, and from consultancies we can fund our projects. Interestingly, I have had to deal with people in power in my work as an academic, as a staff employee at the University of Buea. I was nearly fired in 2017 because I stepped on the wrong toes. For the most part, I’ve found that those in power don’t really care about what I write and share. Perhaps I’m not famous enough, but I’ve never been at risk of getting arrested in the way that other people have. They really do not read: those who do are those who already care a bit.

But working in academia, we are constrained. You may have heard of Agbor “Balla” Nkongho, one of the members of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium who were arrested and kept in prison for about nine months in 2017. He was part of the lawyers union that started the Struggle. He was also a part-time lecturer at the University of Buea. After he was released, he came back to teaching. On one exam in the International Human Rights Law course that he taught, one question asked students to use an example from the ongoing Anglophone Crisis. The country is centralized; the president appoints the head of the university, so you already know … His exam questions got leaked and eventually he was fired. That’s the way they control us.

BBCam organizes an annual nationwide writing contest to encourage undergrad students to think critically and express themselves, engage into some form of writivism. Recently we had a theme concerning the crisis, indirectly, as we could not use the term “Anglophone Crisis”: we asked participants to write about how we can have peace or justice. Even so, when we asked the university if we could put up a flyer, we had to go through a hellish process to get permission. They asked, “Can you tone this down? What do you mean by this word?” and basically said, “We do not want people to talk or write about this topic.”

So that’s the way I have struggled in the course of my work with authorities, but no real head-on clash. Censorship is everywhere right now. We’re afraid of speaking in taxis because you never know who might be sitting next to you. People have been picked up like that.

It is difficult not to consider the long-lasting impact of colonialism when talking about the Crisis, especially its relation to the linguistic divides created by colonization. The movement to solve the crisis has also highlighted issues of corruption that are related to foreign intervention, however well meant. What might a decolonial approach to the crisis entail? Do you find that this angle informs your actions, or those of other activists?

Anything I put forward as to the way the crisis should be addressed is informed by decolonial theory and perspectives. For me, in terms of other activists’ actions … Many of them, are also informed by it. Definitely Kah Walla: the way she goes about doing things. When I say decolonial approach, what I mean is not expecting anyone to come save us until we’re ready to save ourselves. We must determine ourselves and not be determined by others. A decolonial approach would mean prioritizing those most affected by the crisis, those on the ground. Those in the diaspora should have a say if it could be formalized; perhaps if their nationality could be recognized, we could ensure transparent elections to get their voices heard.

A decolonial approach, above all else, would mean revisiting history. In Cameroon, we tend to want to move on from history, forget; we refuse to revisit or acknowledge it. If you ask Francophones and even some Anglophones about the Foumban Conference, they might not know. Many people don’t understand why we have May 20 as our national day. Our history is being erased. A decolonial approach would be to acknowledge that this betrayal happened. Even just starting from 2016, we should acknowledge that this is when the government burned a village down and made things spiral out of control; this is when others did that, etc. A decolonial approach would not accept what we’ve been told but would address the problem from the roots. That’s what I do with BBCam: I try to raise critical consciousness, get young people to question where this comes from, why are we doing that, etc., because they don’t want us to think and remember. Remembering is an act of protest.

Many of the efforts on the ground I have read about — demonstrations in Bamenda, the women’s petition to the IMF and UN, which you signed — are very specifically efforts led by women. There is a long tradition of women’s involvement in Cameroonian politics, notably during the independence movement (as addressed in Rose Ndengue’s work, for example). How do you see these actions in relation to Cameroonian political history, but also in the broader dynamics of Afrofeminism and African feminism?

I see this as our constant cleaning up after men’s problems! I’m sick and tired of it. I wish you could just kill yourselves and we’d be okay!

I love Rose Ndengue’s work. Her hashtag #KmerHerStory inspired a campaign we did for women’s month last year, trying to feature the women that we were never taught about in Cameroonian history. I didn’t know their names until I was in my mid-20s. We made T-shirts with their names on them, the matriarchs of the country.

You say women are at the forefront of responses. I don’t think so: women are at the forefront of peaceful response, and they’re the only ones doing it. Unfortunately, women are left out of any form of reconciliation. In October 2019, the government claimed to have resolved the crisis. They had a national dialogue for peace and reconciliation, took some people from the bush, and brought everybody to Yaoundé and had a big feast. On paper, Cameroon is the best country ever: it has better laws than the US, we have signed and ratified everything! But funny enough, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs that signed UN Resolution 1325 — which has a plan of action for involving women in peace building — was not invited to the national dialogue by the minister.

That’s pretty much how it’s been: women do not get involved until a child dies, and you see a woman weeping on the road, or women writing letters to bring attention to something or call to stop fighting. Women are the ones getting the biggest bruises. We have countless stories of how women are in the middle of this, the grass between two elephants. But who’s getting the media attention? Definitely not the women. Kah Walla has been the most consistent political opposition member for as long as I know, at least since 2011. Nobody’s ever invited her to offer her opinion on how to solve the crisis, because she’ll tell you the truth you don’t want to hear. On the ground, women are leading civil society organizations that do the most, but they’re not the ones who get the most funding. So, we just continue to clean up after men. [Most recently, Monique joined Coordination Féministe Camerounaise, a coalition of Cameroonian feminist organizations in their campaign to raise awareness about violence against women.]

Did you see any change, any reactions after the petition to the IMF?

We have gotten a lot more respect for women online, more attention given to women’s contributions, but still in a kind of sexist fashion. An example: One of the most annoying things I witnessed when the struggle went out of hand and people in the diaspora took over. After leading lockdowns, ghost towns, violence on school children for disrespecting the ghost towns, they went online and declared that women should go and have takumbeng. It’s a form of protest, a way older women in some tribes express their displeasure and keep authorities in check. Old women’s nakedness is a strong taboo, so in this society, older women go naked and heap curses on you. This was used in the ’90s for example, to check government militarism. So, this young boy — and I call him a young boy because he’s not old enough to speak to these women — comes on Facebook and asks women to come into the streets to perform an action that is considered sacred, to clean up the mess! It was so insulting: this is when they involve us. If you look at the Ambazonian executives, there’s at most one woman. They have been declaring separatist fighting and ghost towns, and no woman is involved in any of this, but when the shit hits the fan, you’ll ask women to take to the streets and scare them with their bodies?

It is extremely depressing when you see how powerless you are in the face of a government you already hate, and the people claiming they are saving you. Both sides claim to be acting on your behalf: the government claims they are protecting you from the separatist fighters; the separatists claim they are liberating you from the government. And nobody’s asking you.

Do you see any improvement in the crisis? If you have hope, where does it lie?

If you ask me how I think this can be resolved, I can give you step by step how you can start to address the problem; but if you’re asking me if I think it’s going to be resolved any time soon, the answer is no. The last time I was back home in September was even more depressing because of how human beings can acclimatize to anything. Checkpoints. I’ve been walking around with pepper spray. We’ve bought generators to deal with sporadic electricity. We’ve accepted the way things are, normalized the ghost towns, we now have meetings on ghost towns days. We’ve normalized madness. I don’t see it ending any time soon because it’s profitable.

When I was graduating, there were next to no NGOs in the Northwest and Southwest regions. I graduated with a degree in gender and sociology, and I was looking into organizations to work with. NGOs that had good jobs were all based in Yaoundé. It’s not like they’re supposed to be there; rural areas are those that need development, so you’d think they’d have offices in our areas, but they didn’t. However, with the coming of the crisis, between 2018 and 2021 they built a whole new Bastos [district] in Buea with all these organizations that weren’t there before. Now they’re hiring expats and paying as much as they want or can. So, the war is profitable not only for the government, which is getting more funding for its military, but also for civilians who are getting jobs in their hometown. And of course for the separatist fighters who are using these guns to terrorize us and have power they never had before.

Who’s going to get the guns out of the hands of the separatists? They are now using them to kidnap people and ask for ransom. No rehabilitation center has been created to help the young people who have become extremists. That’s why I look at NGOs and think they’re not really here to help. Even if you tell them now the war is over, how are you going to rehabilitate them? There’s nothing for them. They were jobless, uneducated; they have now been given a bit of power in the Ambazonian army; to de-radicalize them, you must offer them something in return. How will you make them give up the power they have now?

To conclude, we always ask the following questions. If you could, what would you decolonize?

As an African woman, I would decolonize beauty and sexuality. Yet above all else, I would definitely decolonize education.

What would you defund?

I’d defund the [Cameroonian] state, and by that I mean can you just stop giving them money. Can the loans stop coming?

What would you abolish?

A lot of the bureaucratic processes that keep tribalism in place in my country, things like the certificate of non-conviction. But to do this, you have to go back to the town where you were born, even if you’ve never lived there before, so I’d abolish things like that — or the system that demands I should list what tribe I’m from on every document.

What must be free for all?

Water and electricity.

What is the soundtrack to your struggle? Please pick three songs.

Okay, this one’s hard!

Jill Scott: “Womanifesto

Longue Longue: “Ayo Africa” 

Falz, “This Is Nigeria” 

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Grégory Pierrot is a writer, translator, and professor of English.