Saturday, March 1, 2008

Strikes and Riots


Many of you may have already heard about the recent riots and unrest happening in Cameroon, but if you haven't let me fill you in...

Starting Monday all the taxi cab drivers around Cameroon went on strike to protest the rise in fuel prices, and the strike grew as people started to protest the general rise in prices across the country. The cost of general products such as palm oil and eggs has risen in recent months which has been hurting the standard of living of Cameroonians. So the Taxicab strike spread to civil unrest. Especially in the larger cities of Douala, Yaoundé, Bamenda and Kumba there were riots, lootings and burning of public and private buildings, and also some causalities.

Monday I was in the middle of teaching my english class when I was awakened to the reality that the riots and stikes were in no way limited to Douala and Yaoundé. As I was teaching I was startled by a loud banging noise coming from the gate of our school's compound. Next thing I knew my students were screaming and running to the back of the classroom. I looked over and the gate to the school was being burst open by a group of young men with big sticks and machetees. I have never been so scared in my life! My students by this point had broken down the wooden barrier seperating our classroom from the next one and were running away. Seeing that the men will at any moment break through, as the gate is being shaken violently back and forth, I grab my cell phone and run out following my students, thinking frantically about who I might be able to call for help. The first thought I had was that they were coming for me, kind of egotistical i know, but not knowing that they were going to all the schools I figured that they were coming to take the white girl as an example or something. Luckily there was another teacher who was pretty calm and I stayed next to her and hid myself. The P.E. teacher and another male teacher went tentatively to the gate to ask the guys what they wanted. They said they wanted school to be stopped immediately and for all the students to be sent home. The teacher said, Ok we will open the gate and let the students out if you promise not to hurt them. So the gate was opened and all the students rushed out and then the gang moved on to shut down the next school as well. The other teachers and I stay around for a while talking. We were all really frightened, but I think I was the only one who actually ran. One teacher explained to me that in Cameroon the government controls the prices of a lot of the staple products and so when the prices are risen without salaries being risen it obviously creates a lot of unhappy people.

After this incident I went home a bit shaken up, but feeling safe as I knew that the agressors weren't hurting anyone and just wanted to close everything down. All the boutiques and schools had been visited by the same group and everything had been closed. The next day schools tried to reopen but the agressors came back and frightened everyone into closing again.
For about 4 days the whole town was shut down. No cars passed on the main road so there was kind of an eery silence as everyone waited. At first I feared I might run out of food, but I soon found that you can still buy stuff at boutiques, you just have to go through the back door.
My boss told me to stay in my house and keep a low profile so I did. Thursday night the President of Cameroon, Paul Biya adressed the nation in a short speech that condemned violence and lectured the agressors. He also hinted that the youth doing the rioting were being manipulated by the opposition party. He highlighted that Cameroon, unlike many of its neighboring countries, is a country of peace. Which has been true and something that Cameroonians are very proud of. This was the most instability the country has seen in a very long time.

That night after the speech the sous-préfecture (which is like governments representative for the city) of Kékem was burnt to the ground by the rioters. Some neighbor kids came by my house and told me to look, and sure enough up there on the hill was the sous-préfecture building in flames. Rumors were they were going to light up the brigade next, but an increase in police presence around the town calmed things down. All around the country and especially in big cities there has been an increase in police and military presence which hads helped stop the violence. In cities around the country government buildings were burnt to the ground. So I assume that for many the speech wasn't taken very well.

As of yesterday boutiques started opening again and cars are passing. People tell me that the strike is over and that the gas prices have been lowered (which was the inital cause of the unrest). I hope it is over! Monday school will start up again. I only hope that the real problems that the people are experiencing here in Cameroon can be resolved without violence.

Here is an article I found on bbc:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7268861.stm