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Out of Africa: Why It's Difficult To Recycle Education in Cameroon

I am staying in the port city of Douala, Cameroon, grand central station of the 18th Century, where kidnapped Africans took the dreadful voyage to the Americas to live out their lives as slaves—if they survived the Middle Passage at all.

For the first time in my life, I journeyed to the Motherland, U.S. passport proudly in hand.

As I traveled from Chicago to Brussels on the first leg of the trip, it was like any other flight. People minded their own business. They were polite, not asking too many questions. It was an evening flight so the passengers were laid back with their headphones on watching movies or just trying to catch a nap.

The trip from Brussels to Douala was totally different. It was almost like a cocktail party (wine was a free beverage option). About 75 percent of the passengers were Cameroonians who did not know each other, but that didn't matter. I was a bit surprised when a mother asked me to watch her two-year-old while she left to change her other baby's diaper. But I was shocked when she later asked me to hold her sleeping baby so she could go to the bathroom and take a much-needed nap. (I agreed.)

The Africans were standing around talking to each other; holding political conversations in English and in French. Some were laughing and joking while standing in front of the communal television screens. (No one asked them to move.) Parents allowed their irritable babies to crawl up and down the aisles to stretch their legs. And when the plane landed, the people exploded in claps and cheers. The sociable, hospitable atmosphere on the plane was a warm welcome to Africa.

I sat on a row with three native-born Cameroonians: Jackie, Eugenie, and Colin. We were all strangers but you would never have known. Jackie, 33, had an MBA and lived in Arkansas; Eugenie, who was in her early 40s, was a health care worker living in London, England; and Colin, 37, was a pharmacist living in Milan, Italy.

Because Cameroon is a patriarchal society, women cannot own property and even when college educated they face a corporate glass ceiling that is almost to the floor. Eugenie said she misses Cameroon deeply but she would only return to live here at age 70. Jackie said she would probably never return because the governmental corruption is just too "depressing."

Colin, the only male in our group, saw his central African country much differently. He argued that other nationalities—particularly the German, French, and the Chinese—are building industries in Cameroon that kept natives in poverty. He admitted that he left his country to find more opportunities, but said now that Europe—and especially Italy—is struggling economically, jobs and fair treatment of blacks in the workplace has declined significantly. He said that most of the young, college-educated professionals from Cameroon chose to to leave the country, but this habit prevents the level of economic development that could lift its citizen out of abject poverty. As for him, Colin's goal is to move his family back to Cameroon by 2014.

The idea of Africans being taken from their homes to become slaves in America has always intrigued me. As a child, I remember learning about Harriet Tubman and how she escaped to freedom in the North but returned to the South about 19 times to help other slaves achieve freedom.

I thought about this as I listened to these highly educated Africans say that they left Cameroons for opportunities but now they "don't feel at home" or "free" in Europe. Two of the three longed to "come back home" but home is not the economically vibrant place it needs to be.

I acknowledged the need for Africans to build up their own nations, but I could not go as far to advise the successful African women to give up her lucrative jobs in America and Europe to return to Cameroon, a place where cultural tradition keeps women as second-class citizens. I am learning that women need more educational opportunities in Cameroon; and when they graduate from college, they need more jobs that pay a living wage. (For example, teachers who work in government schools make only about $30 to $160 per month.*)

As these statements roll off my digital tongue, I realize that they also apply to me, to African Americans. We have to build ourselves up in America; it's a job that the federal and state governments cannot do alone. Once we achieve personal success we have to turn around and give back to others in our communities. This is precisely why I teach.

It doesn't matter to me if the students are in a charter or traditional public school. What matters is that every child in America gets a quality education, and that neither their gender or skin color limits the kinds of job opportunities they rightfully deserve.

I've only been in Cameroon for 24-hours, but I have learned so much about the country—and myself. I know that my life will forever be changed after I leave for the states in nine days.

*Updated 4/12/12 based on new information

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