A Teaching Internship in Cameroon
The Ins and Outs as a Student Working in West Africa
Stepping off the plane into the Cameroonian night, I realized two things: One, I was in Africa for the first time in my life! And two, there was no covered walkway. The sky opened up with a soaking tropical downpour that forced me and 150 of my new friends to run across the long, slick tarmac. Within hours, I found out that my $500 worth of camping gear was now gone, lost in the cavernous behemoth of international transport, and that Cameroon is a place beyond description. But I’ll still try.
Brian Johnson teaching as an intern in Cameroon, Africa
Cameroon: How and Why?
I went to Cameroon on an internship, teaching English as part of my university program. English Language Teaching Assistant Program (ELTAP) sets up college students in schools around the world. The focus is on countries that most programs would rather leave to the Peace Corps. I wasn’t an education major, but that’s not a requirement for ELTAP. The program is relatively inexpensive; the teaching pays for some of the schooling, and I lived with a friendly and helpful Cameroonian family.
I needed a few more credits then the program offered, so I asked around my university for help and found a history professor from Africa who was willing to sponsor an independent study on neo-colonialism in Cameroon. (I would recommend doing an independent study if at all possible.) Having the incentive of a course that required me to study the politics and history of the country greatly enriched my experience. I understood better the issues facing the country and came away with a much deeper knowledge of Cameroon as a whole.
Teaching was a challenge. Each of my classes consisted of about 70 teenagers. For a writing class this can be brutal when it comes to grading homework. In addition, the books failed to arrive for the first two months of my 3-month stint. Having my college grammar book was a lifesaver, as I created my lessons from it most of time. Flexibility is imperative. On the day I planned to give my first test a cloudburst flooded all my classrooms, and school was cancelled. But it turned out OK; I went to a staff member’s house and we had tea instead.
Things happen at a different pace in Cameroon. On International Teacher’s Day, the speaker was more than two hours late. We sat there, a huge group of African teachers and three foreigners, all singing the Cameroon Teacher’s Song. When the tardy government speaker finally arrived, we all sang loudly by the verses that proclaimed: “Teachers should be punctual." And, even louder, “Teachers should be well-paid.” Relaxing and enjoying a society that is people-focused instead of time-oriented can be very good for the brain as well as the heart.
Getting upset over the variables of African time will merely cause stress and won’t help anything.
Education is a privilege in Cameroon; while checking students into the boarding school, I witnessed this in a shocking way. There was always the possibility of being sent home, of an article of clothing being inappropriate, of something just not being right. Because the children came from all over the country to go to the well-known boarding school where I worked, this was not an empty threat. In my elementary class the beating of children on the hand with a stick was common. The Cameroonian teachers said that if this was not done the kids would not listen or learn.
Be ready to be put in charge. My original understanding was that I would assist the other teacher, but discovered that I was the only adult in class, commonly teaching my 70-odd kids per class by myself. Overheads were not available, and making photocopies were not possible. I adjusted to using the blackboard and worked on being an animated teacher.
We had enough time off work to travel. Getting around is fairly simple. Minibuses and taxis go to most destinations. People speak enough English to assist you, but knowing some French is very helpful. Multiple military checkpoint stops are part of almost any trip. But get ready to be uncomfortable at times. While riding in a subcompact car used as a taxi, we had at least eight people inside and sometimes more hanging on outside. The upside is that this is a good way to get to know Cameroonians. We chose to go against our host’s advice and not rent extra seats. We rode the same way the locals did.
There was much to see. Cameroon is often called Africa in miniature, because geographically it is a microcosm of all of Africa—from 13,400-foot Mount Cameroon to the rainforests in the west to the desert in the south and north. Much like other African countries formerly controlled by Europe, it has many challenges to face on its path to becoming a developed nation. Cameroon technically was never a colony. It was a German protectorate and then a British and French mandate. Many of the tribes in the country are natural enemies. They are only joined as a nation because that was the way Europeans sliced up the map on a conference table in Europe.
While in Cameroon, I saw other things that the legacy of colonialism left behind. Raw materials, especially rubber—dependent on fluctuating world prices—make up the bulk of the country's exports. Corruption is a major problem. While I was there, the newspapers announced that Cameroon had been named by the U.N. as the most corrupt country in the world for the second straight year. Even though there is natural oil wealth, much of the country lives in poverty.
While there was nothing easy about working and living in Cameroon, the influence one can have on students, and vice-versa, makes it wholly worthwhile. Go as a learner, proceed with humility and not a sense of Western superiority, and the time will be well worth it.
Brian Johnson also worked in an international school for two years in Taiwan.