Out of Cameroon, the Rest of the Story

Douala traffic jam

Douala traffic jam

Washington   As one of our veteran participants wrote me when he got home, “I didn’t think any Organizers’ Forum could beat Egypt, but Cameroon did!” In Cairo we could feel a revolution slipping away, less than a year after it began. In Cameroon, we could feel that change was inevitable, even as we often bumped against the hard edge of the state.

Cameroon is not an easy country. Douala is a low slung, large sprawling city buzzing with activity from the predawn to the wee hours with taxis honking and motorcycles and cars clogging every piece of pavement. When I say Cameroon had hard edges, I’m not talking about the fact that our hotel had no hot water, occasional internet, and usually no toilet seats. People just shrugged and said “C’est Cameroon,” and we did, too. Nor am oblivious to the fact that even as we stood around the airport with no seats on the concourse that locals commented on how much things had improved in recent years with fewer police and the removal of the 10,000 franc exit fee. I’m really talking about how arbitrary and capricious state power in an autocracy can be, because that’s what’s important to people in Cameroon.

Eels for sale in the market

Eels for sale in the market

Every day of our meetings we had between 15 and 20 organizers with us from all over Africa, the USA, Canada, and France, but as importantly to us were the organizers that were turned away without reason at the airport. Two ACORN Kenya organizers flew in from Nairobi only to be turned back at customs despite all the expense of yellow fever shots, visas, and plane fares. The same happened to our organizer from Sierra Leone. Amazingly, a fourth organizer who had flown for days from Cambodia was also turned back, as the police said, “it’s another one for the same meeting,” as he was rebuffed. All of this was after excruciating study of the websites, discussions with embassies and countless government officials in Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, to ensure that we had crossed every “t” and dotted every “i,” these four organizers were simply denied entry to the country once they had arrived.

The procedures in Cameroon indicate that if there is no embassy in your country where you can apply online or in person, a visa is available at the airport. There are some additional letters of invitation required, but nothing that seemed exceptional, until they arrived and suddenly heard the claim that weekend that an official signature was required from someone in Yaoundé. Not only was this sudden requirement seemingly fabricated at the last moment, but since it was the weekend, it was impossible to fulfill, and there was no flexibility as our people were deported immediately. Sure this was expensive and cost us thousands, but even worse, these organizers were not allowed to participate in this historic meeting.

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Another episode at the airport involved a row with the police when they were part of a random tourist show and swarmed two of our delegation to seize the cellphone, and force a lengthy argument to finally get it returned. Or, take the security guard that would not allow bags to go on the concourse without a bribe.

People talked to us in meeting after meeting about a transition coming in central and western Africa from the generation of dictators, and we were all optimistic as we met so many people and were inspired by their work and courage that change was coming, and it would be soon. At the same time it was impossible to ignore that people still lived with one eye always looking over their shoulder at a government that used state power without regard for rules or whatever. In one meeting after another we were told that fear was the one “given” in every public interaction, as well as being the cloud over the coming elections and all facets of everyday life.

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In Cameroon, we could never forget that every time we brushed up against the state, we came away bruised. Change can’t come fast enough.

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Making Big Plans for Expanding Organizing in Africa

Making Plans

Making Plans

Douala   After six straight days of meetings, almost nonstop, for the Organizers’ Forum in Cameroon, we spent the last two days in critically serious conversations with all of the ACORN-allied organizers and organizations in attendance including ACORN Kenya on Skype until there was a power outage in Nairobi. It was a historic meeting for all of us, and if we can hit the marks we’re setting, it would be indescribably exciting!

The first day we spent a lot of time sharing experiences, country to country. Our partner ReAct had implanted the organizing model developed by ACORN and used by the Alliance Citoyenne in France with great success. Membership had soared, particularly in Cameroon and Liberia as the organization transitioned from largely a campaign-oriented program to a deeply rooted, membership organization in each country in the villages surrounded by Bollore rubber and palm oil plantations. Despite all of the progress, the organizers and many of the local leaders who had participated in various meetings of the Forum felt that we needed some clear victories with the company and needed to accelerate our actions and activity to final force them to be accountable to their promises and agreements. We also needed move the campaign to other battlefields nationally and internationally. ACORN committed to helping with this expansion.

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Adrien Roux, the coordinator of ReAct, in opening the last day of strategy, training, and planning meetings, framed the discussion of our expansion in Africa as adding “pillars” to hold up the foundation of our mass organizing strategy. The first pillar was already in place especially in Liberia, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast with our growing base in the plantations as well as the work in Nairobi over recent years. But, as Adrien laid out the summary of our discussions, we now needed to develop the other pillars that were critical in the ACORN experience in building community-based organizations in the larger cities where we were working and potentially organizing informal workers’ associations and unions as we had done in the USA and India.

More specifically that meant beginning to identify human and financial resources to dramatically expand our organizing in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, and also a chokepoint for the Bollore campaign. We set early 2017 as the launch date. We also targeted Abidjan, an even larger city in the Ivory Coast for early in 2017, using Cameroon as a training city for our Francophone organizers, and hoping to launch there between spring and summer, if we can put the pieces together. On the Anglophone side, we are integrating the ACORN Kenya operation more closely with the rest of our work in Africa, and exploring opportunities to develop a training capacity between there and South Africa potentially, but time will tell. In the planning meeting for Liberia, organizers there identified potential opportunities that might be available to organizer street vendors given the constant threats in Monrovia to a central market with 4000 sellers constantly under threat. Finishing the day, we also looked at the emerging prospects for our domestic workers’ union finally being resourced for launch in early 2017 in Morocco, which is also likely the site for the 2017 Organizers’ Forum, as well as training opportunities that could also develop more organizing prospects in Tunisia.

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When it was over we were spent. The one picture that we didn’t take was Adrien, Jill O’Reilly, ACORN Canada’s head organizer in Ottawa and Quebec, and myself sprawling out on the concourse of the Douala airport on the stools with our gear across the floor exhausted, but exhilarated as we continued making plans, looking up travel schedules for the next visits, and moving to the next steps to make all of this happen, exhausted, but exhilarated as we drug ourselves to the gates and flights back home.

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