People often ask me whether, after thirteen years as a French expat in the US, I feel more French or more American; I usually reply both. I associate my Frenchness with my mom’s incredible cooking talents and her precise and poetic use of our mother tongue, my dad’s passion for debate and eclectic knowledge as well as my own personal memories of a very sweet and blessed childhood in Montpellier. I associate my Americaness with my academic career where I have always been encouraged to think outside the box and to be involved in a worthy cause. Being in Africa is giving me a completely new understanding of what it means to be French.
Back in 2003 when I was traveling throughout southern Mexico with a close friend of mine, being French was praised upon while being American was constantly criticized. How ironic! Today, being American in Africa is admired. “Ah, You voted for Obama right? We love Obama!” Whereas, when I say that I am from France, most Cameroonian are cautious and reserved… You might wonder…how come? Isn’t France helping its former colony come out of the vicious cycle of poverty?
While searching for information on business practices, I stumbled upon the following excerpt from an online African business magazine:
What is the number one problem in Africa?
• Excessive taxation
Let’s think for a second and try to connect ideas in a preliminary manner! Former colonies inherited the rigid French bureaucracy. Various African leaders who have attempted to establish a national currency other then colonial money (CFA) have been promptly eliminated. In a volatile environment, French patrons seem to highly benefit and partake in the corruption and bribery that is embedded into everyday transactions. While there is a complex and entangled web of reasons (historical, political, economic, social and many more) for the concentration of the bottom billion in Africa, we must start holding western powers accountable for their complicity in promoting poor governance initiatives on the African continent.
In many development textbooks I have read throughout my first year of graduate studies, there is usually an introductory chapter (or perhaps a disclaimer) emphasizing that we must stop blaming slavery and colonization for all of Africa’s problems. That is true but only to a certain extent. Yes, indeed African leaders must be held accountable to the people, break the cycle of corruption and implement good governance policies. Nonetheless, the sequels of colonization transpire until today in Cameroon. Undeniably so, France still has a very strong hold and many economic interests in Cameroon for example. Françafrique is a reality that must be addressed and reformed. From Francis Bois, a French company exporting precious Cameroonian wood to the PMU (a French gambling company) enticing poor people to spend their lifesavings in chimers, various French government policies impedes Cameroonians’ socio-economic well-being.
As an aspiring development practitioner, I must understand what it means to be a French national and the heavy baggages I carry with me once I set foot on the African soil. Thankfully, Eric and Annick (my colleagues from the AMA Women Project) are more than willing to explain the influence of French foreign policy on the life of Cameroonian citizens. Both communicate their insights in an objective manner, devoid of resentfulness. But before sharing their insights, let’s start with what I have observed until now. First, in the Akwa neighborhood where Helah and I are hosted, you seldom see “un blanc ou une blanche.” The great majority of expats, as they are called here, live in Bonapriso, a gated residential community. Because I needed to register at the French consulate, I visited Bonapriso a couple of days ago and had my first encounter with a French expat, the latter was far from pleasant. A long story short, I was unable to register because I only had copies of my passport and my entry visa. Thus, I have to return to the French consulate once more with my actual passport in the midst of extremely packed workdays. Helah, in contrast, was able to register on the American consulate website. Ah, French bureaucracy and rigidity!
But that’s just a funny story I will be able to share with my children one day. The most problematic was the attitude of the French official towards Cameroonians. In the midst of my imploring the French official to accept my photocopies, the phone rang. The French official transferred the call to his supervisor emphasizing –in a very demeaning manner– that he could not understand a thing the man on the line said because he had a thick Cameroonian accent! Aren’t we in Cameroon for goodness sake? Isn’t it us who have the thick French accent? Thereafter his supervisor called back the French official standing before me to let him know that he had not properly transferred the call. The French official simply responded: “Tant pis pour lui!” (too bad for him). While this might be an isolated incident, it is unacceptable for a French official to be so dismissive of Cameroonian people. Leaving the consulate, I felt ashamed.
Posted By Johanna Paillet
Posted Jun 22nd, 2009