I recount my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, when I saw both the potential and limitations of local nonprofits.
When I was in the Peace Corps in Cameroon from 2014-16, I lived in Menji, a rural village deep in the mountains in the country’s Southwest region, one of the two of its ten regions that’s home to its minority English-speaking population (for further explanation, Google “colonialism”). Menji was only accessible by one long, sketchy, unpaved dirt road that wound perilously through the mountains. During monsoon season, the road would gradually turn to mud, and the semi trucks that delivered very essential crates of beer to Menji would gouge deep ruts into the road, so deep that by the end of the rainy season the road was impassable by car. Once, towards the end of a monsoon season, I paid $20, probably equivalent to a month’s income for many of my neighbors, to take a one-way trip out of town by motorcycle.
Towards the end of my time in Menji, I began hearing whispered, secretive rumblings of dissatisfaction with the government. I had heard grievances before: “In Cameroon we have so many natural resources (lumber, gold, diamonds, minerals, hydropower etc.). But they don’t maintain the roads in the Southwest.” “They don’t care about anglophones.” “They are using divide and conquer.” However in 2016 the complaints were different, there were mentions of rebellion. I told my closest friends to be careful. Yes, Cameroon’s government was horribly corrupt and clientelistic, with President Paul Biya having grotesquely misled the country for over three decades. But I knew that ordinary citizens would be horribly over-matched should there be war. And I also knew how the government would react to any hint of disobedience: brutally.
Nonetheless, a few months after I left Cameroon, civil war erupted. And today, over three years later, it still continues. Now, my closest friends all live as refugees or internally displaced people. The conflict is so bad that a friend of mine with over a decade of experience in humanitarian relief told me that he’d heard that, beside Central Americans, Cameroonians had become the largest share of refugees at America’s Southern border.
I digress…going back to simpler times, towards the end of my service I came to love Menji, a community of around 10,000 people, most of whom were cocoa farmers. While there I worked closely with a local nonprofit, SARDO, to help cocoa farmers form and run agricultural cooperatives. Our project fought against price-gouging from cocoa buyers. When farmers lacked the capital and knowledge to process, store, transport, and sell to exporters, they were left at the mercy of predatory middlemen, who paid pennies on the dollar for farmers’ cocoa; the product of a year’s worth of hard, manual labor on farmland often located deep in the jungle. In theory, cooperatives would give farmers several benefits, allowing them to gain more bargaining power, pool resources and invest in their businesses, and concentrate their political voice.
Over my two years in Menji, I came to better understand what it was like to live in a “poverty trap”. The road, political marginalization, and predatory cocoa buyers were some of the most visible examples of how structural barriers made it exponentially more difficult for people in Menji to escape poverty. The road, to me, as well as to many of Menji’s inhabitants, was the perfect symbol of how the town and its people were oppressed. I was also further struck by two insights. First, nobody was doing much to help Menji’s people, whether it be the Cameroonian government, foreign countries like the US, or international organizations and donors. The people were left on their own by society at large to manage the best they could. Second, I realized that SARDO’s project to organize farmers’ cooperatives had tremendous potential to improve living standards in Menji.
However, without the proper support from external stakeholders, SARDO’s work would be incredibly difficult. With little support, SARDO’s founder, Chrisantus Chalefack, was forced to run his organization by himself, with little pay, during his downtime from his two other full-time jobs: as a high school math and computer science teacher, and also as a cocoa farmer himself. How could Chrisantus possibly manage to provide training and support to dozens of farmers’ cooperatives, manage his organization’s finances, compose grant applications and reports, liaise with donors, and so much more as an unpaid, part-time job with poor internet access and no formal training in organizational management?
My realization of both local organizations’ potential and need for support led me to found PEACE soon after returning to the US in 2017. As I’ve discussed in a previous blog post, many organizations in the international development space have, rightfully, increasingly acknowledged that empowering local organizations like SARDO can be very effective. However there is still a disconnect between many organizations’ rhetoric and their actions: even today, only a small percentage of foreign aid donations go directly to these local organizations. We can do so much more to help communities like Menji, whose story of oppression stems from a confluence of several factors, including the legacy of colonialism, tribalism and corruption from the national government, underdevelopment and poverty traps, and the failure of donors to effectively act. I believe that local organizations like SARDO hold tremendous potential to contribute to solving these issues, but they need help.
Unfortunately I haven’t communicated with Chrisantus in many months. Last I heard, he had retreated to his rural farm, deep in the jungle with no cell service, to escape danger and retain his one remaining source of income: his cocoa farm. Someday, god willing, if the conflict subsides I hope to resume my work to help the people of Menji once more. But, in the meantime, no matter what, I will carry these deep experiences from my time in Cameroon with me for the rest of my life.