I landed in Douala, Cameroon on a hot evening in February 2017, 31 months ago. I still remember the extreme heat and the young faces hustling to carry our bags for a 500 FCA coin (one dollar) or two. In one minute, in one sequence, I witnessed more energy, more non-verbal conversations, sales exchanges, aggressiveness and laughter than I had seen in one year.
In spite of my 12 years in South Africa, in the span of one week, everything felt familiar again: the cacophony in markets, the colours, the noise, the smell, the drivers and salespersons on the streets… I felt at home and everything in me recognised that environment and how to survive in it.
I was physically and psychologically prepared for my return, so I thought. Well at least for the things concerning the everyday life of a resident…I had no idea what my new life as a remote worker entailed. Knowing the international and well-established reputation of ALA, when approached, I expected a warm welcome from public and private schools and even from educational and social media. The testimonies I brought gave hope for access to first class education for everyone irrespective of their backgrounds or social status. Unfortunately, many in the field interpreted my work as a business opportunity trying to satisfy their lack of vision and egoistic interests.
For almost 30 months now I have been scrubbing, digging, sweeping Cameroon and surroundings to identify “The” great candidate for ALA or partners for referral. It is a privilege to work from a place where I grew up, I know the people, I understand their language and attitudes even without them saying a word; I can understand situations better as I have a broader view of things. This makes me sharper and deepens my work, it also confirms the need for being “on the ground”. Seeing the relief on the faces of students, parents and school representatives when they learn that I am based in the country, you imagine their fear of being victims of a scammer or child trafficker vanishing. It boosts their confidence to know that I am close, not running-away, available anytime if they need more info, they can call me anytime to help them through the process; it has also become more affordable for them to make local calls. I feel that it is now easier for parents and students to consider applying at ALA, and I have gladly accompanied many students throughout the entire process.
Beauclaire Mbanya was one alumnus who inspired me, I remember one day he was so sad and seemed very worried; out of concern I asked if I could help and what made him so sad. He told me he had an A in mathematics and was rather expecting an A+. This made me curious, A is already great, but not for Beauclaire. I then went ahead and asked his motivation and he said: “I always want to make my mother proud, she raised me by herself, gave me the best education, even though she is not wealthy, I want to be the best at everything I do, I want to give her a reason to celebrate every time”. This conversation got me thinking: If every African could fight to make mother Africa proud and be the best at everything they do, then Africa could have a reason to rejoice.
Filled with that motivation, I successfully organised at least three bootcamps every year, visited more than 50 schools, met with parents, school administrations, school owners, teachers, students and advisors of minister of Education in Cameroon, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. In that time, we increased the number of participants at our Global Scholars Program from Francophone countries (Cameroon, Senegal, Ivory Coast) for two successive years and even added new ones (DRC) on the list of represented countries; Cameroon has been one of the top two countries with the highest number of participants. I successfully secured and did one radio and two TV interviews with local broadcasters (my very first).
As I reflect on the journey so far, here are a few things that I have learned:
- Facial expressions speak louder than voice; own your message, believe it!
- Constant presence is key: a phone call, a message, an email, it breaks barriers and opens doors;
- Having a reliable, reachable and well-known address is very important, as parents would stop by any time or request to meet you anytime they need, with more than 100 questions on their list, ranging from security in South Africa to the type of job their child can do post-graduation, and expecting you to answer them all with satisfaction;
- Working remotely basically makes you a mentor, an elder sister, a teacher, a counsellor, a motivator and many other things that you discover as you meet different people every day.
Working remotely has not been all smooth, as there are always challenging situations, some of which are not in my control:
- I have not been able to travel to the Anglophone region of Cameroon because of the political situation;
- I had to cancel some appointments in Yaounde, travelling from Douala because the national road between the two capitals was segmented;
- I was threatened by some parents out of frustration, because of visa difficulties for their children;
- Communication with colleagues or peers can only be made through emails or phone calls, which are not the fastest; face-to-face communication is usually the best.
However, challenges cannot and will not stop me from doing what I believe is the right thing to do, and beside, challenges make one smarter, strategize better and plan wiser. I enjoy my work and I am most grateful to somewhat be an influence in the lives of young individuals in this continent. I value integrity and honesty, and that is what I teach. Although I work remotely, I constantly meet people and for me, the greatest rewards is to see the vision of ALA unfold in the lives of young Africans. That feeling of carrying a message of hope, newness, rebirth, “yes you can”, a student getting accepted and finishing their studies, then later on adopting and sharing the values they have been taught: to believe in themselves and to do what they preach… from raw material to finished product.
Eva Wakam leads Program Recruitment and Partnerships for ALA in Francophone Africa. She is based in Cameroon.