March 12, 2009

Cameroonian Violence and The Pope: A Lesson in Cultural Differences

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Cameroonian security forces have destroyed street stalls in the capital of Yaounde as part of an effort to clean up the city for a visit next week by Pope Benedict as part of his first official trip to Africa, according to a recent Reuters article. However, this leaves thousands of people without means of survival, and the Cameroonian government will not compensate them for their losses.


Reuters is one of the few major news sources to cover this story, so details are scant. From what the article describes, the country of Cameroon is a place where millions live in poverty. The stalls destroyed range from wooden shelves to more secure structures made from concrete and steel. There you could find simple stalls as well as boutiques, and businesses such as a typing and printing shop. These businesses gave thousands of poor Cameroonians a way of living and making money.

These stalls had been illegally set up, but the Cameroonian government had tolerated them until now. The article does not say how long these stalls had been around, though Mariane Ngoupendji, one of the women whose shop was destroyed, said she had invested in it for ten years.

When the Pope announced he would visit Cameroon before continuing on to Angola, the government decided to, as the state radio reported on March 9 after the incident, “embellish the city and give it a new face-lift.”

As part of this plan, last week gendarmes and police officials went to where the stalls were set up on Avenue Kennedy. They destroyed the stalls, beat the stallholders and smashed the merchandise being sold, according to a Cameroon company worker.

The Cameroonian government was not available for comment, but a senior police official told Reuters that the Cameroonian government had repeatedly asked the stallholders to move on. Nevertheless, the worker who witnessed the event wondered why the government didn’t force the stallholders to disassemble and move away instead of resorting to violence.

What struck me was how matter-of-fact the interviewed Cameroonian police official were about this. In the West, you’d expect some cultural outrage at the government’s action, particularly since it was done in preparation for a prominent and revered religious figure. You might also expect the police to show some shame while being interviewed, offering a trivial statement that they were merely doing their job.

But the senior Cameroonian police official who talked with Reuters did not do that. Instead, he offered a defense that highlights a cultural difference between Africa and the West. He said, “African traditional hospitality demands that you keep your house clean when expecting a guest.”

Sometimes you encounter a story that makes you reflect on your cultural perceptions and assumptions. You look at an incident, and see how another person in a different environment might see the same thing slightly differently. The Westerner in me hopes, however, that the Pope will address this incident when he arrives in Cameroon.