Mise en oeuvre

This month marks a decade since I finished my Peace Corps service in Cameroon. I was a health and water sanitation volunteer in the rural South Province there. I learned a lot about public health in low-resource settings, French, a good deal of the local language, Bulu, and broke down and then rebuilt my whole perspective on what “international development” can or should aim to accomplish. I have a lot of thoughts about Cameroon, but the most fascinating one for me today is what’s happening in the first village where I lived, Nyabessan.

Many people have a pretty old-fashioned idea of what Peace Corps service is like. They think Peace Corps volunteers sleep in mud huts in tiny villages and are in constant danger. Almost none of that is true. Most “PCVs,” particularly in Africa, are based in small to medium-sized towns or cities. Most have power and network for cell phones that would be comparable with most parts of America. You can Skype with the vast majority of PCVs today. All live in modern structures and many even have indoor plumbing. As for the danger part, well, that’s mostly a product of dumb American fears of the developing world. Most people are at far higher risk of personal injury on an American college campus than in an African village.

That all said, Nyabessan, my first posting, was instead a more “classic” Peace Corps experience. It was a small village of less than 100 people in the middle of a giant rainforest along the Ntem River. It was six-to-eight hours, frequently on a motorcycle, on hardly more than a mud track before you got to paved road, and then two hours to electricity/phones/internet/mail. It was very isolated and very poor. I lived there for about a year before getting moved to Ambam, a much larger (but still small) town elsewhere in the province.

About two/three hours’ hike from Nyabessan are the Memve’ele waterfalls. Here’s a picture:

This was on film. I didn’t have a digital camera at that time.

They were pretty extraordinary, but also very remote. I visited a couple of times, but didn’t think too much about it. You have to understand, pretty much no one lived anywhere close. Nyabessan was the closest village, and around us were thousands of square miles of utter wilderness.

Around the time I was there, Cameroon was in talks with the China Import/Export bank for a big infrastructure “loan” to build a hydroelectric power station there. Well, those went well. China eventually “loaned” Cameroon 243 billion CFA (about the equivalent of $420M) to construct the project. Here’s what it looks like now:

I can’t stress enough how insane this is. None of what you see in this picture was even conceivable ten years ago. (Btw, I think we were standing in the upper-righthand bend in the river in the first photo.) They had to level and pave the road all the way there, import materials and people (mostly Chinese laborers, by the way) and pay off god only knows how many. The actual work was mostly done in the last few years, and the dam is partially operational today. There’s a good article about it in a recent Afrik Actuelle.

Sure, it’ll be an environmental disaster in a lot of ways, but the Memve’ele Dam also represents tangible progress in living standards in Cameroon. It represents power generation, infrastructure, jobs and opportunity for millions, and it was made possible through deliberate Chinese diplomatic and economic strategy. Most of that “loan” above will eventually be written off when China needs something.

I wish America was capable of strategy like this in the 21st century. But for Cameroon’s sake, I’m at least glad China is. On est ensembles.


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