Meeting the Aku

One of the things that amazes me every day about the work of ALL for Cameroon is the sheer volume and variety of cases in which this little office manages to engage.

On Thursday Caroline set me up a day to meet and to hear from a cross-sample of her clients. It was quite a day. I shall write about some of the cases and causes in more depth over the next few days but in the course of Thursday we saw orphans who had been driven from their homes by relatives; widows deprived of their property rights on inheritance; a victim of assault in police custody; a human rights activist who had got on the wrong side of a powerful local man and had been beaten and shot for his pains; representatives of minority ethnic communities suffering discrimination and persecution and much more besides.

The position of the Aku people who came to see us along with representatives of the Hausa people was amongst the most complex and fascinating. Their articulate spokesman was at pains to stress that as an educated man working as a school teacher he was in a tiny minority amongst his people. He told a story of a people subject to arbitrary arrest and detention and who face constant attacks on their rights of land tenure.

ALL for Cameroon has acted for a number of Aku people in the recent past and to some effect. The problem remains, however, that most of the Aku are unaware of their own rights. The idea of engaging with the legal process in order to gain redress is also a pretty recent one. What I saw was a community struggling to protect itself and to take charge of its own development.

Many of the challenges that they face are legal but have their roots in the political situation here. There is not much that any lawyer can do to address educational under-achievement on such a scale that only three Aku girls have left High School with advance level certificate. It was clear from yesterday’s discussion, however, that the work of ALL for Cameroon in giving a voice to people who are otherwise mute and without hope is an important part of giving them the confidence to take on some of their challenges for themselves.

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Where does law end and politics begin? It is not always clear and here in North West Cameroon the line is more blurred than ever. I guess that at the end of the day, if you are desperate for help you will take it where you can find it.

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Cameroon – Apparent and Real

The obstacles placed in the path of Caroline and ALL fror Cameroon are many and varied.  They are sometimes obvious and unashamed.  In many ways they are the more obvious and easily tackled ones.   The less obvious ones are more the more potent and the more difficult to take on.

 Yesterday was a step back in time for me as Caroline took me round the courts in Bamenda, introducing me to Court Presidents, Magistrates, Prosecutors and Barristers.  Some, it was clear, understood the need for the work that Caroline does and were supportive.   Caroline herself would list the various occasions on which they had assisted her.

 Others, however, would listen politely and nod but make no further comment.   Occasionally you would see a flash of hostility.   One official in particular challenged Caroline on the need for ALL and its work asserting that Cameroon already has a system of criminal legal aid where courts appoint representation for those who can not afford it otherwise.   It was a coherent argument – at least for a couple of minutes until he spoiled it by saying that she risked opening a floodgate of people who would want representation.  If the system were working there should be no floodgate!

 Last night Terence, a local supporter ALL Cameroon, observed that there are two Cameroons – the apparent one and the real one.  It was a neat way of summing up why the work here is necessary.

In the apparent Cameroon the law states that bail is free.   Legally, in fact there is a presumption of bail being granted.   In the real Cameroon, however, bail is often anything but free.   In fact the law allows for money to be lodged as caution (security).  So ostensibly the law can be followed and an accused person can be required to lodge a money guarantee but no receipt is given and no one ever expects to see the money again.

That is why the work here matters.  Declarations of Human Rights are all very fine but if they are to be meaningful then people must have access to advocacy and courts where judges and officials are independent and honest.  In that respect the Real Cameroon still has work to do.

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Another client brings a case of inheritance rights.

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The first client of the day discusses his case with Caroline.

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Meeting Barrister Mbinkar Caroline and the ALL for Cameroon team at the ALL office in Bamenda.

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Goooood Morning Cam-errrr-ooooooonnnn!!!!!

Read the title of this post and imagine it is being delivered by Robin Williams,.   It seemed like the best was to give you my first impressions of Cameroon.

 

In three words -: Loud.  Busy.   Friendly.

 

I wrote this post on Monday night and am now about to upload it on Tuesday morning.   Technology issues!  

 

When I got here on Sunday night there was only time to meet local VSO staff and to have a bite of supper with them.   Having started the day at 4.15am in London that was quite enough.

 

The drive from Yaounde Airport was an introduction to one of the already standout features of life here in Cameroon – the approach taken to road safety by many of the local population.   It is relaxed, to say the least.   As one guide book observes, Cameroon drives on the right – in theory.  In practice, most people seem to drive wherever they need to in order to avoid the many potholes.

 

Step into this situation my first VSO Cameroon hero of the day – Petit Joe.  Joe is our driver.   More importantly he is a man with nerves of steel and a decent concern for the health and well-being of visiting parliamentarians.  Joe not only got me from the airport to the city centre but then yesterday from Yaounde to Bamenda – a six hour drive.

 

I don’t know if J K Rowling ever visited Cameroon but if she did then I am pretty certain that I know where she got the inspiration for the Knight Bus in the Harry Potter novels.   I am not sure how it happens but somehow, when necessary, three cars and a motor cycle or two all manage to share the same piece of road while avoiding potholes and each other.   The rules may be hazy but the blowing of horns seems central to the whole business.

 

Today (Tuesday) we get down to business in earnest.  I shall be spending the day in the offices of ALL for Cameroon and the local VSO cluster.   I have read all the briefing that I can find and the work they do seems fascinating..   Human rights law, when viewed from the UK can sometimes seems a little esoteric.   Here it looks very different.   There is nothing esoteric about the work that ALL does – protecting the rights of widows and their property, minors in detention and tackling police corruption just to name a few selected at random from their last annual report.

 

I am already feeling slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.   How much can I really hope to achieve in two weeks?   I guess I will be able to answer that question more fully in a fortnight.   I already see this not as a two week project but rather as the start of an involvement that I hope will last well beyond my time here.   I think it was Chairman Mao who said that the longest journey starts with a single step.  

Today we get marching!

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Getting Ready To Go

This Sunday I am heading off to do something a bit different.

All this week I have been getting round some of the outer isles of Orkney and Shetland holding surgeries and meeting constituents.   It is a well-worn but still enjoyable path for me.   To give you a taste of it, yesterday I did surgeries in Fetlar, Unst and Yell.  I took this picture from the room in the Fetlar Hall where I held my surgery.Image

On Sunday, however, I am swapping this for a two week stint working on a project organised by VSO in Cameroon where I shall be working with a local organisation called ALL for Cameroon.   ALL (Aide Legale Libre – apologies but I have never worked out how to type acutes, graves, circumflexes etc) provides legal representation for those who can not afford to pay for it themselves.   They have a website where they explain what they do and why which you can find at http://www.allforcameroon.org

The basic plan is that I shall be spending some of my time getting to know the organisation and its work and then I shall be accompanying them as they meet ministers and government officials to try to help their work.

So, you may ask, why the Blog?  I am not, to be honest, a natural blogger or a particularly enthusiastic one.  It seemed, however, like a good way of keeping people back home informed about what I am doing and maybe raising awareness of the work of ALL for Cameroon.  There is obviously a limit to what I can achieve in a two week project but I hope that this might be just the start of an association with ALL for Cameroon and that maybe some of you might be prepared to support them in this country.

I don’t know much about the work of ALL yet but the little that I do know impresses me greatly.  They do great things with meagre resources.  The could do even greater things with greater resources.  To that end the next item on my “to do list” will be to set up a Justgiving page so that you can give a little (or maybe even quite a lot) to support them and the many organisations like them that the VSO work with worldwide.

Watch this space!

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