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Retirement and its malcontent in Yaoundé – by Patrick Awondo

ShireenWalton15 November 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

The question of retirement in Yaoundé requires first and foremost an understanding of the precariousness of employment and its widespread informalisation across the country, making the idea of retirement per se almost impossible. One of the questions asked by informants is often “what does retirement mean in a country where work is scarce”? Approaching the question of retirement in Cameroon, 3 types of reactions are generally involved.

The first and the most frequent is that “Retirement is not a punishment!” Nearly all of my interlocutors have expressed sentiments such as this at the mention of retirement ; an idea reflecting wider public discourse concerning the retirement of civil servants who have a hard time accepting it, as well as a view from a section of society which views negatively the fact that retirement-age officials are dropping out of duties that should be the responsibility of other younger people.

A second reaction expressed my my informants is to highlight how retirement is necessary, despite the challenges it poses in the context. In discussion, informants raised context as an important factor determining retirement experiences, in a country where only 15% of workers have a payslip. Retirement is therefore a fact that concerns a limited number of people from an official point of view. There is also a notably pessimistic discourse about retirement, especially for those who live and are currently experiencing it. The present moment in Cameroon thus appears to be a complex moment in which the experience of the end of work is combined with a decrease in material resources and precariousness. A final category of discourse highlights the alternative facts that allow us to have a less pessimistic look at retirement. These 3 attitudes and points of view on the retirement can be an entry to initiate a reflection on the way in which this moment of life is expressed in Cameroonian society. Overall, informants in Yaoundé emphasise the ambivalence of retirement.

“Retirement is not a punishment! “

To understand the significance of this popular expression in Yaoundé we must consider the context of work patterns in the country. The labor market in Cameroon is characterised by a high unemployment rate, as well as underemployment[1]. Unemployment is highest among 15-24 year olds (10.3%) and 15-34 years old (8.9%) than among the general population (5.7%). In addition to this, is youth unemployment, which varies with the level of education and is especially higher among higher education graduates (27.1%). Youth unemployment rate is higher in urban areas (15.5%) than in rural areas (4.3%), and is 8.5% for males and 23.5% for females.

In the Cameroonian context, the state remains the largest employer in the formal sector because informal employment is more widely represented, and covers more than 70% of working people. In such a context, the number of de facto retirees is limited insofar as the number of civil servants is itself relatively low, since the State can not absorb all graduates and job-seekers.

Another much more specific issue has been raised in the discussions on retirement in Cameroon in recent years. In 2009, the Association of Public Service Retirees (AREFOP) publically denounced the problems faced by people at the end of their careers along the following lines :

  • the improvement of pensions of retirees in the face of increased purchasing power: “Where have our contributions to the land credit passed for decades?     “How many of us have retired without benefiting from a single honor when they served the nation with loyalty?” Ask the retired officials.
  • Preservation of health insurance
  • The possibility of accessing bank credit etc. «  Why do banks don’t ant to give credit to pensioners at least as far as school advances are concerned? »

These points subsequently led to a media-based controversy over retirement issues. A particular grievance was the long waiting lines in which people came to collect their certificates in the offices of the National Social Insurance Fund (CNPS), the body responsible for social security and pensions. These controversies led to reforms and an administrative reorganization, which reduced expectations and conditions for pensioners’ pensions.

The impossible retreat

 A second series of arguments often mentioned is related to the specific situation of the labor market. Some statistics can help illuminate this issue. In the year 2017, according to the data of the CNPS[1], 7,415 files of Pensions Old Age Disability Deaths were filed during the year and 97,48% were liquidated of which 85,47% in less than 15 days and 8.36% in more than 45 days. The pending files represent 2.04% of the total files filed. The number of PVID beneficiaries is up slightly by 1.6% (from 109,304 in 2016 to 111,006 in 2017). If we consider that Cameroon has more than 23 million inhabitants, of which half active, then 111 006 residents represents a derisory figure. The generic question of retirement as having entailed access to work, and therefore to a pay slip, and later to a retirement pension therefore appears inadequate as a framework for understanding the experience of later life in Cameroon.

The happy few

 There is however an alternative viewpoing about retirement – one which emphasizes its need after long years of “good and loyal” services, and acknowledges the possibility of it being a time for flourishing. This discourse is the result of two categories of informants : people who have worked in a manner that is appropriate for the context, that is, with a regular salary and benefits, and another category of people employed in the formal private sector, who have made a very good living and who have invested in retirement – particularly seen in the field of real estate. Informants mention building several houses for instance, whose monthly rent will be an end-of-career investment. These people are a small group but are a growing happy few retirees in Cameroon who participate in the middle and upper middle-class life style in Cameroon, which is currently expanding, but constitute an overall minority.

Notes

[1] https://www.cnps.cm/images/AnnuairestatistiqueCNPS2017.pdf#page17

The Internet of Health in Yaoundé – by Patrick Awondo

ShireenWalton12 September 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

Over the last decade, Internet penetration rate in Cameroon has more than doubled, from around 10% in 2007 to 21-30% in 2017 (these figures leave aside small and medium-sized cities, and do not take into account connection-sharing practices that are part of people’s daily habits). The internet boom, made possible by the democratization of smartphones (which 80% of the population now have) has impacted significantly upon behavioural habits and the ways in which individuals and groups live at different stages of their lives. Among the areas chiefly affected by such changes, health is attracting attention in the digital landscape because it is the subject of unprecedented publicity, and is considered to offer many affordances to people.

In Yaoundé as in other African capitals, health remains a significant problem, but also, is undergoing  ongoing processes of change, and permanent questioning. In the smartphone age, health is an area of intense social activity. Three types of issues in the online health context deserve attention for the importance of the activities they generate:

  1. The variety of access to online health resources
  2. The diversity of information and forms of access offered by the Internet
  3. Challenges related to the density of supply, and what our colleague, Daniel Miller, perceives as inequality in interpretation, and the ability to appreciate in a fair and balanced way, the different “resources” of health online.

The variety of access to health resources

Generally speaking, people in Yaoundé use the Internet in contexts of/for health either to publicize health resources, that is to say, to present information that aims to simultaneously improve access to health through good practices. Or, to find the right information about very specific health problems. The latter is undertaken through a range of sites and links dedicated to specific health issues. Specific health issues can include pandemics such as malaria, tuberculosis or HIV / AIDS, which are priority public health problems usually treated by public health actors. However, people also turn to the Internet to search for diseases that have no visible presence in public health discourses, and which generally lack in public awareness – such as Typhoid fever, as well as certain female health issues such as ovarian cysts, dermatological problems, and infertility. These issues are addressed in forums, and blogs, but more and more, via dedicated Whatsapp groups that are often created by individuals with such concerns. There are also many health bloggers from Cameroon and the Cameroonian diasporas. Some are not always of Cameroonian descent or nationality, but blog membership appears most strong when individuals are Cameroonians or presented as originating from the country.

Overall, there are different ways of accessing the  internet of health in Yaoundé. Informants could be classified into 3 categories:

  1. those who watch YouTube for health
  2. those who Google-search health problems
  3. those who follow specialized health blogs

Health-searching practices on YouTube

Amongst my young informants, (19-31 years), the practice of searching for information on YouTube seems to be fairly common. Informants describe a typical double scenario, whereby they have a health concern, for various reasons that may be related to a lack of economic means, or the inability to join a health service. In this case, they will introduce on YouTube the name of one or more symptoms, which they hope a video will help inform them about. A 31-year-old security officer at a mobile phone operator explained how she regularly used YouTube on her smartphone to get video responses mainly about intimate grooming techniques, and a set of problems related to gynaecology. Interested in plant medicine, she regularly follows a “youtubeuse” specialized in herbal care for women. Many under-educated people like this female informant with limited income, but also among people with higher levels of education follow the youtubeurs of Cameroon almost daily. Other informants in the same social category stress that seeing a specialised doctor can be difficult in Yaoundé because of the high rates that these specialists practice. About 10,000 XAF consultation is already 10% of the salary of a security guard as our informant.

These high prices are not those charged in public hospitals, where a specialist costs half the price in private. Another factor determining the choice of Youtubeurs health advice is to be found in the strong competition that plant medicine imposes on modern Western medicine in Yaoundé. This appeal of alternative, natural therapies can be found amongst all social strata.

Those who “Google read” health on the Internet

During interviews and observations in one Yaoundean clinic, it appeared that searches on Google densified as a large part of the population access the Internet via the smartphone (specifically, the android phone, which is most popular here). Healthcare professionals in this capital’s leading private clinics point to the fact that a growing number of patients in consultation rooms are talking about diagnostic elements previously sought on the Internet, or afterwards in order to be able to make analogies by comparison.

The issue of individuals making their own comparisons with official health advice is intriguing. In another clinic, a 40-year-old teacher explained his reliance on seeking health information on Google through the dual need to better understand the disease from which his son had suffered from for 6 months at the time of the interview, but also, to compare the information received during diagnosis with that available on the Internet. If the case of this Father is not isolated, it reveals the complexity of different persons and needs that are engaged in via the search for health information on Google.

So while some informants point out curiosity and the primary need for knowledge of the disease or to understand the symptoms, this informant took to researching online for secondary purposes, to in some sense validate the official medical diagnosis. Another 44-year-old informant, a married, bookstore employee and Mother of two who lives in mvog-Ada, stressed the fact that the availability of the internet is a key factor in explaining its popularity and usage. Suffering from a Glaucoma, she went to an Ophthalmologist in a public hospital. The latter professional indicated that surgery was inevitable. Frightened and seeking reassurance, she turned to Google from her office to access information about her own illness. For this informant and for the first mentioned above, the search for information becomes a way to access a second opinion on the diagnosis of the doctor, especially in the case of serious diseases.

Health blogs and their followers

At the beginning of August, I was walking in the streets of Mvog-ada, the low-income neighborhood, when I was accosted by a group of people ;  two young men, a man, and a young woman, all wearing a green T-shirt on which read the name of a company that distributes herbal medicines. The group explained to me how they had created an online site with an active blog through which to communicate and sell their products. Like this distribution company, many groups have online blogs that are subscribed to by many Cameroonians. As a rule, these Blogs are put online from Cameroon and in particular the two big cities that are Yaoundé and Douala. But some of the blogs are often domiciled in Europe, particularly in France.

Such blogs cover broad health issues ranging from exclusively female problems (such as intimate care practices, ovarian problems, and so forth) to major pandemics (Malaria, Typhoid Fever, Cholera). There is also a very large number of sites dedicated to plant medicine. These plant medicine sites, still called herbalists, are very successful in the online contexts.

In sum, health on the Internet seems to play a major role in Cameroon, affecting the way people access health information on the one hand, and the way in which this – and also non-Internet accessed medical information such as doctors’ diagnoses – is evaluated. These last observations highlight two types of concerns: on the one hand, the difference between specialized and non-specialized information (also professional and non-professional); on the other hand, the issue of inequalities, linked to the ability of informants to analyze ‘good’ and ‘bad’ news offers. This brings us back to the classic issue of the reproduction of (health) inequalities related to economic context and education levels, and how these factors influence the use or non-use of information and the evaluation of their quality and/of efficacies.

 

The ‘downloaders’ of Yaoundé: the digital economy transforms informal jobs in Cameroon – by Patrick Awondo

ShireenWalton9 July 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

Kennedy avenue in Yaoundé

Among the material elements that mark the smartphone economy in Yaoundé, there are shops and sales counters that resale low-cost phones, predominantly from Asia. There are also houses and buildings in the same stlye and colours of the operators of local phone companies ; yellow for  South African MTN, Orange for French Orange, red for Korean Nextel, and blue for Cameroonian Camtel. There are also more discreet kiosks. Sometimes these are mobile, but mostly they are  sedentary. They often contain simple tables, where a laptop is installed and speakers are held by a young man between the age of 20-30 . At these kiosks, you find working persons known as ‘downloaders’, whose job it is to assist with people with their digital queries and technical needs for a fee.

Downloaders’: old jobs, shifting technologies

Once called ‘engravers’, downloaders are not a new body of tradesmen in Yaoundé. They appeared in the urban landscape with the invention of the compact disk (CD) in the 90s. At that time, young working men here established the act of burning CDs for people (actually a large majority of the urban population), who had no computers to copy music and other films and data via digital media. they They also recorded music onto cassette tapes. The CD gave way to downloading and streaming, and  uses of USB sticks, and eventually smartphones. Downloading has since become a central business in Cameroon in the informal labour economy.

Among the changes that have taken place around this business is the increased presence of downloaders themselves, due in part to the needs and technical dynamics of the smartphone itself – which is very widespread among the population. While in the 1990s/early 2000s, only a few main intersections of Yaoundé housed kiosks, today the number of downloaders and kiosks much higher. They are numerous and present in the commercial center of the city – particularly to be seen at Kennedy Avenue (see image), which  is the iconic street of computer and digital life in Yaoundé.

A downloader in Kennedy avenue. Image (CC BY) Patrick Awondo

In this avenue, named after the American president John Kennedy, computer hardware stores and small start-up offices are present, existing alongside the informal facilities of downloaders and other resellers of smartphones.

The price of downloading a song to a smartphone is 50XAF (0.067GBP), and 100XAF (0.13GPB) for a video. Depending on the traffic volume and density in the street or junction, downloaders earn between  XAF 3000 (GBP 4.3) and XAF 7000 (£ 9.41) per day for workdays starting at 9am, often ending around 8pm. The majority of downloads are to smartphones according to our informants, but also to laptops and USB sticks. Some customers ask that they be sent downloads to their email inboxes so that they can then save them on to the media of their choice. Informants described how teenage and young women are as inclined to download music and video clips as the young men (16-25). People over the age of 30 are also customers of the downloaders, but for this age group, their needs seems to be less about mastery of the features of the smartphone than issues such as how to increase download speed.

A 21-year-old female student in Yaoundé explained in an interview how she had mastered the use of her smartphone, but her budget for “Internet credit” did not have enough download speed to access the kind of cultural goods (music and videos) she wished to obtain. A 30-year-old man  described how he found downloading times far too long. Owning an iPhone, he was indignant at the control and security procedures installed within the device, especially because he had to go through itunes, which according to him is “too expensive”. There are, therefore, a variety of explanations concerning the use of downloaders here – something I am continuing to explore in the Cameroonian capital.

A downloader engaged in installing

In the city of Yaoundé, the activity of downloaders is part of the informal work economy, which constitutes 85% of employment activity in Cameroon. The young men who are the bearers of this activity are often in precarious socio-economic conditions; they are either students, or children from poorer classes who have been out of school early and many are living away from home. In most cases, they are between 20 and 30 years old and have computer skills acquired on the job. In a few rare exceptions, they have been trained in technical fields related to electronics. In these specific cases, their activity can be combined with those who repair mobile phones for a living.

Present on intersections crowded with passers-by, downloaders occupy space outside buildings, and/or on popular sidewalks. In the former instance, they pay rent to the owner of the building or house whereupon they settle. In the latter case, downaloders must come to an arrangement with the municipal services and state patrols in charge of public order on the streets. Sometimes, a young person who does not have the opportunity to buy equipment or set up an appropriate workstation (including the computer, sound amplifier, speakers etc.) is hired by an owner of such appliances, who in effect becomes his employer. In this case, the trading transaction, between the boss and his employee, is built on the basis of mutual trust. After consulting on the daily or weekly income, the owner of the appliances requires his agent to provide a photocopy of his national identity card, said one 39 years old, who was introduced to me by one downloader as his boss.

As an informal presence occupying the street, downloaders’s status within the  urban / labour community appears ambivalent, sometimes falling within, and sometimes outside of official protocols. Since the 2000s, public life has become increasingly disciplinary. Assisted by policemen, agents of the municipal brigade carry out daily observations of the streets, and where they deem necessary, do not hesitate to use violence against  young people  occupying parts of urban space and engaging in a variety of commercial activities (Ottou, Forthcoming).

To escape the harassment of policemen (called awara meaning those who take your thing by force), downloaders, like other young people follow a kind of survival strategy in urban space, mobilizing two modes of action: in one way they run when and where they can,  in other respect, they pay their taxes and comply when and where they are asked to.

Why do Cameroonians have multiple cell phones? By Patrick Awondo

ShireenWalton14 May 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

Photo (CC BY Patrick Awondo)

Last week, I was sitting in a kind of popular restaurant here in Yaoundé, known as a “tourne-dos”. The expression means “showing your back”, which describes the particular way people sit in street restaurants near the road, not wanting to be recognized by passers by.

I took my place in one such “tourne-dos” and was preparing to order my food, when I noticed that the two men sat next to me were both holding two phones. Actually, this is not uncommon in Yaoundé, and elsewhere in Cameroon. Although the 19 millions Cameroonians who have a mobile phone tend to have just one phone, a significant number of people own two or three smartphones, and use them simultaneously. In fact, so significant is this phenomenon of multiple phone ownership, that one of my Cameroonian friends living in France, prior to the start of my fieldwork, advised that I should focus on this prominent issue in my research.

Tracing the best network

Indeed, people I have had discussions with – whether young or old, rich or poor – often highlight the fact that they keep two or more phones. Their respective explanations all make sense.

The most widely cited reason for having more than one phone is the variability of access and cost amongst the many different mobile phone operators in the country. Even in cities these differences still hold true. In Yaoundé, some areas are less covered by llrtain networks, while others have good quality almost everywhere, with accurate services.  Two weeks ago, one of my informants told me that the habit of having many cell phones is a practical answer to the weakness of mobile networks companies:

“you see in some neighborhoods you merely find the two mains companies Orange and MTN. You are then obliged to have a third one, which could be Nextel or even Camtel. Some of my friends have two or three simcards. They think this is a good solution”.

Having multiple phones (and sim cards) therefore appears to be something that helps people stay connected everywhere in the city and across the country. Another informant explained how he has created his own hierarchy of mobile phone companies:

“you need to choose the best one to be reachable everywhere. People have their own preferences, depending on who they call and where those people are located. Sometimes you have to call your parents who are in the village far from Yaoundé. There is no MTN or Orange network, but only Nextel or Camtel – you need to have one of those if you want to talk to your people. You have to get a Camtel or Nextel sim and buy a cell phone dedicated to this only.”

Along the necessity of having multiple networks for comprehensive access, there are also other reasons. People mention, for instance, certain economic and strategic arguments.

Coping with the cost of mobile phone services

Some of my informants have stated that having multiple phones and sims is a way of managing the cost of mobile phone services. In Yaoundé, as elsewhere in the country, there are four main mobile operators; the French Orange, the South African MTN, the Korean Nextel and the Cameroonian Camtel. Although there is a regulatory Agency for Telecommunication (ART), the cost of mobile services can vary from one to another operator depending on the city and the kind of call one is making (whether local, international, internet). On October 26th, the ART published an article on its blog entitled “The comparative tariffs for mobile and fixed-line operators in the third quarter of 2016”. The publication illustrates how the cost of international calls can differ greatly among the respective networks:

Camtel CTPhone 70F / Min (7h-20h) and 35F / min (20h-7h) 85F / min N / A

MTN 1.02F / sec 1.5F / sec 3.54F / sec and 5.1F / sec

Nextel 0.9F / sec 1.1F / sec 3F / sec

Orange 1.02F / sec 1.02F / sec 5.1F / sec

In addition to issues of connectivity and cost, for some other of my informants in Yaoundé, having one or more cell phones is a way of following social trends, and participating in contemporary social life. Owning two or more smartphones also signifies that one has money and deserves a kind of respect. Sometimes, people dedicate one smartphone for Internet use only, while keeping others only for calls.

In sum, there are many arguments for explaining why people here have multiple phones  – some reasons are practical, some seem to be more symbolic /aesthetic, as well as professional. Such explanations go a long way in explaining the exceptional boom of the mobile phone industry in Yaoundé.

Photo (CC BY) Patrick Awondo

Yaoundé’s obsession with sport and health – by Patrick Awondo

LauraHaapio-Kirk27 March 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

Every day at 6 a.m. thousands of citizens invade the street of Yaoundé. As well as work, many are there for sporting activities such as running. They make evident the hundreds of formal and informal associations devoted to sports, and health.

This Saturday morning, as usual, retiree Samuel (58) is here with his wife (55) and his grandson (6). Samuel is the co-founder of a sport group called “club santé famille” (“family health club”). Starting in 2015 with 3 members, they now number more than 70. Each member pays a small participation fee for basic equipment (small carpets, tracksuit), and a coach who directs the two-hour session. These sessions are mainly held on weekends and include dance aerobic activities, running walking and also just relaxing. There are three main categories of such groups:

  • Sports groups based on ethnic and friendship networks
  • Sport and culture groups that include other self-help activities such as (informal banking, cultural activities)
  • Professional sport groups.

(CC – BY) Patrick Awondo

Sport and health in an unequal city

Yaoundé is a city of enclaves and inequality, which is reflected in these weekend sports. In my three main fieldsites, Mvog-Ada, Quartier Fouda and Mfandena, the distribution of sports infrastructures illustrate the gap between the citizens’ commitment to sport and the lack of public facilities to support those efforts. The Ministry of Youth and Sports, promote sport as a condition of a healthy life, as against smoking and drinking. Despite which there is a lack of public infrastructure to support sports initiatives. In Mvog-Ada there is basically no place for running or even walking on the narrow streets. Sports groups have to cross the city to find a stadium or free space for running such as the University of Yaoundé 1 campus,  and the Omnisport stadium which is being prepared for the 2019 African football nations cup.

Gender

One striking feature in Yaoundé is womens’ commitment to sports. While a decade ago an informant noted that women rarely participated in sport, today they dominate. As one of my informants (a 45-year-old teacher), underlined, you would rarely find women involved in those groups. Nowadays, the groups are dominated by women. In the “famille santé club” among the 70 registered members, 55 are women.

 

The boom of Smartphones and social media in Cameroon – by Patrick Awondo

LauraHaapio-Kirk22 January 2018

According to a French media study published in March 2017, smartphone usage has experienced a marked increase in Cameroon and other African countries in 2016. Quoting from the study, Médiamétrie notes: “in Cameroon, the number of homes with smartphones has increased by 43% to 72.2% just in the second half of 2016” [1]. This gives Cameroon, a central African country of 23 million inhabitants, one of the highest rates of smartphone use in Africa. Médiamétrie, also measured the performance of social networks in Cameroon for the first time in 2016. The results show that 68.2% of individuals aged 15 and over are registered on a social network, including 75.3% among those aged 15-24. Facebook is the most popular network followed by Google+, Instagram and Twitter. Though the survey was limited to the four main cities and may not reflect rural usage.

Another study suggests that in 2016 Cameroon reached internet penetration rate of 21%, a rise in one year from 11% [2]. These results are intriguing but leave open the question as to how the daily life of Cameroonians has been impacted by smartphones and social media. For example, how do smartphones and social media reframe social interactions among families and groups? Another important question concerns differences in the age-related usage of smartphone and social media in this country of a predominantly young population (45% of people are less than 15 years old). How do smartphones, social media, and health apps change the experience of ageing?


These questions are central to my research which aims to understand the way smartphones are changing the experience of mid-life and to consider the implications for mHealth in Cameroon. Working in Yaoundé for the coming 16 months, I will investigate the changing meaning of age and the impact of app culture especially for 40-70 year olds who are often ignored in studies of smartphone use. Studying such a group in a predominantly youthful place will no doubt be challenging, but offers an opportunity to better inform mHealth design from an under-represented perspective.

– Patrick Awondo

[1] http://www.mediametrie.fr/television/communiques/l-audience-de-la-television-de-la-radio-et-l-usage-des-reseaux-sociaux-au-cameroun.php?id=1694

[2] Jumia, GSMA Mobile Report We are Social, 2017