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COVID-19 in Cameroon: concurrent narratives and battle for dignity

p.awondo11 May 2020

In Cameroon, the first case of Cov-2 SARS infection was published on the 6th of March, 2020. It involved a French-Cameroonian national who arrived in Cameroon through the airport of Yaoundé, the political capital, on the 24th of February. He was hospitalised and treated at the care centre of the Yaoundé Central Hospital. Today (the 9th of May, 2o20) Cameroon is, after Nigeria and Ghana, the country with the highest number of Covid-19 cases in sub-Saharan Africa: 2267 cases. Among these patients, 1019 have been cured and 108 have died. The first death occurred in Douala, the economic capital. The patient in question was a 63-year-old man who allegedly took in a woman from France and “escaped” quarantine.

The Cameroonian government had announced a number of measures in early March to stem the rapid spread of the pandemic. These measures were similar to those enacted in other African countries, with the closure of air, land and sea borders, partial confinement, the closure of schools and universities, partial closure of markets, bars and other places of worship, a ban on going out after 6 p.m., the mandatory wearing of masks in public spaces and other barriers such as systematic hand washing and disinfection of certain public places such as markets.

The epidemic of polemics and stigma reversal

As soon as the first case was announced, a certain psychosis had spread among the population. The presence of the macabre tally of the pandemic in European countries and particularly in France was so strong on social networks and other traditional media including television and the written press that people feared the worst.

Analysts and specialists on Africa were adding to the psychosis by predicting the worst.

In turn, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the WHO Secretary-General sounded the alarm by calling on African countries to “prepare for the worst”. While objectively feared because of a history of fairly recent epidemics (Ebola, cholera etc.), these various calls will also create controversy. Many African intellectuals will be outraged by the tone of these UN forums by recalling the condescension that was represented by the fact that they were being attacked by the media on a continent that remained relatively unscathed. On social networks, reactions were pouring in, all denouncing this “Western obsession with Afro-pessimism” which reflexively sees catastrophes in everything on the continent. Other commentators even question the announced health aid. In Cameroon, France’s announced support is viewed with suspicion. This policy of suspicion is exacerbated by a polemic on a video from a French news channel. The video excerpt in which two French doctors discuss the possibility of a vaccine against Covi-19 and in which one of them mentions the possibility of clinical and vaccine trials on the African continent goes viral. On social networks, the polemic is growing, African and Cameroonian intellectuals and public figures are taking a stand. In their substance, these interventions castigate the so-called “colonialist and paternalistic” dimension of French doctors’ statements. They are accused of wanting to impose a vaccine without respect for ethical standards on the continent. These facts are reminiscent of colonial medicine. The tribunes that will continue are the trial of a fixist vision of Africa and of the catastrophism dismissed by Western commentators of the beginning of the epidemic on the African continent.

This controversy, known as the vaccine controversy, is in addition to the controversy that arose when the first cases were announced in Cameroon. In the first week of the epidemic at the local level, the press relaying the moods of the population accused the diaspora of having imported the virus into the country. It is true that Cameroon, open to the world through its two largest cities Yaounde and Douala, saw the first cases from France land on its soil. The press and the communication coming from the Minister of Health will be harmful in terms of stigmatisation of the diaspora to the point where major media will end up opening the debate on the front page.  By recalling the number of passengers disembarked on Cameroonian soil on a daily basis during the first two weeks, by stressing that among them there were positive cases, the ministerial communication did not only serve the need for public health, it also had the effect of stigmatising these “unwise travellers”, scapegoats of a dreadful epidemic which for once is imported from rich countries into the poorest like Cameroon. For a few weeks, the lynching in tabloids and on social networks of the local category known as “mbenguite” (travellers, migrants to Europe) became a stigma. This is a historical reversal in a context where “mbinguists” are often socially valued as providers of economic goods, seen as a resource due to to their migratory lifestyles. Potential carriers of Covid-19, mbinguists have become in Cameroon the paradigmatic repulsive figure of the reverse stigmatisation that took the “disease from Europe” to task.

The quest for medication and the return of African medicine

“In Congo-Brazzaville, covid-organics will soon be administered to the sick. A first shipment was received and symbolically handed over to Florent Ntsiba, chief of staff to President Denis Sassou-Nguesso. Other countries including Guinea-Bissau, Niger and Equatorial Guinea have already received their share of the treatment developed in Madagascar”. this excerpt could be read on the africanews.fr website on the morning of 10 May 2020.

To understand the circulation of this Malagasy potion, we have to go back a few weeks. Since the beginning of the epidemic, the quest for the drug has been ongoing. In French-speaking Africa, as in the rest of the world, the controversy around chloroquine is raging. In the local interpretation, the powerful lobbies of the world refuse to pay attention to the cheapest drug because the famous protocol of the French researcher Professor Didier Raoult already exists. On social networks and online media, users oppose the need to use or not to use the protocol of the one that the media call “the druid of Marseille”, in reference to the manufacturer of the Gallic magic potion in the famous comic book Astérix et Obélix.

The positions taken by Cameroonians on the Internet are similar to those taken by most Africans who are familiar with chloric acid and almost make Didier Raoult a hero.

As with every epidemic, the debate around the capacity of traditional African medicines is re-emerging. This time it is amplified by global controversies and the uncertainties of Western countries disoriented by the force of the virus.

On the 10th of April, Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina announced that Malagasy researchers have found a cure for Covid-19, “Today I am officially announcing here the successful and good results of the trials of our cure,” he said, “and it can be said that it has given a conclusive result on Covid-19 patients in Madagascar and that it can limit and mitigate its effects on the human body”. As the French online journal le Point points out, the controversy will start immediately. “The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognised that some traditional medicines and remedies “can alleviate the symptoms” of the coronavirus, but recalled that “there is no evidence that these substances can prevent or cure the disease”. The organisation even voted as early as 2007 for a resolution “calling for a phasing out of oral artemisinin-based monotherapies from the markets”. Artemisia is banned in several European countries”.

A meme that has been in circulation on Whatsapp groups, talking about standing ‘against’ the WHO, an organisation that ‘does not know Africa’.

Al Jazeera article on the Covid-Organics herbal remedy

In fact, from the very beginning of the pandemic, the African web was stirring with discussions about a local medical formula. Long before the first official case was even declared, many protocols for herbal teas, herbal potions and other so-called traditional barks were already circulating in Cameroon. This return of the traditional pharmacopoeia is accompanied by a militant pan-African discourse about “African solutions” and the “valorisation of the African pharmacopoeia”. A campaign that the Malagasy president will also take up during his many outings during which he values the African support of his fellow leaders as much as the orders already being shipped.

The quest for African medicine is thus becoming a pan-African militancy issue in an epidemic and pandemic context where the fatigue of being assisted by the West has been expressed. In the majority of comments, people react in support of this herbal tea and the WHO’s warnings are interpreted as a posture attributable to imperialism carried by an organisation that plays into the hands of the powerful and in particular the big global pharmaceutical groups.

In reaction to the WHO’s first comments on the issue, African countries such as Senegal are placing orders to Madagascar. On WhatsApp and Facebook, a small anti-WHO campaign is even taking shape, often featuring situations where African pharmacopoeia is used, with subtitles that are addressed directly to the WHO, as if to warn it against any hindrance to the use of African medicine.

The Malagasy herbal tea has also had the effect not only of taking the African world as a witness against the Western medical imperialism protected by the WHO (according to the polemicists) but also of freeing the actors who had hitherto on the continent intended to proceed in the same way.

Thus, in Cameroon, since the beginning of May, a polemic has been raging in the city of Douala since the Catholic Archbishop of Douala, who is a great adept of traditional pharmacopoeia, set up a potion. Advocating pharmaceutical nationalism, the archbishop is running a strong media campaign which has the active support of public figures (for example, he received 50 million XAF from a businessman), but also many Internet users. However, the medical system has been very cautious about taking these potions and any other form of traditional medication against Covid 19.

The quest for the medicine has thus become the quest for African dignity and its opportunity to rebuild its coat of arms in a world that sees it as the childhood of the world according to Hegel’s formula.

How to find a smartphone in Yaoundé

p.awondo14 February 2020

I arrived in Yaoundé on the evening of the 5th of February 2018. The next day, I went to a café in the city centre known to be one of the few that only serves local coffee and local sandwiches, with an emphasis on the ‘local’ label. For example, the café serves a ‘mboa burger’. The ‘mboa’, a term that comes from the Douala language (one of 170 recognised national languages), means ‘the country’ or ‘the land’. They also serve a ‘bissap’ juice and a ‘Foumban chicken sandwich’, the latter named after a city in the Western region of Cameroon from which the coffee served in the café originates. Foumban is also a city that is highly regarded for its agriculture and livestock.

I watched the street from inside the café. The street below is called ‘Anne-rouge climb’. It’s a pretty busy street, with shops on both sides selling clothes imported from China and Turkey. There is also stationery, micro-finance establishments and telephone shops. Here and there, ‘telephone credit’ sellers are sheltered under mobile phone operator-branded umbrellas, each one a different colour. The umbrellas that represent the South African operator MTN are yellow, the ones that represent the French operator Orange are (unsurprisingly) orange, while the local operator Camtel has blue umbrellas. Throughout the city, we find these colour codes wherever a credit seller (locally called a “call box”) sells credit, even if the seller is selling credit from several operators at the same time.

Different mobile phone operators’ colours in Yaoundé. Photo by Patrick Awondo (CC BY)

Different mobile phone operators’ colours in Yaoundé. CC BY Patrick AwondoKnowing that the “call-boxes” also sell other products as I myself am Cameroonian, I asked a coffee server if one of the sellers on the street below had SIM cards for sale. He answered yes. Having finished my coffee, I approached the first “call-box” asking whether they had  SIM cards.

“Do you want an Orange or an MTN card?” the seller asks.

“Whatever”, I said, “I just want a SIM card”.

A few minutes later, I had a new SIM card.

“If you want an Android phone, you just have to go down the street. Below, you will come across Kennedy Avenue. There are shops and phone sellers all over there. Whatever type of phone you want, you will find it there.”, he added.

The seller had anticipated that I would then immediately ask where I could quickly find a phone. In Yaoundé, and in the rest of the country, the “Android” phone (that is to say a phone equipped with the Android operating system), is the expression which is equivalent to the word smartphone. So if you ask a Yaoundean whether he or she has a smartphone, he or she will not answer you or will ask what a smartphone is, but if you refer to “an Android phone” they will immediately answer, quickly listing the different brands of Android phones.

I went down the “Anne-rouge climb” in the direction of Kennedy Avenue, following the instructions of the “call-boxer”, and then stopped at the crossroads of this very famous street of Yaoundé. The avenue is famous for its trade activity, which is mainly oriented towards the trade of computer products and smartphones. Here and there, on the pavement, a wide variety of items are on display. These are mainly products of Asian origin. Among these shopping streets, many young men in their late 20s or early 30s seem to be the main ‘players’ in this market. Hundreds of people come and go, and these young men challenge, hold your hand if necessary, offering you many products to choose from. There are smartphones of all brands; from the best known ones (iPhones, Samsungs, Huaiweis, Tecno, LG) to the least known, more obscure brands.

Man selling phone credit in Yaoundé. The South African mobile phone operator MTN is represented here by the yellow umbrella. Photo by Patrick Awondo (CC BY)

Kennedy Avenue, Yaoundé, Photo by Patrick Awondo (CC BY)

Some of the young traders have also got clothes on offer – everything from jeans and sports shoes to ‘city shoes’, costumes, shirts. Others have got chains and watches for sale. To promote their products, they present them as valuable items that only ‘travellers’ (voyageurs) know about. The category of the ‘voyageur’ is a category which in this context underline the fashionable dimension of the products , as well as their quality. If the traders treat you as a ‘voyageur’, they are trying to underline the quality of your clothes as much as the expectations linked to this status and its appearance. The ‘voyageur’ is demanding with regards to quality, which he or she supposedly knows about because he comes from Europe or elsewhere, but also because he is able to pay. The category is not in the least related to travel – it is a characteristic that one is supposed to reflect, as well as a commercial category, one that works to flatter the customer and raise the trader’s chances of getting a ‘higher bid’, as it were.

A young man calls me and asks me if I want a ‘real phone’. He emphasises that those offered on the street are for the ‘little ones’.

‘You are a big man, come and I sell you the real options’, he says.

By this, he means that the backyard and in the small, cramped shops that are in the small corridors of the avenue, is where the ‘real’, original products are. He adds : ‘Outside, it is the “bulk products” that people are selling. Since you haven’t found anything, because I’ve been watching you for a while, that means you’re looking for options. So I’m showing you a real phone with options.’

A few minutes later, we cross the street, followed by children who asked us if we could spare any change. In the dark corridors of a quite unsanitary-looking building, we arrived at a small shop where second-hand laptops of all brands were stored, as well as second-hand phones and a few USB drives, computer chargers, central units and discs. The young man introduced me to the seller, stressing that I am looking for an ‘option’. The seller, a man in his forties, took out 4 smartphones from under his small counter – two iPhones (a 6 and a 7), one Samsung Galaxy and a latest generation Motorola phone. ‘Voyageur, since you want the options, here’s what we have … but if they are not good, I can call for something else. We have everything here, but across several stores.’, he says.

Mobile phone seller in Yaoundé. Photo by Patrick Awondo (CC BY)

After paying 80,000 XOF (around €122), I came out with a used iPhone 6 that I quickly tried to test by introducing the SIM card I had bought at the call box earlier. It should be noted that in this business, there is no guarantee. The only real guarantee is often to establish a relationship with the seller and locate him and his partners in order to be able to return in the event of a problem.

What I have just described is a mundane scene from the city of Yaoundé. Kennedy Avenue is the centre of the life and traffic of the smartphone and the telephone more generally. People who want to buy a smartphone, whether new or used, would first go to this part of the city. It is a place recognised for the possibilities it offers, located in the heart of the downtown shopping district and considered locally to be the heart of “telephone culture” and digital life.

Below is a short video showing the phones that might be on offer in one of Yaoundé’s mobile phone shops: