Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Introducing the Humans of Cameroon

Changing the narrative of your country, one status update at a time

A Cameroonian from the Facebook page of Humans of Cameroon

Humans of New York, a website and Facebook page (now even an app) showcasing ordinary New Yorkers, is sitting at almost 11,5 million likes. It’s not difficult to see why. New York is perhaps the most famous city on earth. Google auto-completed the name when I typed in ‘how many songs about…’ It threw up a Wikipedia article listing songs, in alphabetical order, that reference the city, its landmarks and street names. There’s a gazillion of them!

And Cameroon? Google started with ‘10 fun and interesting Cameroon facts’. And the first fact was: ‘Cameroon is the first African country to reach the quarter-final in soccer world cup.’ I bet you don’t even know what the capital of Cameroon is. I had to look it up and I’m from South Africa. Many Africans would roll their eyes and say, ‘Typical!’ Well, it’s Yaoundé.

If you’ve been watching news recently, then you would know that Cameroon helped her neighbour Nigeria by launching airstrikes against the extremist group Boko Haram. Pretty feisty for a country that generally only gets into the news because of its football players making a name in European leagues.

Equally feisty is a Facebook page a friend asked me to like, called Humans of Cameroon. My first thought was that this must be a copycat of the massively popular Humans of New York. Then I clicked on the link and this jumps up at me:

And then this:

I was taken by the sheer humanity of these stories. This was so far from the stereotypical depiction of Africans that either needed charity or came second to their wildlife and spectacular landscapes. Because of media priorities such as proximity (it is in our backyard), impact (it is massive and we are affected by it) and prominence (it involves celebrity), countries such as Cameroon hardly make it on the media radar. When they do make it into the news then, it is because of something negative.

When I shared the page with my Facebook buddies, this is the response from one of them:

“A gem of a FB find on this last day of 2014 (thanks to Adli Jacobs). Brilliant unmediated African voices — the kind we never get to access through mainstream media.”

In a sense, the creators of Humans of Cameroon have applied the New York example as a genre. There have been other cities and countries that have done the same. In Cameroon’s case it acts to reposition (or repackage) the country by foregrounding its people and allowing their voices to contribute to how that nation is seen. And yet, in a sense, it also acts as a counter-balance to Humans of New York whose lives are evidently more affluent, residing in a city that is the darling of the world.

There is no Statue of Liberty in Cameroon, no Empire State building, no Broadway or Time Square. There is no Madison Square Garden or famously numbered streets in Yaoundé, the capital. But there is in Cameroon, despite a past of two colonial masters (the British and French), despite a president who refuses to say goodbye, despite being beset by corruption, despite the threat of civil tension boiling over from neighbouring Nigeria, these amazing people…

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