Back home, I’m hyper-aware of my race: I’m black, and I love my blackness, my family and the culture of positivity we’ve built together. The love that’s been built up by hundreds of people both in and out of my biological family created in me an unmovable foundation of confidence and respect for humanity. When I first arrived in Cameroon, my host family and all the people I met through our host showered me and my peers with a similar love. Each person greeted us saying, “You are welcome here,” and it felt sincere! From people buying us food, showing us around town and their homes, to revisiting the airport day after day to look for our lost luggage (I’m looking @ you, Turkish Airlines), generosity surrounded us the moment we arrived.
I came to Cameroon to work with an agricultural company that processes cassava into flour, powder fufu and other cassava products. In addition to working with the company during the week, we spent our first two weekends exploring a beautiful coastal city surrounded by mountains and an active volcano. Though the volcano hasn’t erupted since the late 90’s, political tensions are heating up like magma. As I understand it, a minority of present day Cameroon was colonized by the British while a majority was colonized by the French, and as a result much of the official documents and business are written and spoken in French which has resulted in the marginalization of Anglophone populations. I got a small taste of the effects of the growing unrest on our way back from a brief excursion to the beach. During the ride, my host, his sister-in-law, the two MIT students that also came to Cameroon with me, and I, took photographs of the breathtaking view of the trees revealing islands off the coast of the country.
Although we hadn’t seen it, there was a sign posted that no pictures were to be taken of a nearby oil rig. We were swiftly pulled over by a Cameroonian police officer, and he took my phone. I was immediately terrified and suspicious. My host got out of the car and spoke with him briefly before the officer got on his bike and led us to the oil rig that was under extra protection by the government from violence. He then walked away with the officer, and I began to think of all the cases of police brutality and violence specifically against people who look like me that I had heard about in America. In recent years, especially towards the end of high school and beginning of college, I became more cognizant of and concerned with of the dangerous nature of the police in my own country. I was aware of some of the history of riots in my own city, Newark, that began in response to police violence in the late 60s, but with cases of police murdering unarmed black people like Terence Crutcher, Walter Scott, and even children like Tamir Rice within the last 5 years, I quickly realized that the end of the ‘Civil Rights Era” certainly did not bring safety or justice from police to black people.
I ran simulations in my head, wondering what we would do if this officer suddenly decided to shoot my friend. This moment made me realize that my fear of police officers taking the law into their own hands was not left in the United States and is not dampened by the country or color of the person holding the gun.
In the end, our host simply spoke to the officer and explained our situation; we were returned our phones. Both our host and the officers came over to try to assuage our fears, but we still felt intimidated and uncomfortable. Afterwards, I spoke to another MIT student on the trip about being traumatized by news stations constantly showing images and examples of black people not receiving justice for their deaths at the hands of the police. I reflected on my childhood and the conversations my parents had with my brothers and even me about the respect we should show to police officers. I told her that in the back of my mind, especially by the time I reached college, I felt that I or my brothers could be killed in our own homes just for being black or being mistaken for another black person.
Our host said that during the last volcanic eruption in the late 90s, if the lava had reached the sea, the sulfur dioxide released as gas would have killed everyone in the city; it was an incredible measure of fate that the lava stopped merely 200 meters from the sea. My hope is that in a similar fashion, the rising violence and tensions quell before reaching mass bloodshed. In my own life, I am working to combat the trauma and fear of authorities by educating myself and working with young people to be empowered to work together and create solutions for imbalances of power that lead to violence. I hope to find ways to heal my own trauma and the trauma of people in my communities.
Gabrielle ‘Gabby’ Ballard is a rising senior studying anthropology and computer science. This summer, she is conducting market research for an agricultural start-up that converts cassava into hypoallergenic, gluten free flour in Muyuka, Cameroon.