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The Pope in Cameroon (1): Yaoundé Clean Up Controversy

Pope Benedict XVI is visiting Cameroon from 17 to 20 March 2009. This has led the government to take some radical clean-up measures as described by Griet,Thorsten, Jara and Lisa blog:

1 All small shops, houses, vendor's stalls that don't look nice enough are being destroyed with a large caterpillar. The truck comes by, looks at your stall/house/whatever and if the driver doesn't like, he just destroys it with all its content. It all started about a week ago in the city centre. Suddenly the streets did not house streetvendors anymore, all the local shops at the post office disappeared etc. Now it's been extended all the way to the airport.
2 The road to the airport has brand new streetlights. But then ONLY the way from the airport to the town centre.
3 Tuesday (for sure, other days to be confirmed) the road between airport and town centre will be blocked. Note: the pope arrives in the evening, but the road needs to be blocked from EARLY MORNING. Hence nobody can get to/from work, school etc.

This post also links to another blog by an expertriate family Sander Elke en Milan that has has photos of the destruction to roadside shops in the streets of Yaounde.

This demolition has sparked a debate on the blogs of two expatriates in Cameroon. Συγκακοπαθησον a blog maintained by a missionary in Cameroon posted on the changes to the outlook of Yaounde as a aresult of the Pope's coming.

So what’s my take on the whole thing? It’s nice that the city is getting a face-lift – it sure makes things look a lot nicer, and the big street lights make driving at night or trying to get a taxi along the main route so much easier and safer – but it’s sad that this clean-up has to mean the destruction of people’s way of life. Unfortunately, these people were simply ignorant of the “rules,” some willfully so, and are now facing the consequences. The sad part is that it seems the government was content to just let things be (possibly for as long as 10 years or longer) until something big came up, like the Pope’s arrival. If they had taken these structures down as soon as they went up, there wouldn’t be this kind of destruction of people’s livelihood now. Then again, I guess the law is still the law even when it’s not enforced.

This point of view wasn't really shared by British-born VSO volunteer blogging at Our Man in Cameroon. His reaction in a post entitled Impossible Missionary was simple:

Street stalls are a way of life here. They are everywhere. It’s easy just to say they are illegal but they can be pretty solid structures. What’s more, if they are illegal I’d imagine that they have only been allowed to remain because someone, somewhere is taking a regular few thousands Francs in bribes.
People here struggle. You can bet these structures don’t turn over much and in a country where enterprise and entrepreneurship is so minimal…well what a way to reward it.I ask you, if you are in general agreement with what I have written and also find the missionary’s take as ignorant as I do, to leave a comment. Not below but instead on the missionaries own blog.

However, readers still commented on this story on the Our Man in Cameroon blog. The reactions got to a point that, Karis, the wife of the missionary stepped-up in defence of her husband:

Wow! I never knew my husband could cause such a stir. I think sometimes we think that only people that know us read our blogs and those people know how to take what we write instead of tearing it apart line by line without knowing us at all. Trav, thanks for putting in a good word. Dad A, thanks for the humor. You always put a smile on my face. I just wish all of you that commented here and on his blog knew my husband — you wouldn’t be so harsh as you pull apart sentences.
He and I have had many conversations about how horrible it is that people’s livelihood is taken away from them and all for a few days visit from the Pope. When we were in town on Monday and saw stuff being thrown into trucks, it made me sick to my stomach. More than once, we said, “But how are people going to eat tonight? and the next day and the next day?” It goes even beyond that in…
And then today, I saw him helping people move their sewing machines, their tables, their bags of stuff farther down on our road as the government came through with the bulldozer. No, that was not emphasized enough in this post to show all of our conversations and actions, but wow… that doesn’t mean that my husband doesn’t feel for the people here! Maybe I can convince him to write another post, but I’m not sure because it may be best just to leave this rather than getting things torn apart again. I’d better just stop. A wife sticking up for her wonderful husband isn’t much of a mind changer.

The exchanges did not end at that. This Papal visit has quite some twists to it on the blogoshpere!

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