The views expressed here are those of the interviewee. The following interview has been translated from French to English, and in certain instances has been edited for clarity.
Valery is my neighbor and good friend. He has frequently watched my cat for me when I’ve been out of town and is, in my opinion, a very forward thinking person with big ideas and a big heart.
Name: Nouma Assouma, Paul Valery. I have two African names and two European names. Nouma is my father’s name, and Assouma is a name that was given to me that means “a person who always finds his way”. Paul is a European name and Valery is a French name. So that is the meaning of what I am.
Profession: Well… Here in Cameroon and we’re young people that are in a very competitive world where you need to set down your marks before having an occupation, so I do many things. I’m a teacher and I’m a Senior Youth and Action Instructor, so those are my principal occupations for now. And I’m equally doing counseling of young people, a youth counselor. I don’t really work in an organization, it’s a personal initiative [that I have]. It’s a personal initiative because I have the burden of [having] a good society. The burden of a young person who was well brought up and who has self confidence in his own community. In school, where I help, I teach science subjects. I teach science subjects because of the burden I carry, the burden for a good world, a world without pollution a world where nature is respected, so I opted to teach science subjects in secondary school… Physics, chemistry, biology.
Who currently lives in your house with you? In my house, we are what they call the “African family”. So I live with my mom, my sister and my nieces. And [also] my cousin, Elodie. So we live like that in that home and we like it. I’m the only man in my family for the moment.
Are you from Obala/the Center region? If not, where are you from and why did you relocate here? I was born in Obala, schooled in Obala for the first years in secondary school and then I went to Yaounde to complete my high school education and my university studies. And after that I went to Kribi for my professional studies and then I came back to Obala, to help. I came back because here in Obala I had a lot of responsibilities to help young people. Obala is like my homeland, and I had a burden to help the young people of my homeland to have what I said before, to have self-confidence in them[selves], to know that even though they were born in Obala and are living in Obala everything is not lost. They can gain more from learning. So that is why I came back to Obala, even though I’m working in Yaounde but I’m always in Obala to do that job.
What is your favorite meal? Haha, favorite meal… I like eating vegetables, and [maybe] a piece of meat. But principally vegetables. It’s different than most people I talk to. The fact is that I am a sensitive person. When I was doing biology in school all the time we were to kill animals for studying so I was like… I pitied the animals. So that was when I started getting afraid of eating a lot of meat. So I have a certain engagement in protecting animals, in my private environment, so that is why I don’t really eat a lot of meat. I eat meat when I have an occasion to do that, maybe I’m with friends or in a family meeting, so I can eat it, but as a personal initiative it is difficult [for me] to go to the market and buy meat for myself. And it’s also more expensive here [than vegetables are].
Which household chore do you like the least? I don’t like doing laundry. I don’t like doing laundry because in Cameroon, and in my tribe, a man is not supposed to work in the house. When you are born a man you have other tasks to do, like going to the farm, weeding the grass, and taking family decisions, going out every day to search for funds to keep the family going on. So we grew up with that behavior and sometimes if you’re not a smart person you end up not doing anything, not doing any house work and then you end up being just like me, not liking [doing] laundry. The rest of the work in the house, I do them because of passion and because I like joking. I like joking by imitating the girls, that’s why sometimes I can cook while joking, I can clean the house while joking, because I like joking. Not really because I need to do that. For me it’s just to keep the environment funny, I’m the only boy in my home, I have a lot of sisters and cousins so I don’t think I have so much to do at home. I can only do it for fun.
What is your favorite thing about Obala? Well what’s great about living here in Obala, it is the complexity of the people. That is, we are all mixed here. Obala is like a small Cameroon, you can find all the tribes, the people from the North, the people from the Western region, the people from the Center region, the people from the South… everybody is here in Obala. And what I like here is that Obala is a growing town, it has a lot of opportunities that are just [starting] to be detected so that the people can take advantage of that. So that is why I like Obala. It’s a small town where you can find everything you need here, the market is not too far, you have the town, the quartiers [which] are not too far, you can easily say hi to a friend and everybody is like living in the same pot, a melting pot of behaviors and you need to find your way here. The market is open every day, the church is not too far, you have many churches, many religions that live together, we have many tribes that live together. It’s really a complex, a complex of religion, behaviors, tribes, and here we are happy to be here. That is why I like being here.
What is something you wish you could change about Obala? Something that bothers you. The mentality. Directly, the mentality. It means that you know they usually say here in Obala that life is difficult. Life becomes more and more difficult as the day goes on. But I say, life does not become difficult but our behaviors change as the day goes on. So we need to change our behavior to change our life. So if they ask me what I really need to change in this town it is the behavior, the mentality of the people because here there is a general feeling of not being self-acting [proactive]. So people are always thinking they are poor, they have problems, they don’t eat much, they don’t have much money, but we can live without all that; if you consider what you have then you consider your life. So that is what I really need to change here if I was given the chance. To tell the people that everything is possible. For instance, you don’t need to throw the dirt everywhere on the street because there is no dustbin. We can organize ourselves and produce dustbins. A dustbin is something that is not really expensive, we don’t need to buy it, you can take an old bucket and place it somewhere and then people can throw their dirt [trash] in. We don’t need money for that. We don’t need money to be kind to somebody, you don’t need money to really appreciate the life you have. So all that is the mentality. And we don’t need to always think that elsewhere is better than here. It’s true we have a lot of problems, linked to the political state of the country, but if we consider the life we have then I think Obala will be better than that.
What do you wish you had more of? Something I need to have more of is… education. Yes, education. Because he who keeps studying does not get old. That is the only thing I would like to have forever. And for that, I will do anything to acquire it. I can sleep outside just because I want to be educated. I want to learn more. That is my passion.
Who is your role model and why? My model is somebody that respects humanity. And I really appreciate the Tibetan monk that they call the Dalai Lama. I really appreciate him and all his peers, that is all the people that work in the same line with him and who appreciate humanity. When I talk of humanity I mean the environment, the flora and fauna, the people… so [he] is really a model for me in life. Because if you don’t appreciate humanity then I don’t think you should live on this earth of ours.
If you had 1,000,000 CFA, what would you do with it? [Laughs] If I had one million CFA? I would get engaged in a business. I would get engaged in like, agricultural business, agri-business, where I will invest to employ. I would invest to employ because one of my dreams is to be an employer, and help young people that come from grade school to have jobs. Because it’s not necessary to go out and become an engineer, become an accountant and stay at home. It’s not necessary. So if we can have some small business unit where we employ young people coming out from school, from universities so that they can maybe continue paying their studies and helping their own families then I think that everybody will be happy. [My business will be] helping youth become more independent. I don’t want to invest in a business [just] to do hoarding, that is, to store money, to maybe build a home that I will live in that will not help somebody, that will help only me alone. But if I had a million francs I will try and invest in a business where I will employ one or two young people that will equally take care of their own families. Agribusiness, being like a middle man. [Because] starting a farm, having the rights to the raw materials, that is, planting maybe a cocoa farm… that is too expensive. [But] with one million you can open a shop and employ two young people who are maybe walking around the quartier having nothing to do. You can employ them in the shops. And if they have 50,000 a month that’s better for them than to have nothing. You can open a shop with a million francs (about $1,700) here in Obala.
If you could travel anywhere tomorrow, where would you go and why? Directly, North America. Canada or the U.S. because I want to learn more. You know, to earn the moon you need to target the stars. If you target the moon, I think you won’t even get out of the earth’s atmosphere. So, the summit of the world nowadays is the western world. And I don’t really appreciate Europe. I appreciate America because of the way people live there, the mentality, and having in mind to learn more, I think such environments are conducive for people who want to change the world. You know many people will think it’s because its America, it’s not because it’s America. In old days people were leaving Europe to go to Egypt because Egypt was the summit of the world. Where civilization started, where the pyramids were first built. Today it’s America, tomorrow it might be Africa and the migration will change the direction. You need to target the stars in order to obtain the moon. That is just the reason. I don’t [want to travel to] Europe because, first of all, Europe is an old continent, where people seem to have [already] obtained the summit and there’s nothing to learn there for me anymore. Nothing to learn in Europe, because the Europeans themselves moved to North America… to learn more. I don’t think there’s something to learn from Europe again because here in Cameroon we study in school in our history books, in our geography books, the history of Europe. All the time, since I was born I know many things about Europe that I don’t think that the Europeans themselves know. So for me, I have nothing more to learn there. All my books at home are from France. I know Italy. I know the history of France, from Napoleon Bonaparte and even before that until today. The same thing with Italy. All the time. So for me, Europe is like, all the substance of it has gone out. So somebody going to Europe… well it depends on their choice, but my choice is North America.
Who loves you today? Somebody in my life who loves me today? That is, I think, the most difficult question of this questionnaire. I think that. Because there are many parameters [to it]. Love is… You know the bible says God is love. I can equally say love is God. So if you can know God in his entirety that means you can know love in its entirety. You’ll know it at the second level and the rest you’ll never know it throughout your lifetime. So speaking of the question of love, I always most of the time shut up. Because for me it is the only thing that can escape from my life, throughout my lifetime. You can come on earth, be born, grow up for more than 100 years and you never know what they call love because it is God himself. But I cannot say that nobody loves me. I can pretend to say that somebody loves me and I will try just because of the interview to think of somebody loves me because of what I obtained in return from that person. I think my father and my mother love me because they took care of me. I suppose they love me. For the rest, Rachel, that is a very difficult question. I thought you would ask who I love, because I would say I love everybody. Because I cannot pretend to say that somebody loves me, but I can say I love somebody. That is easier. I think I love everybody. Those who love me and those who hate me, because I’m unable to hate anyone. I can answer that way, it’s easier.
Tell me about a traditional practice from your culture. One of my favorite traditional practices is the burial ceremony. In the burial ceremony that is where you’ll see the Eton tradition in all its entirety. That is where you’ll see the young people coming together working hand in hand with the old people, that is where you’ll see the future working together with the past. And that is the only place you can see that. That is only place a child of ten years can be respected in the same way as a man of 100 years, just because of his position in the family. Just because of his background in the family. I can be a child and be the representative of the whole community just because my father was the only son of a given family. So during the burial ceremony nothing can start if I’m not there, for instance. Nothing. Where I’m the youngest person no traditional dance can happen, nothing can be spoken if I’m not there. So the burial ceremony for me is my favorite traditional practice in the Eton culture.
What in your opinion is the biggest obstacle or hindrance to Cameroon’s development? What is the biggest things Cameroon needs to change in order to compete with other African countries? I like this question. And my answer will surprise you. The great challenge here in Cameroon like in many other African countries is the notion of God. We give all to God and nothing for ourselves. And we ask God to do everything for us and we do nothing for ourselves. It’s God who made the minister to become a minister, it’s God who made that child to be an engineer, its God who places (elects) the president and it’s only God who can remove him, it’s God who can give us food, it’s God who cultivates our crops, it’s God that gives us our farms… I think that we ask a lot of God. If we start working for ourselves and making our decisions according to the rules and regulations I think that God will rest and we are going to work and have a better future. The problem is that corruption comes behind religion. When something is not clear, when the facts are not clear, there is [the potential for] corruption. If everything was clear corruption would not have the strength to get into the game. People are using religion as a means to steal, as a means to get involved in corruption, as a means to serve themselves. For instance, somebody in a village who has had the chance to become maybe an officer in the army for instance, maybe a colonel, and he is from the village, he will tell the people that it’s God who made him to become the colonel in the army and he becomes chief of the village and directly he will take all the land because it is from God. They will consider that he came from God and so he must be given everything he needs, everything is centered on him. Corruption just will set in and in that village poverty is inevitable. If he doesn’t say you should have initiative you can’t have initiative, if he doesn’t give you the permission to do something you can’t do something, you need to acquire every permission from him, every power comes from him. And corruption is inevitable and when he becomes used to that he will be not be able to leave his conditions, maybe to go out for retirement, he will not accept retirement because he knows that he will go to the village and not be able to have a brand new car anymore. He will be an old man, so he will live there for life. So I think behind religion, religion is not only a western religion, even our own traditions. So I think that we should take our personal initiatives and leave mystical in-understandable facts aside for us to have a better life. China did the same. Europe did the same. For the industrial revolution in Europe they started counting on themselves. If Europeans had waited for God to build an airplane I don’t think we would have airplanes today. Because they started working for that, if they just waited for God to give them everything, they could not have electricity. So we need that for ourselves, and to think for our future. People always think God will do everything. God will replant the trees that we cut every day in the forest, God will give us back the oxygen we are destroying through pollution, God will give us back the children we are sacrificing every day… I think we still have a century or five centuries to go…
What is one thing you wish Americans knew about you or your culture or country? [Laughs] Hello my American fellow brothers! I want to tell you that Cameroon is not the jungle. Here in Cameroon it’s true that we belong to different cultures, we belong to different countries, we have different behaviors, but we belong to the same generation. My wish is that our generation should leave its own mark on earth so that they can talk of our generation as they talk of the generation of Neal Armstrong, the generation of Mussolini, Stalin, and other great people that passed through the earth and left their own mark in their own generation. My wish is that our own generation should also leave its own mark. The world has become today a global village. Being in Cameroon is not like being in hell. You are in the U.S., I’m in Cameroon, I don’t know you but I think that the day I will meet you on the street and we do two days of friendship, it will be as if we were born in the same place. Cameroonians are vested in understanding other people’s culture and I also think that it’s the same for the American people. They are interested in getting involved in other people’s culture. Don’t be afraid of Africa, we don’t live in huts anymore. We don’t live on trees, and we don’t eat only by hunting and fishing. We use Facebook, we use Twitter. I’ve watched CNN throughout my life. All the events that take place in the U.S. I can know them right here in Obala. I have friends all over the world, like Rachel just sitting in front of me here in Obala. So dear brothers of the U.S. (sorry to call you brothers because that is our behavior here in Africa when somebody is your friend you call him a brother) we are waiting for you in Cameroon. It is another horizon where you can learn more. And don’t forget what I said. We should leave a mark in our own generation. We should not only be known just for terrorism, or hatred, appetite, cultural differences, tribalism like you’re a white I’m a black, those are olden day thoughts. Today I can be a black, it’s true, but I can have a wife who is white. I can love a white more than a black simply because of her way of seeing things. It’s not because of the color of her skin or the color of my skin, those are olden day thoughts. We can’t live like those people were living. We have evolved. Our children will not equally live like us, they will go one step ahead. We have gone one step ahead, so let us live in our generation. Our children will have the stories from our generation and then they will go a step forward and live in their own. We are different but we are the same, because we belong in the same generation. Thank you.