In Search of 500,000 Missing School Children in Conflict-Stricken Anglophone Cameroon

In Search of 500,000 Missing School Children in Conflict-Stricken Anglophone Cameroon

Colbert Gwain

In Muteff once lived a traditional dental practitioner named Bobe Babelly. He would travel kilometers touting his concoction as the best toothache medication ever produced in Cameroon. When he was still vending the concoction around Fundong Sub Division in the Boyo Division of the North West Province by then, he referred to it as ‘Cameroon’. The  moment he started trekking to Bamenda and selling the medication there, he changed the name to ‘Africa’, on grounds it was now being consumed across the African continent.

All the proceeds Bobe Babelly made from the sale of the toothache medicine were used to sponsor his child, Isau Gham, in distant St. James Comprehensive Collenge, Ndop, in the then larger Mezam Division. Bobe Babelly would begin vending the concoction from Fundong Market through Njinikom, to Belo markets, and then to Bamenda. As he returned to the village, he would announce to whoever cared to listen that he was taking off for Ndop the next day to see to it that all his son’s school needs were met. After each trip to Ndop, he would tell everyone on his way how he went to the school and all the teachers and students were only appreciative of the fact that his son was the most intelligent student in the school. He would even narrate how the teachers assured him his son would be recruited to teach in the same school upon graduation.

When Isau Gham left NCC Ndop, he was immediately admitted into Nursing School where, upon graduation, he was recruited to work at the Njinikom Catholic Hospital. After each visit his father, Bobe Babelly, made to the hospital, he returned to the village to say how Isau was the best ‘doctor’ at the Njinikom hospital and how, if not of him patients would have been dying there each day. He would narrate how he came visiting and saw white medical doctors at the hospital instead listening and learning from his son, Isau. He would even boost that but for his rejection,  the white doctors would have taken Isau abroad to be treating Europeans; he had, in fact, advised his son to stay back in Africa and continue to save lives. He touted how Isau could only be able to conquer the world thanks to the education he enabled Isau to acquire in far-away Ndop, whereas other parents were contented with encouraging their children to go do labour-intensive work in cocoa farms down South.

Bobe Babelly might have been so talkative about his mission and vision of making sure his child received an education at whatever cost, but Muteff had a good number of parents who went out of the way to send their children to school despite the distances covered. Bobe Fulai Bain sent his children to school in distant Nkwen in Bamenda, Mezam Division. His son, Fulai Johnson,  would trek from Muteff to Mbingo in Belo Sub Division, before boarding a car for Bamenda, of course at a much more reduced fare.

Getting to school in those days was not just an affair for those who wanted but for those who could. The few schools that were to be found in the North West Province were mostly in Divisional headquarters. It took the dogged determination of parents like Bobe Babelly to see to it that their children went to school. If today Bobe Babelly were to get up from his grave and come back to see that the school in Muteff is closest to his compound and that virtually every village today has a school; and that it is people old enough to be parents that are barring children from going to school when he used to trek with his son, Gham, for days before getting to Ndop for his education, he would weep profusely.

The prolonged Anglophone activists’ and separatists’ campaign for school boycott that has in the last seven years seen thousands of children in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon stay out of school (which is key to unlocking their potential as it did for Babelly’s son, Gham), has cast their hopes for a better future into a downward spiral that seems never-ending. From the look of things, if the current trend of school dropouts of children from the two English-speaking regions is not broken, Anglophones would have opted for a more ruinous round of cataclysmic upheaval as more and more of their children would be excluded from the countless opportunities education offers. With thousands of school-going-aged children still unaccounted for in the school system, chances are that they are likely to end up in the wrong hands or become a real future nuisance to society.

The statistics are not only gory but grisly. According to figures from the Cameroon Teachers Trade Union, CATTU, before the outbreak of the conflict in 2016, over 650,000 children were in schools in the North West alone. By 2020, the number had dropped to 40.000. It only took the spirited campaign by education stakeholders for the figures to begin rising to 200,000 in the last academic year (2022/23). The situation was not different in the sister region of the South West. In the particular case of the North West, it is glaring that over 500,000 children that were originally enrolled in schools in 2016, are unaccounted for. They are missing from the educational chain. Tracing and bringing them back into the classroom is the challenge of the moment.

Ful was 17 years old and about to write the GCE Technical examination in GTC Muteff when the crisis broke out. Running for safety, he found solace doing manual work in cocoa farms in the Littoral Region. Attempts by concerned family members to withdraw him from the farms and back into the classroom have proved futile.

‘Leaving the farm and going back to school now is the least of my worries’, he says. ‘School doors were already closed on me and I don’t think I shall ever go back to school again’, Ful continues with lots of pain in his heart. ‘I would have been in university by now or in some professional development school, but it seems God had a different plan for me. I have come to accept my fate’, Ful says, concluding that during the last seven years, he has struggled to acquire his own farm, and that it is not doing badly.

Rose, 13, and a Form 3 student from Batibo rather took the road to Limbe, a green zone in the South West Region in 2017. To make ends meet, she became a house help for one wealthy family out there. When she was dropped from the job in 2021, she failed prey to the bad guys and soon became pregnant. Today,  she has joined the ranks of teenage mothers. She struggles with taking care of herself and the teenage boy she brought forth. For now, returning to school is the least of her priorities.

Joel, 14, and a Form 2 student who left school and his family in Ndop to meet his uncle in his cocoa farm in Mamfe in 2018, still nurses hopes of going back to school but for the fact that his uncle (who had been taking care of his education) was killed on his way back from the farm last year by a stray bullet.

That Ful, Rose, and Joel may be easily traced is not the same for the many children who have been dropping out of school due to the school boycott campaign sponsored by activists abroad and separatist fighters on ground. Of the 500.000 currently missing from the school rolls, comes to add the many children who have been attaining the school-going age in the last seven years but unable to enroll even at the elementary level.

The missing 500,000 school children shall be a nuisance to the next generation especially when it shall be recounted that they were being forced to drop out of school or not to enroll for political reasons, and that those who flouted the idea sent their own children to schools abroad or elsewhere.

The 2022 Education Cluster data from Palestine is indicative of the fact that although explosive weapons affected 305 schools and kindergartens in Palestine between 2019 and 2021, school enrollment rates in Palestine still remained the highest in the region. The seven-year conflict in the two English Speaking Regions of Cameroon has destroyed the hopes and ambitions of generations of children. The school boycott campaign has only succeeded in promoting intolerance and exclusion, thereby denying children academic freedom and their fundamental right to association.  It has left thousands of young girls like Rose, vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. Education contributes to the full enjoyment of human rights and freedoms. Attacking it therefore, becomes a gross violation of the fundamental human right.

The UN Declaration on Safe Schools during armed conflict is resolute on the fact that hindering children from going to school during armed conflict is a grave violation and UN Security Council Resolutions 1998 (2011) and 2143 (2014), urge all parties to armed conflict to refrain from actions that impede children’s access to education and warns against any party contravening in the application of this International law.

But right NOW, we are far behind the fundraising goals we set for The Colbert Factor to support school resumption in the local Muteff community. We wish we were faster so we quickly close this chapter and settle down to our ever-demanding job of creating the kind of relevant content you have always loved.

Will you support The Colbert Factor today to send over 200 dropouts back to school in the adjacent village communities of Muteff, Abuh, and Ngwah? Just MoMo 677852476

And you would be putting a smile on someone’s face with your widow’s mighty mite

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