'Cameroon has grown up', says first white woman mayor
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Marie-Hélène Ngoa-Guislain, a white French-born academic, has a tough job ahead of her as mayor of an impoverished town in central Cameroon. But in the face of endemic corruption, she believes there is still hope for this young republic.
Marie-Hélène Ngoa-Guislain is no ordinary Cameroonian.
The 69-year-old French woman was elected mayor of the town of Akono in July 2007, and in so doing became the first white woman to achieve such a position in post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa.
It isn’t something she could have anticipated when she started her career.
Back in 1960, when Cameroon threw off the yoke of French colonial rule, Ngoa-Guislain was a student of applied mathematics in northern France.
“There were many Cameroonian students in France at the time,” she told FRANCE 24. “They were all extremely enthusiastic about going back home to build a new country.”
“I embraced this idea enthusiastically – by embracing a Cameroonian myself,” she added. She met her future husband in 1963 and they got married three years later.
The couple moved to Cameroon in 1970, and she decided to stay in her adopted country after her husband’s death in 1975.
The senior IT lecturer integrated quickly, not just because of her family links but also because of her work, which brought her quickly to the heart of the young republic.
“I trained Cameroon’s first generation of IT experts,” she says, not without a hint of pride, adding that she has been responsible for the IT systems at the Catholic University of Central Africa since 1994.
But Ngoa-Guislain is critical of a “brain drain” of the best minds from Cameroonian academia to the West.
“In all sectors and disciplines, young Cameroonians are just as well trained and competent as their counterparts in other countries,” she said. “But many of them have exiled themselves to places such as France.” There, she points, they are paid up to ten times what they could expect at home.
And this problem is compounded, she believes, by the negative influence of the former colonial ruler in the opposite direction.
“Cameroon has grown up,” she insists. “So why then do the country’s ministries rely so heavily on foreign – and especially French – experts? Even the president has a French advisor.”
These setbacks poured fuel on the fire of her deep-rooted ambitions to help the country grow, and since the mid-1990s Ngoa-Guislain has been politically active in Akono, the birth town of her late husband.
She launched a “friendship and sharing” association to help tackle the worst of the town’s poverty, and in so doing built a team of supporters. She was a candidate for mayor in 2002, and despite losing tried again and was elected in July 2007.
Huge debts, little income
And she has a huge challenge. Akono is one of the poorest towns in Cameroon.
Incomes, and therefore local taxes, are small while the municipality’s debts are counted in the millions.
There are plenty of ideas – a swimming pool, municipal housing projects –, but money is tight.
"Where is the state?" she demands.
In recent decades there have been a number of government programmes to fight poverty and raise the standard of living in Cameroon. But Ngoa-Guislain deplores what she considers to be a waste of resources.
“I believe in education,” she says. “Enrolment is high but there is a stark lack of facilities and teachers. The country has been building schools willy-nilly, spending money unwisely. These schools have no chairs, no tables, no blackboards. Transport is almost exclusively private, far too expensive for too many, meaning pupils have to walk to school or not go at all.”
Much of the problem is endemic corruption: “A lot of public money fills many a pocket before it reaches the people who need it. And everybody knows it.”
Three years after a large chunk of the country’s debt was cancelled, Cameroon has taken out a loan of 144 million dollars with the International Monetary Fund.
And the country’s president, Paul Biya, in power since 1982, has been in the spotlight in France for alleged lavish spending while his countrymen languish in poverty. Last summer, it was reported that he had spent 80,000 euros on a three-week holiday in the French coastal resort of La Baule.
But “Madame le Maire” Ngoa-Guislain is pushing forward in Akono, using many of her own means. She is hoping to establish a sister-city agreement with the French town of Rhinau in Alsace, which would see cooperative cultural exchanges, and so in her own way is not setting about burning bridges with France.
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