Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 11. Nr. Dezember 2001

Varying Statuses and Perceptions of English in Cameroon

A diachronic and synchronic analysis

Augustin Simo Bobda (Yaounde)

The statuses and perceptions of English in Cameroon have changed with the life cycle of English in British colonies in general, as sketched out in Appendix 1, with the history of Cameroon, whose landmarks are shown in Appendix 2, and with the various categories of Cameroonians who use English or make decisions concerning it. The present study focuses on the following periods: the transportation and transplantation period, the colonial years and the early post-Independence years, and the turn of the millennium.


Transportation and transplantation period

The transplantation and transportation period spans from the 15th to the 19th century. Although the British, having taken the lead over the other Europeans, dominated the Cameroonian coast only at the end of the 19th century, Cameroon had been exposed to to contact with some English much earlier, although it is not known exactly when. Already, Mbassi-Manga (1973) reports that English privateers were present in Portuguese boats, the first appearance of which can be traced to the year 1472, when the Portuguese are said to have "discovered" Cameroon. The literature does not generally stress the fact that West Africa, including Cameroon, was the first part of the world to be exposed to the English outside Britain. The other communities, like America, Australia, New Zealand as well as old colonies like India, which have adopted English as their mother tongue, were all established later.

During the long period of transportation and transplantation, English had all the characteristics of a foreign language, being spoken by only a tiny handful of British sailors, merchants and traders. It had the same status as the other European languages on the West African coast, that is, Dutch, Spanish, German, French, and obviously Portuguese. In fact, a Pidgin Portuguese idiom developed on the coast, and remained in use for some time before eventually being displaced by Pidgin English as a lingua franca.

The British did not feel particularly motivated to settle on the coast as colonizers and spread their language, even when they were expressly called upon to do so. There is the well-known story of the Duala Kings, who unsuccessfully begged Queen Victoria for a long time to make their territories a British protectorate. When Hewett returned from his leave in Britain to arrange for the annexation after the Crown had at last acceded to the Duala Kings' requests, it was too late. A German envoy had already hoisted the German flag on the bank of the River Wouri, thus marking the beginning of German colonization. There are, indeed, several other stories about the reluctance of the British to establish African colonies until the "scramble for Africa" began at the end of the 19th century. Another tale concerns the Chief of the Basutho (present Lesotho) who likewise begged the British to make his chiefdom their protectorate. It should be noted that many of these petitions for British annexation were motivated by the local king's quest for protection from their neighbors at a time when Africa was torn by warfare between the multiplicity of kingdoms there.

British initial reluctance to colonize African territories was part of a deliberate option not to settle in Africa. The British were interested in Africa for trade, but mostly they preferred to settle in the Caribbean, in India and in Australia (see, for example, Gorlach 1991:126). Gorlach (ibid) reports that Britain mostly needed islands (e.g. St Helena and Mauritius) or ports and forts as stepping-stones to these destinations. One of the demotivating factors for the British was the presence on the coast of mosquitoes which caused malaria, the killer of large numbers of Europeans in the early days.

In addition to British presence, missionary activities of the American Presbyterian Church and of the Sierra Leonean Krios contributed to the spread of some forms of English on the Cameroonian coast and even in the hinterland. From Sierra Leone (founded by the British in 1787 to settle freed slaves from Jamaica), the Krios, as the descendants of freed slaves were called, soon disseminated to various parts of West Africa as Christian missionaries. They reached the Cameroonian coast and far beyond, spreading the word of God mostly in an early variety of West African Pidgin called Wes Kos, largely influenced by (Sierra Leone) Krio. Residues of this Krio language can be found today very far in the hinterland, even outside the religious register, as in the Ghomala language in the West Province, where borrowings like kasala, natin, hambok, tela, bunga (Krio for 'cassava, nothing, humbug, tailor, fish') are found. The standard form of English was seldom used among the indigenous population before the beginning of the 20th century. The dominant language of communication was Pidgin English.


The Colonial Period and the Early Post-independence Years

For the purpose of this paper, I will consider the colonial period to have started in 1884, the year of the Berlin Congress, where Africa was partitioned between the various colonizers, but above all the year when Cameroon began its first formal colonial experience (1) with the Germans. Very interestingly, the Germans often used English during their year of occupation. For example, some court sessions were held in English. Nachtigal used English for his negotiations with the Duala chiefs, and a representative of the Reichstag spoke English in his conversation with King Bell during a visit in Douala (Wolf 2000:47).

The colonial years, especially from 1919 when the British took over the German territory, roughly correspond to the period of institutionalization. English was then supposed to have assumed the position of second language in the classic sense of the term, which implies a more generalized use, and more access to it. But in practice, it turns out that during the British colonial period, English retained many characteristics of a foreign language, utilized by the expatriates and a very small local elite. The British themselves contributed to the perpetuation of this image, not encouraging significantly the indigenous population to acquire the standard form of their language, in fact sometimes dissuading them from doing so.

The literature shows that this kind of linguistic apartheid was characteristic of British colonial policy in many parts of the world. Kachru (1986:22) notes that, while English language deficiencies made the colonized an object of ridicule, the acquisition of "native-like" competence made them suspect. Kachru thus echoes Christerphesen (1973:83), who asserts that to some British people, a non-native speaker whose English pronunciation sounds too British is considered to be intruding into British privacy: "It is as if an uninvited guest started making free of his host's possessions".

In the case of Cameroon, in particular, colonial archives give ample support to the fact that the promotion of the English language was none of Britain's priorities. British neglect was felt throughout the whole educational system, which was the means by which Cameroonians would have had access to Standard English. Wolf (2000:75) indicates that the neglect of education in Cameroon under the British grew worse with the economic crisis in the 1930s. Because of economic difficulties London stopped construction of new subsidized schools, which eventually led to stagnation in education. The Basel Mission, one of the main providers of education, ran short of money.

Wolf (2000) notes in several parts of his work that the United Nations complained about British indifference to educational problems in the colonies. A comparison with French colonial educational policy brings out clearly the failings of Britain in Cameroon. While French Cameroon as early as the Fifties had high schools like Lycee Leclerc in Yaounde, created in 1952, Colleges Modernes, which later developed into Lycee Joss in Douala, and Lycee Manengouba in Nkongsamba, the first Anglophone government high schools were not created before the sixties, e.g. CCAST Bambili and CCAST Kumba. The popular schools in the colonial British period were teacher-training colleges, whose objective was to train teachers mostly for primary schools. The few secondary schools in existence before the 1960s were mission schools (e.g. CPC Bali, St Joseph College Sasse, Buea, Queen of the Rosary College Okoyong, Mamfe) and only led to the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level. After the "O" Level, pupils pursued their studies in Nigeria.

Britain has often been praised for its promotion of local languages in the colonies, but this interest in local languages could be interpreted in different ways. Positively, in terms of Lord Lugard's concept of "dual mandate", which advocated, on the one hand, some access of Africans to civilization and, on the other, the safeguarding of the integrity of their cultures and identities (Mazrui and Mazrui 1996:273). A pessimistic view, however, could see it in terms of the British policy of keeping Africans away from their language. A comparison of French, German, and British language policies in the colonies proves interesting in this regard. The French believed in the superiority of French language and culture, which they promoted in the colonies at the expense of local languages. The Germans had the same kind of arrogance about their language, but this manifested itself differently. They encouraged the use of indigenous languages rather than German, because they believed that no African was good enough to speak their language (Mazrui and Mazrui 1996:273). Quoting Abdulaziz [1980:140], Yahya-Othman and Batibo (1996:373) echo the fact that "very few Africans learned German, as the Germans themselves discouraged its widespread use". The British, for their part, believed similarly that no African was worthy to learn their language.

Arguably, this attitude explains the development of Pidgin English alongside the local languages in Cameroon; in the British view, this approach suited the Africans best. The fact that the Germans referred to Pidgin English as "Neger Englisch" (Nigger's English) suggests the same mentality. This attitude fostered the development of Pidgin English in Cameroon, adding to the fact that it was already firmly entrenched as a lingua franca two centuries earlier.

We can still see today a notable impact of limited access to Standard English from the colonial days. While the rate of literacy in French is remarkably high in Francophone towns, literacy in English in Anglophone towns is relatively poor as seen in the following tables:


Table1a: Distribution of English Speakers in Anglophone Towns

Town % Male SE speakers % Female SE speakers
Kumba 65 53
Victoria 71 74
Buea 70 74
Mamfe 66 75
Bamenda 85 83
Kumbo 69 63

Table 1b:Distribution of French speakers in Francophone towns

Town % Male French speakers % Female French Speakers
Douala 96 94
Edea 94 95
Nkongsamba 95 96
Bafoussam 94 92
Foumban 90 91
Bafang 97 92
Dschang 91 92
Yaounde 92 93
Bafia 91 93
Ebolowa 99 95
Sangmelima 98 93
Mbandjock 96 94
Akonolinga 99 97
Kribi 98 97
Bertoua 88 80
Abong-Mbang 99 95
(Compiled from Koenig et al. 1993)


Note, in fact, that the percentage of English speakers in Anglophone towns indicated here is not even a true reflection of the actual picture, because many informants who reported speaking standard English actually spoke Pidgin English. While French is the lingua franca in many Francophone towns, Pidgin English assumes this role in Anglophone urban centers.

It is interesting that even today Cameroonians popularly associate Standard English, commonly known as "grammar", with the elite; Pidgin English is perceived as the language of the common man.

The above analysis, it will be recalled, concerns the Anglophone. The ordinary Francophone, for his part, has seen English in the first three decades of post-independence as a class subject learned for passing examinations.


The Turn of the Millennium

Three categories of persons are deemed representative of how Cameroonians perceive English or of what English represents to them at the turn of the millennium: the politician, the Anglophone and the Francophone.


The Politician

According to political rhetoric, English, apart from being the language of instruction in the Anglophone part of the country, is the other official language, used indiscriminately with French in all spheres of public life. The moves taken by the government to foster bilingualism include the creation of bilingual schools in each province, and the Bilingual Training Programme to teach English to Francophones and French to Anglophones. References to the bilingual status of Cameroon turn up in official speeches here and there. But the lack of a bilingual policy in Cameroon is a truism. Nothing in Cameroon compares with language policies in other multilingual countries in Europe and North America. In Canada, for example, bilingualism is enforced by law; e.g. the 1969 Language Act, the 1977 Bill 101. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages deals with complaints about violations of language rights. In Cameroon, no provision of any law seriously compels citizens to learn or use the other official language. Hence the popular saying: "It is the State which is bilingual, not the individual". One does not even need to be bilingual to be the principal of a bilingual school! Even the Prime Minister's Circular of 1993 simply states rather timidly that civil servants should be proficient in the two official languages. It does not spell out any particular incentive to encourage citizens to learn the other language nor any form of penalty or sanction against a civil servant whose service to the public is impaired by his/her inability to speak the other language. Forty years after Independence, it has become clear that mere appeals to the patriotic instincts of Cameroonians to be bilingual have been fruitless.

Being the language of the numerically and politically dominant Francophone population, French has fared much better than English in the Cameroonian linguistic landscape. English has not enjoyed the type of protection given to other minority languages in the world, like Romansch, spoken by 1% of the Swiss population (Wardhaugh 1987).


The Anglophone

Faced with what they see as accumulated injustice perpetrated against their language, themselves and their culture, Anglophones have, after a quarter of a century of co-existence with their Francophone countrymen, started to react in all kinds of ways. They have been aided by the democratic wind blowing across Africa and favoring free expression.

Reactions to the alleged marginalization of the Anglophones from the concerned community, which crystallized in the 1990s into a force that seriously threatened the unity of the country, were of different types. But three main types of reaction will be exemplified and discussed in the following: political reactions, reactions in the press, and reactions in literary creativity.

One of the first major notes of Anglophone disenchantment over the union with Francophones was sounded by one Gorji Dinka in a pamphlet entitled "The New Social Order" (mss.) circulated in 1985. In this pamphlet Dinka denounced what he saw as the gross mismanagement of Cameroon, dwelling particularly on the Anglophone problem. In Dinka's terms, "La République" had "annexed" Southern Cameroons. He advocated the creation of an Anglophone state to be called "Ambazonia", after the Ambas Bay. This incendiary document, predictably, provoked the fury of the regime, and the author sought refuge at the American Embassy.

After the re-inception of multi-party politics in 1990, ideas similar to Dinka's resurfaced in several ways and crystallized into different successive and sometimes concurrent political groupings. The Cameroon Anglophone Movement (CAM) was created in the early years of the1990s and held a first ever All Anglophone Conference (called AAC1) in Buea in 1993. AAC2 took place in April 1994 and yielded a Buea Declaration, which constituted a summary of the major linguistic, cultural, political and infrastructural grievances of Anglophone Cameroonians.

The position of Anglophone pressure groups has continued to strengthen and evolve, from demanding a return to a federated state having equal rights with the Francophone state, as after the 1961 Plebiscite, to an outright independence of "Southern Cameroons". This particular claim is put forward and firmly defended by the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), whose most spectacular move was probably the sending of a delegation to the United Nations, which was received on 1 June 1995.

SCNC is an umbrella organization, which comprises several wings, like the Southern Cameroons Youth League. Other Anglophone movements include CANSA (Cameroon Anglophone Students Association) and CAPTAC (Confederation of Anglophone Parent-Teacher Associations of Cameroon).

As a matter of fact, all the above Anglophone movements are considered illegal by the government. This explains the clashes with the police often observed on the occasions of different demonstrations organized by them.

The Anglophone problem largely dominated the English-language media in the early 1990s. The Radio and Television, controlled by the government, have been, as can be expected, very active in their condemnation of the separatist activities of Anglophone movements. So has the Cameroon Tribune (CT), a government-owned daily. But the rest of the Anglophone press, where the secession issue was abundantly discussed, was either neutral or sided with SCNC. Anglophone newspapers, like The Herald, the Cameroon Post and The Post, were particularly active in reporting SCNC activities.

The creative writers who have handled the Anglophone problem include Bate Besong in Beast of No Nation (1990), Victor Epie Ngome in What God Has Put Asunder&nbsp(1992) and Sankie Maimo in Retributive Justice (mss. 1993).

In Beasts of No Nation, Bate Besong dramatizes the stupidity of Anglophones who have agreed to live the life of second-class citizens in Ednuoay City (i.e. Yaounde if read backwards), the capital of "La République du Cameroun". Their demand for freedom and recognition is answered with a deafening "[NO]. But you have freedom. You have fresh air and fresh air is freedom" (p.14). Bate Besong sees no future for "multitudes [of Anglophones] in the valley of Darkness: "You'll never see the great light" (p. 5). The author sees revolt as the only way Anglophones can extricate themselves from the web of Aadingingin, who has instituted "corruption as the national industry of Ednuoay" (p. 45).

Victor Epie Ngome's What God Has Put Asunder shows the genesis of the conflict between Francophone Cameroon and Anglophone Cameroon. According to the play, Re-Unification was carried out without the genuine consent of, and at the expense of the latter. It was therefore doomed to fail.

Sanki Maimo's Retributive Justice is an indictment of the alleged social injustice and reckless violence perpetrated by the security forces of the Francophone regime in Cameroon. The plot revolves around Fai, a notable of Layowah village. Moving from his compound to answer the Fon's summons, Fai is assaulted by the Gendarmes for non-payment of taxes. He is denied the right to provide any explanation. His sacred hat is taken off and thrown on the floor, and he is told to roll on the floor. This violation of traditional customs and taboos earns "chef" (the gendarmerie officer) a swollen scrutum. Only Fai can relieve him of this aching and shameful disease. The treatment has to be preceded by the Chef's horrendous revelation of what goes on in the torture chamber code-named balançoire.

To conclude this statement on Anglophone writers' contribution to the minority issue, it is worth mentioning two workshops on Cameroon Anglophone Writing, which took place in 1992 and 1994. Papers presented at the first workshop have already been compiled into Lyonga et al's (eds 1993) Cameroon Anglophone Writing. The two workshops were marked by a bitter denunciation of the marginalization of Anglophones and an acerbic criticism of writers whose works do not show any commitment to the Anglophone cause.

The above account of the alleged marginalization of Anglophones in Cameroon might not be complete without an answer to such questions as the following, "What category of Cameroonians are termed Anglophone? In what way is English involved in the classification?" etc. The answers to these questions would determine who is the object of marginalisation. At first sight the answer is simple, since `Anglophone' etymologically means `English-speaking'. It is interesting to note that in Canada, a comparable English-French bilingual country, the minority French-speaking people calls themselves French Canadians, while those belonging to the English-speaking majority do not usually have a specific label. The expression French Canadian suggests some ethnological links with the former colonial master, which Cameroonian Francophones (and Anglophones) do not have.

The term Anglophone, as it is understood in Cameroon, has mostly an ethnic connotation. It refers to a member of an ethnic group in the Northwest and Southwest provinces,(2) which were formerly part of British Cameroons. As a corollary, it has a political connotation since in Cameroon, access to public service jobs and appointments to high positions are ethnically planned. The term Anglophone has very little to do with knowledge of the English language; indeed, an Anglophone in the Cameroonian sense does not need to know a word of English.

Conversely, a Cameroonian may have English as his/her official language and not fit politically into the Anglophone community. Such is the case of Cameroonians popularly known as members of the Eleventh Province,(3) who migrated, or whose forebears migrated, from Francophone Cameroon to Anglophone Cameroon, where they followed the Anglophone system of education. Their plight resides in the fact that they do not comfortably fit into the Francophone community, which their parents may have abandoned several decades ago, and they are not accepted in their adopted Anglophone community. The following pathetic complaint was voiced on Cameroon Calling, the most popular Anglophone radio program, on 25 March 2001: "...I grew up with Bakweri [a tribe in the South West Province] boys and girls and knew nobody else. They are asking me to go home. I have no other home".

Even more commonly excluded from the Anglophone community are the ever-increasing number of Francophone children, who are sent to Anglophone schools in the Francophone zone. The same is true of the "Francophones", who have adopted English as their main language, which may have supplanted their original French in most domains of life.


The Francophone

Up until the late 1980s, the motivation of Francophones to learn English was quite low. This could be blamed partly on the lack of serious pressure from government to do so. At the beginning of the third millennium, there is still no scramble to learn English as such. For example, the total number of Francophones learning English in the various language centers is far below 10,000, which is insignificant compared with the total population of 12 million Francophone Cameroonians.

The turn of the millennium is, however, witnessing an upward trend, which the government-owned daily, the Cameroon Tribune [CT] (7312/3601, March 21, p. 4), calls "the rush to learn English" in a series on the phenomenon. The rush for English mostly involves "Francophone" children who are sent to "Anglophone" schools in large numbers, sometimes causing dissatisfaction among the Anglophone population:

Most English-speaking schools in the cities are increasingly flooded by francophone pupils and students[...]. Francophone parents [...] insist on giving their children the best of Anglo-Saxon education. (CT ibid.).

The fact that parents, who still do not scramble for English for themselves, insist so much on their children learning it, is significant. It is an indirect acknowledgement that they have survived without English at a time when one did not have to know English, but that the times in which their children will live will not be the same.

In fact, a number of related factors in the 1990s are responsible for the rush to English. First, the economic crisis that hit Cameroon and the consequent decline in educational standards have diverted the attention of many children to new professional and educational openings in North America and various parts of the world where English is the gateway. Secondly, with the advent of globalisation, English has reinforced its position as the international language. Thirdly, many Francophone African youths are disenchanted with the immigration laws of France, which used to be the first readily available destination. Fourthly, new political developments in countries like South Africa have opened new destinations, where English will be needed.



Thus, after several centuries of changing statuses and perceptions as well as divergence sometimes between the de jure functions and the de facto ones, English, at the beginning of the third millennium, still means different things to each individual person. For example, the ethnic Anglophone sees English as the symbol of a colonial past, and at the same time, beyond this perception, sees it as the unifying feature of some ethnic groups, which use it to voice political, social, infrastructural and other grievances. The Francophone views it, not necessarily through the patriotic eye of a Cameroonian who wants to be a better citizen by learning the other language, but in terms of individual interests and the educational and professional opportunities it offers, especially abroad.

© Augustin Simo Bobda (Yaoundé)



Appendix 1: Some dates in the history of Cameroon




Appendix 2: The life cycle of English in former British and American colonies

(Adapted from Moag 1982)



TRANSINST        table of contents: No.11


(1)  The terms colony, colonization, etc. are used in the paper in a broad sense, which encompasses the status of protectorates and territories under trusteeship.

(2)  Note that the ethnic parameter does not work neatly, as some tribes spread across the Francophone-Anglophone boundary (e.g., the Sawa tribe spread along the coast, and the Mbo in the Littoral and South West Provinces).

(3)  The expression Eleventh Province is metaphorically used in reference to the eight Francophone provinces and the two Anglophone provinces.



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For quotation purposes:
Augustin Simo Bobda: Varying perception of English in Cameroon: A diachronic and synchronic analysis. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 11/2001.

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