I vividly recall bidding farewell to my friends as we embarked on what we thought would be a two-week holiday due to a sit-down strike by teachers. Who could have predicted that a pen-and-paper issue would turn into a civil war, which made every aspect of living in our community difficult? Social amenities were reduced to ashes, and several schools in English-speaking regions of the country were forced to close their doors. Bamenda, the educational hub of Cameroon, became a forbidden territory for schools.
Shansel leads a mentorship session at the Open Dreams Center in Yaounde
While the school year had been disrupted significantly, my parents insisted that I repeat Form 3 because it was the level where the General Certificate of Education (GCE) syllabus got introduced. The idea of repeating a grade had never crossed my mind before, as I had always worked hard and was consistently ranked among the top ten students in my class. I pleaded, begged, and even shed tears in front of my parents, desperately hoping they would allow me to move to the next class. I promised to catch up, but their decision remained firm. I inquired about the possibility of changing schools or relocating to another region, but our financial constraints made it impossible. Consequently, I found myself as the sole remaining student in my class while my peers moved ahead.
When the next academic year started, everything changed. Our principal instructed us not to wear uniforms to school to disguise our appearances, as students were hunted in their attire.
My school came under attack a number of times, forcing me to become intimately familiar with every nook and cranny that offered shelter. During some moments of sporadic shooting, I hid beneath benches, or even in the large gutters near the school canteen. Sometimes, the attacks were so intense that I had no choice but to scale the school's fence and run to an unknown destination, seeking shelter and fleeing from the sound of gunshots.
Everyday, going to school and returning home from school was a nightmare, as I had no idea what awaited me on the streets of Bamenda. Some days, the town seemed relatively normal, with activities bustling around, but on other days, I found myself wandering deserted streets alone. We often heard statements like, "You have to choice between your life and school".
During one fateful encounter in Form 4, I crossed paths with a group of delinquents who seized my bag and callously set fire to my books and belongings right before my eyes. Though I wanted to protest, a gun was pointed at me, leaving me with no option but to prioritize my survival. However, the devastation I felt was immeasurable as I watched my books, which I had carried over from Form 3, turn to ashes. I was utterly helpless at that moment. From then on, I resorted to borrowing my classmates' books and painstakingly copying over hundreds of pages of notes from scratch. I started carrying loose papers instead of books to school, returning home to transfer my notes for fear of losing my new books to the flames.
Although I managed to continue attending school in Bamenda, completing our syllabus became a tremendous challenge. With Mondays designated as no-movement days and teachers barely showing up due to the safety concerns, we had barely covered half of the course material. I established study groups and organized Saturday classes with my peers to help us make progress in our learning, but it was still challenging to catch up fully.
Therefore, when it was time for me to get to Form 5, my parents made the difficult decision to send me to live with my aunt in Yaounde, as they could not afford to rent a house for me. I was filled with fear as a pre-teen, reluctant to leave my parents behind and venture into an unfamiliar city with no friends and limited proficiency in French. Yaounde, unlike Bamenda, was free from the daily uncertainties due to the shooting.
Attending school in a new city like Yaounde came with its own set of challenges. While the war had scaled down, I faced constant stigmatization from my classmates due to my English-speaking background. Once in a while, they ridiculed me, giving me nicknames like "Anglo-fool." I felt rejected and isolated in my new environment. Nevertheless, this did not deter me. Through books, educational movies with French subtitles, and sheer determination, I gradually acquired fluency in the French language.
Over the years, I dedicated myself to my studies. Late-night sessions, extra hours spent studying with friends on campus after regular school hours, and Friday evenings devoted to research at the cyber cafe—all paid off. I not only graduated as the top student in my class with a perfect GPA but also ranked among the top 50 students in the entire nation.
Looking back at my experiences with the war and moving to study in a new environment where I overcame stigma and cruelty, I’ve come to realize that things in life may not always go the way we planned, but with extra effort, resilience, and hope, we can achieve more.
Today, I gorge myself on all that life offers, accept my losses gracefully, face my fears fiercely, and celebrate whatever comes my way.
Shansel Mbaku’22 | Open Dreams