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Resilience: The cost of accessing education in a crisis zone

Here came September, the month of annual school resumption in Cameroon. The campuses were filled with excited students showing off their new backpacks and respective contents to their friends; students exploring their new classes in excitement, while others made resolutions to beat or improve upon their previous academic records.

Open Dreams Pre-Scholars discussing leadership and sharing their stories of resilience

With our new books and school supplies in hand, my two younger siblings – aged 9 and 10, in primary 5 and 6 respectively; my two older siblings – aged 15 and 18, in form five and upper sixth respectively, and I - 13 years old and in form 3, were just as excited to begin a new school year. Unbeknownst to us, this was about to become the worst five years, and counting, of our lives.

As a citizen of Cameroon, resident in the town, Bamenda in which it all began and student of a High School in the city, I have witnessed a series of these events ranging from kidnapping students to inhumanly chopping off and displaying people’s heads and or limbs at public squares. I vividly recall one evening when my dad and I passed by a carefully wrapped plastic bag at a roundabout on our way home. This particular roundabout had a main road leading to my school and was only a 10-minute walk from it. We had no idea at the time but the bag contained the head of a military commander who was brutally murdered earlier that day. When the head was discovered, the military burst into a fit of rage, raiding the surrounding neighborhoods, shooting and taking hostage anyone within that vicinity that they deemed was related to the perpetrators. It was a night spent taking cover under the tables and beds; lights off, windows shut, doors bolted, ears and eyes closed, trying to block out the cries from nearby houses, earnest pleas by desperate mothers for their sons' innocence, rapid and endless gun firing. I kept reassuring my younger siblings that everything will be fine even though I could hardly believe my own words.

Open Dreams Pre-Scholars in Yaounde - they all experienced turbulence in Bamenda, but they did not yield to the challenges; they kept on and made it in flying colours

'School' was a different aspect altogether. Students who dared to go to school were often kidnapped, tortured, assaulted, or had their limbs severed because the gunmen believed that the effective running of schools will be communicated as a white flag towards the crisis. Our effective school days were reduced from five to four as Mondays were compulsory 'ghost town' days during which movement and circulation were prohibited.

The crisis got to a point where all students stopped wearing uniforms to school, as it was unsafe to do so, and we had to go to school in hiding. In the mornings, after a night of gun firing, I would head out first to check if other students were going to school, to make sure it was safe enough for movement, before getting back for my siblings. This usually resulted in us going to school late when all the students – who were moving in groups for safety reasons, had long gone. We usually took all sorts of shortcuts to school because the military vehicles on the main road were a target for the gunmen and we were trying to avoid any involvement in a crossfire. There were other days when we wouldn’t even go to school altogether because the gun firing lasted till morning.

Asheri, Daniella & isabella - Through discussions and community support, they keep their spirits high, as they pursue their dreams

In March of 2019, close to two years of going to school under these conditions, on sitting for my Form 5 GCE Mock Examinations, the gunmen attempted a break into our school campus. At the sound of gunshots, the whole school erupted into terrified, deafening screams. The entire campus was thrown into chaos – Students were jumping through windows and over the fence; teachers locked themselves in their offices, and students earnestly banged on their doors, begging to be let in. Some students tried calling their parents, others fainted, and there were others like me who just froze in place; terror resonating through every blood vessel in my body. I didn’t want to abandon my half-filled exam sheet which I spent a lot of time preparing for. I also couldn’t help but wonder and pray for the safety of my younger brother – who was in form 1 at the time, and was in a detached campus from ours. I did not even feel the pain as I was shoved and stepped on. All I could think about was how my life could come to a close in the very place I was taught the value of human life. The military intervened later on and after a crossfire between them and the infiltrators, the situation was brought under control but the students were left in a state of consternation and uncertainty. Many took a break from school after that day and I honestly couldn’t blame them.

There have been many other incidents throughout my high school life of similar magnitude which have left a scar on my mental health. I’ve had to switch to and attend a different school which, although I was fully aware of its lower academic standards than my original school, was located in an easily accessible, open, and non-secluded space. Due to this though, I had to work ten times as hard on my school work, keeping in mind that I would have to sit for the same national examinations – The GCE Advanced Levels, like those in the other eight regions who have been going to school under normal conditions. I had to squeeze in extra classes on ghost town days and would trek approximately eighty minutes to my teacher’s house -- where the classes were held, and eighty back. Maneuvering through shortcuts to avoid the eyes of the police and/or gunmen during these days was a hassle I had to endure. Some incidents such as coming across the corpse of a burnt-alive person by the roadside on my way to school chipped away at my focus in class for a few weeks. As a result, I had twice as much work to catch up on when I returned home. Other days, I would receive news of inhumane acts occurring on school campuses all over the North West and South West Regions; students and teachers stripped naked and beaten, students massacred on the school campus, and limbs of examination candidates severed.

Amid all these circumstances, I still did my best to prepare for the GCE Ordinary level examinations, which I wrote in 2019, passing all 11 of my registered papers and taking the first position in my entire school. I acquired 4 A-grades, 5 B-grades, and 2 C-grades, accumulating a total of 24 out of 33 points. I also sat for the GCE Advanced level in 2021, passing all 5 of my registered papers and getting the third position in my school. I had 1 A-grade, 3 B-grades, and 1 D-grade, racking up 19 out of 25 points.

Open Dreams Scholar PelagieTherese smiles as she carries an exercise with a Goodwill Fellowship participant at the Open Dreams Center in Yaounde

Despite everything that happened, and is still happening, I’ve made some great friends with whom I share unforgettable memories. This just goes to prove that for every dark cloud, there’s a silver lining. I’ve learned that in whatever challenge I face, with God’s help and grace, my family’s love and support, my friends' and teachers' encouragements, and most importantly, hard work and determination, I can do anything I set my mind to do. I am now in a better position to talk to, understand and encourage anyone going through a similar situation and will keep doing my best to reach out to such people.

- By Kimbi Favour, Open Dreams Pre-Scholar

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