University Libraries as Fieldwork?

From Edward Béchard-Torres

It will take a long time to adapt to Cameroon. Everything is so different. I know that other interns have felt the same way, and often resort to metaphors to relay their experiences. Here’s another: it has been a bit like jumping into a very cold lake for the first time. At first there’s a sense of being totally overwhelmed. Reacting to that sense of boulversement, one may feel a strong urge to return to what is familiar – back into the canoe, in the case of the cold lake. But after one’s body begins to adapt, the world appears less intimidating. The different-ness ceases to be overpowering, and the sense of being overwhelmed is replaced by an appetite to explore a new and exciting environment.

Now at that last stage of the now familiar emotional arc, I find myself confronted by a problem other interns are surely facing as well. Cameroon is a very interesting place for someone interested in law, human rights and development. But attempts to probe deeper into issues that might intrigue a foreign law student are thwarted by a dearth of available and reliable information.

Yesterday, for instance, I was told that bar exams are held irregularly in Cameroon, such that a recent law graduate can wait up to five years or more before being given the opportunity to join the legal profession. “Is the bar trying to limit the supply of practicing lawyers – maybe to keep the costs of legal services artificially high?” No one had any idea. “The Ministry of Justice has a lot of influence with the Bar. There may be some political considerations that trickle down”, says one of the lawyers with us. She had no idea what those political considerations might be, though.

Many of the conversations I have had with local community activists, students, lawyers, professors and other local residents have only spawned questions. What do you mean a person found squatting on private property could be imprisoned for a three-year term? Is that what happens in practice? An illegally occupying family has to pay for the bulldozers that raze their settlement and evict them from occupied property? Where can I find that in writing? How is that enforced? These go unanswered.

I had to be at two local university libraries for other reasons, but part of me hoped that I could find troves of local Cameroonian publications that could distill, frame and explore the questions and issues that work “in the field” had left unanswered. The irony that I had come to Cameroon for “fieldwork” in a “grassroots” organization and yet was secretly thrilled at the prospect of spending the day reading in a library had not escaped me.

And the libraries did not disappoint. On the way there, while plundering down one of Yaoundé’s busy market streets – driving against the traffic to avoid the field of car-sized potholes – the taxi driver informed me that a walled community for the handicapped lay just down the road. Curious, I pressed him for more information, but, of course, he had little more to say about it.

Having arrived, I was greeted by a warm librarian at the “bourgeois” Université Catholique de l’Afrique Centrale, located on a campus dominated by a central cathedral and so meticulously groomed I could have forgotten I was still in the messy and spontaneously settled Yaoundé. He led me into the small private library, where fifteen students, spaced out across an open seating area, poured over political writings and legal treatises of European origin. It is packed, I am told; students will begin writing exams next week. He was grateful that I had come, and hurried to bring me to the materials that I needed. I will have to go back though; students are not allowed to leave with any items from the library, not even to use the photocopying machines across the path!

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