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The importance of asking questions

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A Cameroonian student who led calls in the north to change the name of a local paper has also fought racism on a wider front there after being brought up by strong women. AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY meets a man who hopes serving his purpose means his role will no longer be necessary

 

Why is it so important to learn more about Emmanuel Achiri, a 28-year-old Cameroonian PhD student of international relations at Famagusta’s Eastern Mediterranean University?

Certainly, he is among the brightest, most articulate individuals one could hope to encounter. Until recently, he was President of the Vois, the north Cyprus international students organisation that he co-funded in 2018 and has spearheaded since, leading a series of often successful challenges against a range of discriminatory actions foreign students in the north are confronted with. It was Emmanuel who several months ago became the main face of a persistent Vois campaign aimed at changing the name and logo of Afrika, one of the the north’s most independent-minded daily newspapers, in the process, accussing the paper’s controversial editor Sener Levent of being racist.

Profile2The campaign ended with Levent changing the name of the daily back to Avrupa and replacing the image of a monkey that had featured on its logo with that of a donkey. Achiri smilingly admits that those were really stressful times, among the most challenging of his time at the helm of Vois.

“I received many threats, especially on my Facebook profile,” he recalls, but is swift to add that he has no regrets about leading the campaign.

“The debate with Afrika was actually going on for several years. At first we went to the paper and asked them to change the logo and we were given some promises but nothing happened. And we hammered on about it again and again even though when we talked about it to our Turkish Cypriot friends many were telling us not to push ahead with it. Many people, even friends, even very progressive Turkish Cypriots, didn’t understand why we were going on about this.

“But when we finally went public with it, it really created a conversation. Not only about racism, but also about how we as foreigners are being treated here. And now this is an ongoing debate within the Turkish Cypriot circles. And this, I think, is the major victory we came away with – the creation of this dialogue. Because this has created an awareness and I believe that thanks to it, it will be increasingly difficult for any local politician to make public statements that are in anyway racist and expect that people will be ok with it. And this is a major achievement.”

Achiri was born in Bamenda, a city of two million in the north-west of Cameroon. Although he belongs to the country’s Anglophone minority, he was raised mostly in French-speaking Cameroon, where he and his mother, a single parent, moved because of her work as a civil servant.

He says that although Cameroon is still a very patriarchal society since his childhood he was always surrounded by strong women.

‘‘My mother is very independent and her family is generally full of strong and independent women. I think this has been going on like this through the generations. My grandfather was a believer in women’s rights. He sent all his daughters to school. They are all educated. My mom’s elder sister is a retired journalist, and one of the younger ones is a teacher, another — a lab technician, and yet another — a lawyer.”

This and the fact that the family is very engaged in the politics — “not in terms of activism but very conscious of social and political issues in Cameroon and very critical of its state of affairs” — proved to be a major influence on the young Emmanuel.

“Also, one has to remember that as Anglophone Cameroonians we are a minority and because of this we have to be more consciously aware and have more understanding about the politics in our country. That probably also makes us more sensitive to other issues such as, for example, women’s rights. Also I think I was very lucky because in my boarding school I had some amazing teachers who taught me the importance of not just accepting what one is told at face value but of asking questions. They taught me the art of critical thinking.”

Inspired by both his family and teachers, Emmanuel chose to study law and gender studies at the University of Buea (UB), regarded as Cameroon’s finest. That he decided to include a so-called womens’ study course in his degree raised eyebrows among his peers and even among some members of the university staff.

“I was one of the top high school graduates in the country in my year so everybody expected me to study either just law or journalism. My decision to combine law with gender studies came as a shock to many,” he remembers with a michievious glint in his eye.

On graduating from university, Emmanuel decided not to persue law, instead getting a job to teach English language and literature at a girls’ school.

“It was a temporary position because a teacher had to take some time off due to pregnancy,” he says. It proved to be both challenging and stimulating.

“It was very interesting because it was the first time in my life that I had the opportunity to consciously try and change the way people think and feel about themselves. Also, it was very good for me because I spent much of the year sharing the school staff room, where the person closest to me in age was 10 years older. So basically I was getting all this life experience from near-elders from Monday to Friday and then Saturday and Sunday I would be with the people of my own age. And that gave me a totally new perspective, a close-up of two worlds not necessarily sharing the same views.”

The summer after his sortie into teaching came to an end and Emmanuel, for the first time in his young life, found himself without any immediate plans concerning his future.

“I took a public exam that would enable me to apply for a governmental position but in Cameroon to get in you have to bribe somebody so even though I studied very hard for it and fought for it I didn’t pass. So it being summer, there I was sitting at home, not knowing what was coming next and feeling very depressed. My mother could see it and we both concluded that the best thing for me would be to take further studies. But to go and study abroad you need money and my mother didn’t have that kind of money. This is how the idea of north Cyprus came about. Her friend’s daughter was studying here and so we knew it was possible.”

Emmanuel did some research about the universities and the island’s politics. His mother sold a piece of land to cover the costs.

“I applied to do an MA in international relations at EMU in August 2014 and so arrived in the middle of September. A taxi picked me and some other students up and took us to a dormitory. I immediately went to see a fellow Cameroonian I knew who had arrived a day earlier. He was in his mid-30s and I was 22. So I go to see him and he is crying. And when I ask him why he says ‘did you see the place when you were coming here by taxi? There is nothing here. What am I doing here? I think I need to go back to Cameroon as soon as possible.’”

Emmanuel knew, however, that for him leaving was not an option. He sat next to his friend and kept on repeating very patiently that going back to Cameroon was impossible.

“I told him we have to survive here and that we will be ok. And he kept on crying. Somehow I was better prepared to deal with this situation. Maybe because I had been in a boarding school and was used to living in places that are not very comfortable and far away from family. Maybe I was just better at adapting.”

Does he regret staying on?

“Not at all. I love Cyprus,” he answers.

“And it is not a diplomatic answer. I always talk how I believe that if I hadn’t come here I would not have been as critical or as open minded as I am now. And I also think I have had some of the best teachers at the university I could dream of. So many of them were mentors to me and are now my friends.”

Yet, I remind him, that his description of first arriving in north Cyprus is remarkably similar to the situation recounted by the Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma in his book An Orchestra of Minorities, one that didn’t paint a very flattering image of the island.

Achiri nods his head in agreement: “Yes, it was exactly the same — disconcerting.”

He read the book and he has also followed what Obioma, another graduate of a north Cyprus university, has written on the subject in various international publications. But while he agrees with what the Nigerian writer says about problems faced by international students in the north, he cites an article by Obioma published last year in the Foreign Policy journal that in his view failed to reflect that “the situation is not static, and that students are organising and fighting to improve their situation and hold their universities, and the communities that surround them, accountable.”

To reinforce his point, Emmanuel offers the mission statement he and his friends came up with for Vois, when they launched the student organisation in February, 2018: “to provide a platform for students to share their experiences and challenges of studying on the island with the aim of seeking solutions”.

The creation of Vois was prompted by two events. In the autumn of 2017, the EMU Teachers Union in cooperation with the students organised a pioneering seminar during which for the first time foreign students had the opportunity to share their experiences of institutional discrimination, inadequate access to housing, sexual harassment and violence. Emmanuel, who by then had finished his MA and had moved on to his PhD, took an active part in organising the event as the President of the EMU Cameroonian Students Association.

In January 2018, a 28-year-old EMU student from Nigeria, Kennedy Taomwabwa Dede, was abducted from the centre of Famagusta by a group of eight local men and women ranging in age from 16 to 28. They subsequently beat him so severely that he died of a cerebral haemorrhage. Dede, who had financial difficulties, was dealing in drugs and was killed for failing to pay off his suppliers.

Several days after Dede’s murder Vois was born.

“The beginnings were very challenging. We were trying to set up the foundations and we didn’t know how to do it,” Emmanuel recalls.

Now, almost two years later, Vois is well established, its outreach a presence in all the main universities located in Famagusta, Nicosia and Kyrenia. It has a formidable array of volunteer-run committees and departments dealing with a range of issues faced by students such as discrimination, racism, gender, housing, mental health and working conditions.

“We have so many brilliant students here, so much potential,” Emmanuel exclaims. “Take for example the Vois media team. The video clips they are producing, the quality is the same or better than those done by a professional company. We have students here who are apps developers and their apps are being used in the UK. And students who have started working for Microsoft while still studying. When I look at the CVs of some of the volunteers who come to work for Vois, they are just absolutely unbelievable.”

Emmanuel stepped down as Vois President at the end of September to focus more on his PhD (“because when you work for Vois you have to devote yourself to this work 100 per cent and everything else suffers”) and personal development (because he is “in a relationship with the strongest, prettiest, most intelligent woman in the world”). Asked again if he really has quit Vois, he smiles and says that he will always be part of it and remains available on standby, ready to help whenever the new managing team needs to draw on his help and experience.

As for his future plans, he doesn’t know what will happen in a year’s time when he hopes to have completed his PhD. That said, he is almost 100 per cent sure that a return to Cameroon in the current political climate is out of the question — that it wouldn’t be safe for someone as outspoken as him.

“I really want to do something that will be a continuation of what I have done here, so we’ll see,” he says. “I will use this one year to apply for work with other NGOs or think tanks.”

Reverting to Vois, he tells me his ultimate dream is that the time will come when the organisation would be needed no longer. “It was created out of necessity to protect the rights of international students so the greatest achievement would be if it just accomplished that and then ceased to exist”.

But that is a long way to go….

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