Supporting Francophone Studies, Beyond France

In early October 2018, while we here at Middlebury were gearing up for apple-picking, cooler weather, and changing leaves, Cameroon was about to hold its presidential elections. On Oct. 7, 2018, Paul Biya was re-elected for his 7th term, making him President of Cameroon since Nov. 6, 1982 and only the second president since Cameroon gained independence. The elections this year gained particular international attention because of growing concerns and tensions over Biya’s handling of the “Anglophone Crisis.” While it is far more complex than we can explain in a few sentences, Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest Regions have been linguistically and culturally Anglophone since colonization. Since 2016, protests in the Northwest and Southwest regions have brought to light the systematic inequalities Anglophone Cameroonians experience, while Biya’s government has suppressed and killed hundreds of these civilians in the region since.

Conceivably due to concerns regarding this crisis, the International Programs office at Middlebury decided to pull out the four students studying in the capital city of Yaoundé at the time. They made this decision without consulting professors at Middlebury connected to the program via African Studies, and through discussions with Program Director Ariane Ngabeu, although she was not in favor of relocating. Ngabeu offered the counter proposal that the program take the students from their host families for 1-2 days and put them up in a well-fortified hotel in town in order to alleviate Middlebury’s fears. The International Programs office did not bite. Instead, the International Programs Office informed the students with little notice that they would be leaving Cameroon, potentially indefinitely, to go to Morocco while the elections took place. The students had no choice in the matter.

The students had no choice in the matter.”

Ngabeu even decided Yaoundé was more than safe enough to leave her toddler and 8-year old daughter to go about their regular daily schedules while she was with the Middlebury students in Morocco. Everyone was confused about this decision: the program director, the students studying in Yaoundé, some Middlebury professors who were made aware of the decision, and alumni of the Cameroon study abroad program from recent years. Stereotypes about Africa were becoming very clear. Unlike the protests in Paris, the ones in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon were somehow more violent and dangerous. Imagine if students in France were pulled out and sent to neighboring countries whenever there was a presidential election on the horizon.

It’s hard not to feel like this decision points to racism and xenophobia in Middlebury’s abroad programming. To us this decision, for a multitude of reasons, was ridiculous. Due to the resources and time expended on sending the students to Morocco, the students that semester were not able to take the typical tour of the Western region of Cameroon where they would have had more of a chance to engage with Cameroonian history and culture outside of the city. For many who have completed the program, that week-long trip is a key part of the semester or year in Cameroon. Not only this, but the decision to send students to the Morocco program forced the staff and students in Morocco to mobilize quickly in order to accommodate and entertain the group from Yaoundé. 

Quite frankly, we feel very sad and frustrated that this was kept out of the public eye and that it occurred without any conversation. It feels like certain people’s knowledge and experiences were valued over others’. This makes us think about whose stories are being told and by whom, which extends past the events we just discussed and into the French department at Middlebury as a whole. In the French department at Middlebury College, the course materials overwhelmingly represent French authors, French playwrights, and contemporary French issues.

Why did the Middlebury administration decide that studies concerning language and culture in the Francophone world were some of the first courses to go?”

We know that at least one professor in the department, and probably one or two more, specialize in Francophone studies and literature. However, you wouldn’t know this from the classes being offered. In brief conversations with department members where we’ve raised these concerns, it has been mentioned to us that the department has had to cut down on the classes being taught and the regions it focuses on due to financial and enrollment level difficulties. But we pose this query: Why did the Middlebury administration decide that studies concerning language and culture in the Francophone world were some of the first courses to go?

French is the official language of 29 countries in the world, but these countries are not represented in the classes offered nor in the faculty of the French department at Middlebury. The French department recently hired Professor Linsey Sainte-Claire, and from taking that class, we can say that her “Body Politics in Francophone Fictions” class has been the single most engaging and influential French class we have had the opportunity of taking while studying French at Middlebury College. This article is not meant to shame or blame any of the members of the French department for the lack of representation of Francophone studies, but rather it is meant to air our frustrations and disappointment with the hopes that the administration will support the department’s further efforts to diversify the chateau. 

Before studying abroad in Cameroon, students are required to take one class beyond FREN 209/210, which can be any of the following courses: Communities in French Culture, From Romanticism to Modernism, Criminal Minds in Literature in France, Travelers and Migrants, and Introduction to Contemporary France. Only one of these courses (Travelers and Migrants) explicitly moves beyond the geographic boundaries of France, and has only recently started to be taught. Before we went to study abroad, we were not given the opportunity to learn about Francophone Africa, let alone Cameroon, in an academic space.

It feels like Cameroon has been given a backseat at Middlebury College. Among several things, we hope that this op-ed will make the study abroad office and the administration consider the ways in which they have perpetuated racism in academia, and we hope that there will continue to be a greater effort by put forth by French professors to discuss and promote the study abroad program in Yaoundé.

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