DOUALA, Cameroon—Pertula Ngeng Yuh wants to take the exams she must pass to receive her country’s General Certificate of Education and graduate to secondary school. But the 15-year-old girl must wait at least two more years. She’s now taking the first of three years’ worth of “ordinary level” courses before she can take the exams.
“In my new class, children are younger than those like me who come from the English-speaking side,” she said, referring to the language divide in this predominantly French-speaking Central African nation.
Pertula and her mother fled to this coastal city more than a year ago to escape an increasingly violent conflict in Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwest Region, where a crackdown on protests by Anglophones escalated into military clashes between armed secessionist groups and government troops.
The tensions along the language divide have become so intense that many young Cameroonians have fled to neighboring countries in Africa, and some have even joined the thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who have migrated to Europe seeking a new life.
For Pertula, relocating to Douala was a setback educationally.
In September 2016, she started taking ordinary-level courses at Wum Catholic Mission School in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest Region. A few weeks after classes started, however, teachers in the region went on strike to protest discrimination against English-speaking Cameroonians. More militant protesters later threatened to burn down the school if it opened.
“People warned us that if we went to school they would burn our school,” recalled Pertula. “Later, they burnt the French section of the school. Students stopped going.”
Pertula’s mother, Sen Stella, had already paid her daughter’s school fees and bought books. But in Douala, where Pertula and her mother now live in a single room, school fees are almost five times higher– around $200 a year. The teenager needed to save money for nearly two years before she could enroll in school. She now attends the College of Hopes, Arts and Science in Douala, where she’s started her ordinary-level studies from the beginning.
Stella also needs to pay for her daughter’s transportation to school as well as meals. “All those things are heavy on me as a single mother,” she said.
The family’s plight is not unique.
“With all that happens in English-speaking areas, children are lost,” said Marcial Mbebi, a leader in the Cameroon Federation of Education Unions, a teacher’s labor group. “The student is entitled to 900 hours of classes in a school year. When you cannot cover those hours, there is a problem. We advise parents to do private classes at home to catch up.”
That option is impossible for Pertula, who often performs odd jobs to help her mother pay for school. Still, she plans to go back to northwestern Cameroon as soon as possible.
“If school reopens in Bamenda, I will go back because here we have only computer and science lab, but in Wum, we have all the labs,” she said, adding that she intends to study literature and someday become a journalist.
But there is little reason to go back today.
After more than a year of protests and clashes that have claimed at least 150 lives, according to a recent United Nations report, most schools in largely English-speaking Northwest Cameroon remain closed, the Internet is shut down in many areas, and dissidents remain in prison and continue to demand equal rights.
For years, Anglophone regions in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions have been underprivileged, compared to Francophone areas, according to the U.N. report. English-speaking Cameroonians complain that they have been shut out of jobs in education, the judicial system and government. More than 40,000 have fled to Nigeria in the past year, according to local aid officials. It’s not clear how many are internally displaced or have fled elsewhere.
John, a 25-year-old English-speaking Cameroonian who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, has been living on the Greek island of Lesbos for more than a year now. He was in his third year of studying engineering in Bamenda when he got arrested during a protest. He managed to escape and now is stuck in Greece, where he’s waiting for refugee asylum status.
“My father is a contractor,” said John. “I worked in his business since I was 17, first as a builder. No one believed I was the son of the boss. After a few years, he took me to work on marketing and designing, and supervising. I worked while studying engineering. I wanted to do greater things than him.”
He earns money translating between English and French. But ultimately he’d like to leave Greece and go to Canada and resume his studies there.
Rather than trying to remain in school elsewhere in their home country or fleeing abroad, some Anglophone Cameroonians have pursued other options like learning a trade.
Itoe Julius, 16, fled the English-speaking Southwest Region and went to Douala, where he began working in an auto repair shop. He hopes to learn enough to open his own mechanics’ business in less than a year.
“Every time the boss unmounts an engine, he asks me to come and see how we do it,” he said.
Meanwhile, the violence that forces people like Julius to flee their homes continues. More than two dozen people were killed in a firefight between government troops and unidentified gunmen in the town of Menka in northwestern Cameroon on May 25, Reuters reported. The exact circumstances of the clash were not clear, but the death toll makes the incident one of the deadliest in the conflict so far.