Charlotte Fisken (Pomona College) studied on SIT’s Cameroon: Social Pluralism and Development program in spring 2013. Below, Charlotte speaks with us about the program’s homestay and her research into Cameroon’s infrastructure and one of the country’s large development projects.
Study Abroad: What drew you to the program in Cameroon?
Charlotte Fiskin: First, I knew I wanted to speak French for most of my abroad experience, and the class French for Development Studies really intrigued me because of my interest in development work. I was also interested in experiencing the diversity of the country through the social pluralism aspect of the curriculum. There are few countries in the world where I could have lived with a Muslim family, a Christian family, and a family practicing traditional religions all in one study abroad experience.
SIT: Tell me about your Independent Study Project (ISP).
CF: My ISP was on the Kribi Deep Seaport project, which is the driving force behind the Vision 2035 plan being implemented by the government to guide Cameroon to prosperity. I set out to determine whether the port would actually be a positive thing for economic development in Cameroon, and I conducted my research primarily through interviews with stakeholders in the project and other knowledgeable parties. I also consulted secondary sources pretty extensively, as well as using past research I had done on economic regionalism in Central Africa as well as the role of China in Cameroon.
I think the question of how to approach economic development in countries like Cameroon — and particularly what the role of the West and China should be — is endlessly interesting. Large infrastructure projects like this are taking place all over Africa, with mixed results, so I was interested to examine one up close and determine the actual impacts it might have.
SIT: What did your research reveal?
CF: My research revealed that Cameroon was not ready for this kind of large infrastructure project, because the port complex was likely to heighten existing inequalities more than it would provide jobs for the unemployed. The respondents I spoke with were very divided on this issue. Many think the port is a great step forward for Cameroon, but a minority (mostly those involved with the NGO world) agreed with me that it would in fact be detrimental to the country because it would exacerbate income disparities without doing very much to improve development in the country. This is partially because Cameroon does not have the educational infrastructure in place to make use of the foreign investment that this kind of project is meant to draw. Most Cameroonians do not have the skills necessary to work the industrial jobs the project is meant to create. I am currently writing my senior thesis comparing the education policies of Cameroon and Malaysia, and how they are linked to the development paths of those countries.
SIT: What was the most memorable experience you had on the program?
CF: Definitely living with my main homestay family in Yaoundé. I was skeptical initially about the possibility of really feeling like a part of a family that was not my own, but that is what happened. I went on long walks every weekend with my dad and brother, talked long into the night with my host sister, and got to cook and discuss women’s roles and politics with my mom. I also got to have a 2-year-old sister, which was amazing and such a fun experience. The homestay is also the most memorable part of my time in Cameroon because it was so challenging at first. Navigating my role as the oldest kid in the house, but the one with the least knowledge of how to do anything, was interesting. It was also quite different having to become so aware of being a woman, and what that meant for my role in the house. Overall, though, it was an incredibly positive and gratifying experience learning how to function effectively in such a different setting and being able to create such close lifelong bonds with the members of my host family.
SIT: What are your plans for the future?
CF: My plans are up in the air at this point, as I am in the process of applying for a number of different things, including a Fulbright grant in Malaysia, Teach for America in Baltimore, and a Watson fellowship that would take me back to Africa. After working for a few years, I plan to attend business school with a focus on nonprofit management. I’m really interested in education policy, domestically and internationally, and that is something I plan to pursue in the nonprofit world.