By Isabella Bozsa and Bianca Baumann
In early March we, Isabella Bozsa (Städtisches Museum Braunschweig) and Bianca Baumann (Landesmuseum Hannover), flew to Cameroon for research purposes. Subject of our project are ethnographic Cameroonian collections, which were collected and brought to Germany by officers during the German colonial period. As historically and ethnologically oriented provenance researchers, we are interested in how, under which (colonial) conditions the objects were acquired and investigate the traces of the past in museums and archives as well as the oral tradition in the country of origin. After two intensive weeks of research, during which we held two workshops and started conducting oral history interviews, news reached us about the increasing spread of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in Europe, which led to restrictions in public life and travels. At that time, the virus seemed to be far away. We felt less restricted and better off in Cameroon. Isabella even started an attempt to extend her stay to escape the restrictions in Germany for the time being, as one of the events she was meant to return for, was cancelled. The agitated call from one of our partners that air traffic would be restricted and borders in Europe were likely to be closed, did not dissuade us from our research plans.
Isabella Bozsa and Bianca Baumann at Yaoundé Nsimalen International airport, 18.3.20 © Isabella Bozsa
On the evening of the 17th of March, when long-time President Paul Biya announced 13 measures to protect against COVID-19 at national level , we were talking to one of our cooperation partners in Dschang. He told us that university events had been cancelled; yet we were not aware of the extent of steps against the disease. The next day, we received news that we needed to register in a list for the electronic registration of Germans abroad (Elefand) of the German Foreign Office. As we heard that some flights were cancelled, and European airports were being closed, we started to worry and tried to organise our way home. The travel agency in Germany solely asked us to visit an airline office to clarify whether our flights were to take off as scheduled at the end of March. Contacting the currently understaffed German Embassy in Yaoundé only provided further information about the list of the Foreign Office, which was to serve as the base for a future flight to return German citizens. Our idyllic accommodation with limited internet access was quite remote and the nearest Air France office was far away.
Startled by the events, we packed our bags and set off with a driver to Yaoundé directly to the airport. On the way, we wanted to say a quick goodbye to one of our cooperation partners, as we had not had a chance to meet yet. Our colleague was well informed about the latest events and asked us what we were planning to do since the airport was closed. We could not believe our ears! A few minutes later we received the first "Landsleute-Brief" of the German Foreign Office, which listed the 13 measures of the Cameroonian government, which were valid from 18.03.2020, the day we left for the airport. The first one was the closure of the borders (except for cargo planes and ships). As a result, the German Foreign Office did not have the requirements for us to be flown out either. Furthermore, we were informed that the airlift would be conducted according to "territorial prioritisation" (“Landsleute-Brief” of the German Foreign Office of 18.03.2020) and that only areas with many German tourists would first be covered, which did not include Cameroon.
The next days were marked by many phone calls, the registration into various lists, helplessness, insecurity and the attempt to continue our research normally. After having realised the news that the international air traffic had stopped, we did not continue travelling for Yaoundé, but stayed with our cooperation partner far away from the bustling capital, in a kingdom in the West Region of Cameroon. She took good care of us and was additionally very well networked. Her contacts included the German and French embassies as well as employees at the airport and airlines who were up to date with the closure of the airport. But the uncertainty remained: How quickly would the coronavirus spread in Cameroon? What further measures could be imposed by the government without warning? When would the diplomatic negotiations reach an agreement and the Cameroonian authorities permit the landing of an airplane from Europe? When would a return be organised for two provenance researchers in Cameroon?
In this situation we contacted other "compatriots" who were temporarily in Cameroon as German citizens. The similar situation and the common interest in flying back to Germany made connecting appear sensible to keep each other up to date and, if necessary, to have more political weight. Unfortunately, this alliance did not only have advantages. Unexpected forces were unleashed and made the situation more difficult: An older German professor saw himself in the position of having to "save" us young female scientists and wanting to decide where we should be and when. His "rescue attempt" went so far that he sent an e-mail to our superiors in Germany urging them to give official instructions in his favour.
At the same time, disturbing news reached us from the capital: A group of German researchers who were stranded in Yaoundé reported verbal and physical attacks by the local population on Europeans because they were associated with the coronavirus and thus responsible for the restrictions imposed by the Cameroonian government. They also pointed out that the domestic political situation could quickly deteriorate and even the maintenance of hotel operations in Yaoundé seemed threatened. Luckily, we had a trustworthy Cameroonian contact in Yaoundé. Our friend advised us to stay where we were for the time being, as the situation in Yaoundé was tense, as there were already several cases of coronavirus diseases and it was not foreseeable when a flight would leave. At the same time, our Cameroonian cooperation partners advised us to stay as long as possible in the western province, where we were taken good care of and no cases of disease were known yet. The pressure from the German side to go to the capital to be available for a return flight at short notice increased. Once again, our contact in Yaoundé helped us: He confirmed that the situation was safe and suggested a hotel. We refrained from "a rescue" by the German professor and organised our way to Yaoundé as well as our accommodation, as always, ourselves. To keep the risk of infection low, we did not use public transport and took a driver recommended to us. Contrary to the German concern of police controls, which would enforce the government's measure to stop interurban traffic, we only passed the obligatory border check for buses and lorries between the regions in the country. Even buses were still operating (albeit with reduced passenger numbers). The rumour of a complete lockdown was simply panic-inducing and has still not materialised until today.
It turned out that we were better off following the assessments of our Cameroonian contacts and trusting our own experiences. Networking with cooperation partners and people of trust in Cameroon, to whom we are endlessly grateful, was an immense support for us and took on new significance in this time of crisis.*
We followed the private hotel recommendation and found ourselves as almost the only guests in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere in Yaoundé. Contrary to the negative images that circulated on German media about the Cameroonian population, that with the coronavirus a xenophobia and aggression against Europeans would increase steadily in the society, we did not find confirmed. It is worth noting that we stayed mainly in Bastos, the wealthy district of Yaoundé, where some Europeans live, which is perhaps not representative for the whole city. Nevertheless, we would like to emphasise that we did not experience any hostility on our excursions in Yaoundé. Only occasionally, outside the capital, were we associated with the coronavirus, but these were far from physical attacks.
We do not intend to play down the negative experiences of some individuals, but singular voices should not dominate the entire discourse and promote a negative and catastrophic image. This was in the past often used to represent African countries and still plays a role in the discourse of constructing a cultural “other”. On the contrary, we noticed protective measures in public space: Many people wore fabric or medical masks, in some places temperatures were taken and before entering shops hands were sanitised. Although there were relatively few known cases in Cameroon (around 25), measures were already being taken. Cameroon thus reacted much quicker to the danger of an emerging pandemic than European countries. Already at our arrival beginning of March, we needed to fill in forms about our whereabouts and only passengers free of fever were allowed in the country. There seems to be a greater awareness of the crisis in Cameroon, partly as a result of the experiences of neighbouring countries, such as the Ebola epidemics of 2014 to 2016 and 2019 in West Africa, which have been contained by efficient crisis managements.
A few days later, the German Foreign Office organised a flight to Brussels, where the restrictions on public life, which had already lasted for some time, were evident. Since our departure, the number of known cases of COVID-19 infections in Cameroon has been increasing, even though the figures are still far below those of European countries. The virus has become a global problem against which strengthening nationalisms, such as border closures, provide only limited solutions. Everyone is currently trying to find a way of dealing with it by means of restrictive measures and the hitherto unforeseeable consequences at economic and social level. It was depressing to see how, in an uncertain situation, additional fears can be fueled that promote stereotypical negative images of "Africa" and othering processes. It is much more desirable to strengthen attitudes of solidarity beyond national borders and continents.
Revised and translated from the German report “Zwischen Hysterie, Xenophobie und gut gemeinten Ratschlägen. Zwei deutsche Provenienzforscherinnen in Kamerun während der Coronakrise“ published in: Retour. Freier Blog für Provenienzforschende.
Isabella Bozsa is a research associate at the Städtisches Museum Braunschweig and a member of the PAESE project.
Bianca Baumann is a research associate at the Landesmuseum Hannover and a member of the PAESE project.