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xiii Preface This was written in 2002, before John started the book and before his return visit to Cameroon in 2004 with Nigel Wenban-Smith What I think this is about n 1960, at the age of 23, I was hired by the Colonial Office and seconded to the United Nations, to preside over the demise of a small part of the British Empire, in the remote Bamenda Highlands of the Southern Cameroons. At that time, this was a very remote and exceptionally beautiful mountainous area in West Africa, only a few degrees north of the Equator. The hills were clothed in bright green grass, six feet tall in the rainy season, and there were great cathedrals of forest trees in the deeper valleys. People had made very little impact on this lush wilderness, but here and there were clusters of neatly thatched huts, interspersed with palms and banana plants, and surrounded by neat little gardens of maize and cassava. At first sight it seemed to be an equatorial Eden. The British had rather negligently administered this little patch of Africa ever since the end of the First World War, but since it was a United Nations Trust Territory there was no profit in it. The result was that the territory was undeveloped, you might say backward, even by contemporary African standards. Now, the United Nations had decided that the territory should be granted independence, on condition that it amalgamate, either with French Cameroun to the east or with Nigeria to the west. To decide the matter there was to be a plebiscite, a referendum, which would also be the first ever excursion into democracy in this part of Africa. I was given the task of conducting the plebiscite in two clan areas, each about the size of an English county. The job involved touring the area, locating the villages, conducting a ‘public enlightenment’ campaign, registering the names and birthplaces of everyone over the age of 21, sitting as a magistrate on cases to do with registration irregularities, and finally presiding over the plebiscite in my particular district on the appointed day. Along with 24 other plebiscite officers, thinly scattered throughout the territory, I was allotted a house and a Land Rover, a bag full of money and a sheaf of instructions, and left to get on with it. The sheer arrogance of this enterprise still takes my breath away. In no way was I, or anyone else, qualified to impose such a process on thousands of people, and it was quickly made clear to me that they wanted no part of it and that they saw the whole thing as a sham, a cosmetic exercise in democracy. The only decision they were allowed to make was to choose whether to throw in their lot with Nigeria or French Cameroun, and they wanted neither of them. All the other decisions had been taken thousands of miles away by officials who thought they knew what they needed better than the people themselves. But in many ways they already had everything they needed. They grew their own food, built their own houses, made their own tools and domestic utensils, fashioned their own clothes. The few things they could not make for themselves I xiv they traded for in the local market. They provided their own entertainment, made their own music, and were extremely successful at finding their own ways of enjoying life. They had also built for themselves a complex social structure that provided a framework for their lives. There was an elaborate kinship system that tied everyone to everyone else and ensured that even the most inadequate and impoverished were cared for by those fitter than themselves. In the absence of an effective colonial administration, an ancient hierarchy of chiefs and sub-chiefs provided a loose political framework that rested quite lightly on their shoulders, providing a means of settling disputes and a rudimentary system of justice. None of this was perfect, but it worked. People knew where they were, and despite the fact that they were poor, and that the women in particular had to work long, hard hours in the equatorial sun, everyone seemed to be quite unreasonably happy. What I was telling them was that all this was about to change, and that they did not have any real choice in the matter. Ahead lay only uncertainty, and an unwanted merger with one of two other countries much bigger than theirs. At the time I was a bit...


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