Realities of Debate as Development: Dispatches from Cameroon

Lilia Kilburn

An ethnographic approach to understanding extant barriers to the integration of debating societies from developing countries into the global debating community.

On November 6th, 2012, I picked up a copy of one of Cameroon’s leading Anglophone newspapers and spotted the following headline: “As Americans Reelect Obama, Cameroonians Celeberate [sic.] Thirty Years of Paul Biya.” When I asked the newspaper vendor whether the publishers were making a joke about the government in the guise of a typo, he laughed conspiratorially and said “I don’t know anything about that.”

Following the death of Muammar al Qaddafi in 2011, Paul Biya became the longest-ruling leader on the African continent, celebrating his three decades in power on the same day Americans cast their verdict on whether or not Barack Obama deserved four more years in the presidency. The longevity of Biya’s regime is partially the result of his tight controls on political speech, which are nowhere stronger than in Cameroon’s two Anglophone provinces. Fearing the provinces’ geographical and linguistic proximity to more-democratic and wealthier Nigeria, the government systematically refuses to repair roads near the border,1 keeps power tightly centralized, and fills most posts with French-speakers.2

As James Scott illustrates in his classic works on resistance,3 even in the most repressive societies, there is space for subtle acts of subterfuge. The insertion of an extra vowel into a headline, and with it the suggestion that citizens might berate rather than celebrate their government, is but one maneuver in the dance of Cameroon’s political landscape, which alternates forays into boldness with retreats into plausible deniability.

In step with this broader dance, debating is taking root in Cameroon, thanks to the concerted efforts of students in Dschang, Bamenda, and other university towns. In this article, I seek to illustrate how Cameroon’s political and economic situation bears upon the future of debating within its borders, in ways both predictable and unexpected.

Learning to Inhabit New Moral Frameworks

I lived in Cameroon between August and November 2012, supported by a grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. During that time, I partnered with the Cameroon Debate Association to hold trainings in the World Schools and British Parliamentary formats, largely in French, but occasionally in English as well. It has become de rigueur, among teachers, to claim that one learns from one’s students as much as one teaches them, but when teaching in the developing world, this is invariably true. As I encountered the same frustrations as my Cameroonian collaborators in attempting to set up workshops (frustrations mitigated by my race, but partially reinstated by my gender) I gained profound appreciation of the structural impediments to debating in Cameroon, some of which I will attempt to catalogue here.

What I catalogue, of course, is subject to some limits of the philosophical and temporal variety that I feel obligated to mention at the outset. In Writing Culture, the book that heralded anthropology’s postmodern turn, James Clifford notes:

“Even the best ethnographic texts—serious, true fictions—are systems, or economies of truth. Power and history work through them, in ways their authors cannot fully control. Ethnographic truths are thus inherently partial—committed and incomplete.4

Anthropological fieldwork, the discipline’s “rite of passage,”5 usually consists of a minimum of eighteen months of immersion in one’s research site.  Nonetheless, as an outsider who has spent substantial time among Cameroon’s debaters, it seems productive to share my understanding of the context, limited though it is, as a basis for collective future engagement – with Cameroonians, but also with debaters from other less-developed countries whose perspectives and opportunities may be similarly shaped.

Debate as Development

My aim here is to provide a picture, albeit an incomplete one, of the context in which Cameroonian debating inheres. In doing so, I seek to cultivate an understanding of the genuine impediments to debating that exist in some corners of the world, and spark conversation about how debaters from the global North can better engage with their counterparts from less-privileged contexts to the end of shaping those contexts–and debating itself–positively. Amartya Sen tells us that “to broaden the limited lives into which the majority of human beings are willy-nilly imprisoned by force of circumstances is the major challenge of human development in the contemporary world;” by committing ourselves to this task, our less-limited lives are invariably made broader as well.6 In a recent Monash Debating Review article, Tim Lees submits that it would be salutary “for debaters to learn to inhabit new moral frameworks” (those he proposes include various theological perspectives as well as “the Chinese Communist Party, Bedouin tribes, or the FARC rebels in Columbia”); debate outreach provides the cultural learning on which such extensions of the form (and, though maudlin to add: of our empathy) could be based. 7

Cameroon is ranked 150th of 187 countries assessed by the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report, in terms of the health, education, and living standards of its residents. 8 Life expectancy is on the rise, at 52 years, as is schooling, of which the average adult receives just shy of 6 years at present. An oft-cited fact by my Cameroonian friends was that Cameroon used to outrank China in terms of its development. This statistic is borne out by the data, and speaks equally to China’s rapid rise and Cameroon’s stagnation: China’s GDP per capita grew seventeen-fold over the past 30 years, to $11,918,9 while Cameroon’s shrank marginally, from $2,046 in 1980 to $2,018 in 2012.10 The causes of this stagnation are manifold, from Cameroon’s high dependence on oil revenues to the deterioration of infrastructure on which the extraction of oil, as well as mining, forestry, and plantation cultivation depend. Exacerbating most aspects of Cameroon’s economic condition, however, is its aforementioned political standstill.

Most debaters are familiar with the development indices cited above, and some may possess a brief gloss of Cameroon’s political history. The numbers and factoids, though, are distilled from a reality that is harder to grasp. This is where ethnographic data can prove useful. Anthropology, which is assembled through what Clifford Geertz called “deep hanging out”11 (otherwise termed participant-observation) brings its practitioners and readers in contact with the everyday struggles of others, and draws them into the logic of their lives. Tapping into that logic, I will argue, is key to making the global debating community even nominally inclusive.

Crossing Borders

“It was so much more than I thought it would be. It gave me a sense of what my country could be. To think that we were on the same continent. Wow!”

In 2010, Emmanuel,12 a debater from Cameroon, attended the World Universities Debating Championships in Botswana with three of his fellow students. When I met him nearly three years later, he still spoke in the most effusive of terms about the experience. For Emmanuel, Botswana provided “a sense of what [his] country could be,” not only in terms of its hospitability to debating, but in terms of its general development.

Cameroon’s first debating club was founded at the University of Dschang, a French-speaking university in the west of the country, in 2009. The Cameroon Debate Association, the national umbrella organization, was founded shortly thereafter. Cameroon and Rwanda were the first francophone African nations to attend the WUDC, and Cameroon the first from Central Africa. Prior to Botswana, debating in Cameroon was a vague construct, its details known only through a handful of students and professors who had seen it practiced abroad. In Botswana, the Cameroonian delegation came to understand that the activity has a complex structure and set of rules. They marveled at Victor Finkel’s performance in the final as well as at the non-native English speakers from Asia who managed to express themselves in English. One such speaker told Emmanuel, “I learned English through my debate club,” solidifying Emmanuel’s conviction that debating could counterbalance the poor quality of English-language education in Cameroon.

When in Botswana, Emmanuel heard rumors that some teams from Australia had vacated the dormitories in favor of hotels. He didn’t know if the rumors were true; if so, he found them puzzling. To Emmanuel, the notion that the university would maintain dormitories for their students, let alone dormitories with electricity and running water, was “remarkable.” Other remarkable things on the list of things he was introduced to in Botswana included traffic laws and cheese.

Toward Substantive Democracy

The strongest speaker from Cameroon received a speaker rank of 444th, and the group returned to their home country with renewed enthusiasm for the activity. Upon their re-entry, though, they were frustrated by their inability to replicate what they had seen. Debate rounds they had been advised to watch on Youtube invariably would not load in the local cyber cafes. Objective news sources remained difficult to access. Concepts they had encountered abroad, like the social contract or sanctions, often proved hard to research.

This reflects a broader reality in Cameroon: for reasons both environmental and political, information is sparse. The mildew that blankets the country during the rainy season has the tendency to destroy books, while public libraries are near-nonexistent. I joined the local private library for 2,500 Central African Francs, or around $5 USD; this was prohibitively expensive for most local students.  (Many expats were members, often for decidedly non-intellectual reasons: the library was one of the only locations in the town center with a flushing toilet.) This information vacuum often begets fascinating strains of autodidacticism: One Cameroonian student I met could recite Shakespeare at great length, because Shakespeare’s plays were some of the only books available in the small village in which he grew up. Alternately, it leads to a field of speech in which certain voices are artificially amplified; the in-flight literature on Cameroon Airlines is not a glossy magazine but a bilingual packet of Biya speeches.

Biya’s dominance over the public sphere is replicated in miniature by the dominance of individual teachers over their classrooms. Most of Cameroon inherited an education system from French colonizers, and the French system is known for being especially hierarchical;13 if the British coined the phrase “children should be seen but not heard,” it is the French who most enthusiastically put it into practice in their schools. Occasionally, francophone Cameroonian schools decide to permit their students to speak, with uneven results. I had the opportunity to witness one such public speaking event firsthand, when I was invited to come coach debate on a twice-weekly basis at a local school. I was told that the students would be preparing a debate on the merits of traditional versus Western medicine for the school’s holiday party. The result was closer to theater: teachers had written scripts for the students. As one administrator earnestly explained to me, “we want modern medicine to win, but not so much that it looks fake.” Debate practices consisted of teachers overseeing memorization and recitation of the script, and sternly correcting students who deviated from it. One student who was to serve as an adjudicator ventured some creativity as she read from her script: “It was very very very interesting.” Instantly, the teacher called from the back of the room, “No! It was extremely interesting!” As is often the case in nascent systems of all stripes, Cameroonians experiment with the trappings of democracy and individualistic education while remaining unfamiliar with their substantive aspects.

Members of the Cameroon Debate Association are cognizant of how distant a goal substantive democracy remains. Serge told me, “I used to want to be president of Cameroon. Then I realized I would need to throw away all of my principles to participate in politics here.” Like many citizens, they have largely resigned themselves to waiting until Biya’s death, which may not be long from now. Until then, they seek to cultivate in themselves a sense of what substantive democracy might entail in the region. Flaunting an official prohibition by university administrators, who are appointed by the Biya regime, on debating political topics, Cameroonian debaters hold debates on whatever they can. Topics tend toward the local: currency policy with the neighboring CEMAC (Communauté Économique des États de l’Afrique Centrale) countries, or the private schooling of the children of government ministers, or the salaries of national football players. The fact that debating allots equal time to practitioners, prohibits them from interrupting each other (but allows direct confrontation in the form of POIs), and remains agnostic as to the round’s victor until its conclusion (rather than presupposing victors based on their status) are but a few ways in which it represents a form of speech that is genuinely different from, and more genuinely democratic than, what is ordinarily heard in the region.

Balancing Structure and Agency

Too often, as William Carlos Williams put it, “History that should be a left hand to us, as of a violinist, we bind up with prejudice.”14 When we fail to name the impediments to debating that exist elsewhere, we risk rendering them illegible, and allow those spaces to instead fill with a vague sense that debaters from less-developed contexts have been so shaped by deprivation that their lack of qualification is irremediable and to strive for their inclusion would be futile. The best outreach efforts, then, are precise about the impact of history on educational attainment, while remaining optimistic about the capacity of students to chart a different course. Such outreach may take the form of in-person trainings or outreach-from-afar, like writing or sending materials for learning key skills and running tournaments, but all should seek to acknowledge the ways in which both structure and agency bear on a speaker’s progress.

As already noted, communications technology in Cameroon is lacking. As such, resources tailored to Cameroonian students need to be paper-based or non-bandwidth intensive. IDEA is a leading provider of free debate resources, but the complexity of their website renders those resources inaccessible in Cameroon. (The Cameroon Debate Association’s vice president’s effort, over several afternoons in the cyber cafe, to copy and paste some training exercises into a Word Document to make them easier to distribute, ultimately failed.) Recent efforts by the Monash University-based NGO African Voice to pen First Principles training guides geared toward the continent are commendable in this regard, both for their line-by-line breakdown of canonical debating ideas and for their simple text-based format.

Given the difficulty in accessing information from afar, in-person trainings are crucial. To date, Professor Alfred Snider and a rotating cast of characters including Joe Damiba, Kenneth Newby, Paul Gross, Patricia Johnson Castle, and Mariel Golden have held two workshops in Bamenda, Cameroon’s largest Anglophone city. Grainy cell phone video taken at said workshops has become a cherished and oft-shared resource among the country’s debaters. Their hunger for information sometimes manifests quite endearingly: On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Cameroonian debaters answer their phones with a “Snider!”—a contemporary equivalent to French Revolution-era comrades calling each other Jacques. Cameroonian students have also benefited from scholarships to attend the WUDC, not only in Botswana but also in Berlin, where they added high-speed trains and stoplights to the list of innovations they hoped Cameroon would someday implement.

Granting Access

Outreach of the more active variety is crucial because the structures that have been devised to help debaters help themselves, through competition for funding, for example, often unwittingly exclude those they are meant to assist. Cultural context impacts not only the approaches that debaters take to crafting arguments and rhetoric, but the approaches they take to structuring their local organizations and to acquiring funding. This was made clear to me as I began editing grant applications for the CDA.  Asked to review an application for funding to hold the national secondary schools debating championships, which had been rejected by a major international funding source, I quickly identified the problem. Their budget would have been a generous one by American standards; when adjusted to reflect purchasing power in Cameroon, it was downright opulent.

I asked the grant-writers how they had devised the budget. “Well,” one told me, “when you go to the market to sell something, you have to start with a high price, or you won’t end up with what you need.  And the buyer needs to feel like they got a good price, too.” They had, in short, crafted their budget in anticipation that those doling out the grants would want to haggle; it was inflation as a protective measure.

Bargaining is commonplace in Cameroon, where very few fixed prices exist.  Of bargaining, anthropologists have written that it serves key social functions.15 Willingness to negotiate with one’s fellows signals that one is part of the community, and is an important sign of respect. Moreover, in a setting where the government is dysfunctional, price discrimination at the individual level is one of the only ways to achieve income redistribution. This certainly holds true in Cameroon: Paul Biya’s regime has been known to levy taxes preferentially, while citizens complain that the benefits of a 19.25% VAT do not trickle down to them.

When I explained that budgets are ordinarily drawn up to reflect precise expenses in the West, my interlocutors were alarmed. They quickly saw the implications: that they may have been perceived as corrupt. Cameroon is broadly seen as a corrupt country; on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, it is ranked 144th, just behind Pakistan (139th) and only somewhat above Zimbabwe (163rd) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (160th).16 In order to live in Cameroon, citizens must become accustomed to the possibility of greasing palms. These students spoke often of their hope that, should they reach positions of power, they would not become so hardened to Cameroon’s corruption that they would simply perpetuate it.

The pragmatism of the Cameroonian approach to corruption dovetails with the Cameroonian approach to time. Visitors to the African continent often throw around the phrase “African time” to explain delays, as if those delays are somehow integral to the African mentality or landscape. In fact, the lack of timeliness in a place like Cameroon is a direct reflection of the country’s lack of infrastructure. For example, public transportation, which consists of cramming as many people (and occasionally livestock) as possible into dilapidated vans (the smallest passenger, called the “petit chauffeur,” ordinarily shares the driver’s seat), does not run on fixed schedules. In the face of these structural impediments, it becomes a rational choice not to show up to places on time, even if one happens to have the capacity: chances are, no one else will be on time either.

During colonial rule, the struggle of the colonized to keep appointments was often cited as evidence of their moral deficiency; today, many members of the African upper crust have adopted the same stance, with Ivoirian dictator Laurent Gbagbo, for example, holding a national “Punctuality Night” at which he rewards citizens known for their timeliness with lavish prizes.17 In doing so, he deflects attention from the structural impediments to timeliness, and shifts attention back onto the individual.

Some months after concluding my stay in Cameroon, I found myself sharing a meal with an administrator of the same organization that my Cameroonian friends had approached for funding. The administrator shared a perspective on African debating organizations I soon learned was not unique: “The problem with these organizations is that they’re just one guy. We can’t work with them.” I can attest that the Cameroon Debate Association is not “one guy,” though there are good reasons why it might appear as such. For better or for worse, many Cameroonian organizations have inherited the charismatic leadership structure of their government (which may in turn be a warped version of the country’s dwindling chiefdoms) and even those governed more complexly often delegate the task of communicating to the outer world to a single member, someone with better-than-average Internet access. This, coupled with their limited web presence, makes them seem suspect from the perspective of Westerners for whom everything is Googleable.

When I conveyed these comments to the Cameroon Debate Association’s then-secretary, he shook with laughter. “I am impressed that I have been having all of these debate workshops by myself,” he said. “I must be ready for the WUDC if I can fill all speaker positions simultaneously!” He then began signing inquiries with the names of multiple board members, and saw the rate of response increase dramatically.

New Narratives, New Pedagogies

As with so many things, the world of debate has “outrun the pedagogies in which [we] were trained.”18 Debate today requires not only new modes of argumentation, but new modes of engagement, for it to be an activity that reflects—and positively contributes to—the state of the world. At present, everything from the global debating community’s words to its websites may presuppose a certain genre of eager student, one who is schooled in Western philosophical traditions and a beneficiary of the resources of a politically democratic and economically developed society. While debate’s focus on liberalism may be unavoidable, for it narrows the activity’s scope in such a way that clash can be achieved in a limited timespan, the fact that that is a decision and not an inevitability should be presented transparently.

More important than any single reform, I posit, would be the creation of spaces in which to examine the challenges faced by incipient debating communities. I suspect that every trainer who has worked in such communities possesses a wealth of hard-won knowledge about how to navigate them, pedagogically and practically. Students who live in them day in and day out undoubtedly have far more. Countering the current amortization of this knowledge seems central to the project of devising truly effective training programs and materials. And, on an affective level, the public acknowledgment that debaters from developing countries do not start on equal footing would be an important gesture in a community where those at the bottom of the speaker tab tend to receive very little attention, let alone appreciation. Experienced debaters’ focus on narratives of success signals to their less-experienced counterparts that, until they have triumphant narratives of their own, they are better off remaining silent, or focusing only on the positive aspects of debating in their home countries. (Once, when I floated the possibility of delivering a paper on Cameroon at a conference I did not ultimately attend, one of my Cameroonian friends sent me a possible abstract that was unwaveringly rosy in its portrayal of the activity’s reception and growth.) Sharing stories of failure is crucial to establishing the conditions, through well tailored education and outreach, under which such new narratives of success could genuinely grow. Otherwise, we risk emulating leaders like Biya and Gbagbo, who abrogate their responsibility for structural change by insisting on the myth of pure meritocracy.

Contingency, Meritocracy, and Solidarity

If Richard Rorty counsels us to take an “ironic” stance toward our moral vocabulary, reminding us that it is highly contingent and could have been radically different, we would do well to adopt the same approach to our modes of debating.19 It is only by laying bare the forms our speech takes in this intellectual game that we can facilitate a discussion about the ends those forms of speech serve outside of the game—and the contexts which call for something different. Western countries, to some small degree, reward political speech that is lucid and forthright, whereas evasion, irony, and satire are coveted skills in Cameroon’s fraught political landscape.20 Attending to the reasons behind these differences facilitates our thinking more expansively about what speech is for : not to mimic ‘perfect justice’ in the detached and delimited context of a debate, but to further the laborious process of political change.

The now-infamous course of events at last year’s Glasgow University Union’s Ancients Debate and their aftermath are testament to the fact that debaters, who pride themselves on thoughtful and ethical argumentation, may possess collective blind spots. If GUU-Gate shed light on a blind spot pertaining to the debating community’s prior and continued examination of gender issues, I would suggest that the information cited above points to the presence of another blind spot, one created at the nexus of culture, geography, language, and class which disadvantages participation by students from places like Cameroon. Since the exhortation to check one’s privilege can be just as unreflexive as the utterances of privilege that precede it, I hope I have illustrated some concrete ways in which established debaters can work to mitigate, or at least to make visible, their stronghold over the activity. If we as a community are dedicated to debate as a tool of development, this paper cautions that we should be mindful to make our resources, and through them our mindsets, accessible to all, not just to the audience we have historically assumed.

In this competitive context, there will always be friction between the meritocracy on which speaker points and breaks depend and the understanding that those who win are shaped less by what they choose than what they did not. In suspending the rhetoric of our own exceptionalism, we may come to have faith in something far more remarkable: the milieus where debate thrives against all odds. Places like Cameroon, where what is at stake in the activity’s growth is especially clear, provide ample reasons to speak to, and speak through, the growing pains.

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  12. In keeping with anthropological convention, and in light of Cameroon’s political environment, all names in this piece have been changed.
  13. Osborn, Emily Lynn. 2003. ‘Circle of Iron’: African Colonial Employees and the Interpretation of Colonial Rule in French West Africa. The Journal of African History , Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 29-50
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  16. Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index:
  18. Fischer, Michael M.J. 2003 Emergent Forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  19. Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge University Press.
  20. Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony. University of California Press.