Curious Language Divide of Cameroon

While not making major International news, there have been recent splashes of Cameroon making headlines in the past few months. A very simplified explanation is that Cameroon has two official languages, French and English. The majority of the country is francophone, and the capital is solidly in the francophone area. This had lead to discrimination against the anglophones in the country, particularly when it comes to dealing with government bureaucracies that may refuse to accommodate them. But where did this language divide come from in the first place?

Nearly all of Africa was colonized by a European power, Ethiopia being the exception. As a result of a 1884 dinner in Berlin, the official languages of African nations range from English to French to Portuguese. That is not to say that all the people living in the countries are able to speak these official languages, but rather the government dealings are conducted in this language and it is often the language used in the educational system.

Portuguese sailors were the first Europeans to end up in what is today Cameroon, landing on the coast in the 15th century. Europeans regularly traded with coastal people and Christian missionaries made a push inward.

By 1868, Germany began to establish its interests in the area when the Woermann Company of Hamburg built a warehouse along the Wouri River and created a treaty with a local king ceding the region to the German emperor. In 1884, Germany claimed the territory they called Kamerun as a colony. Local peoples resisted and commercial German companies were left to administrate the colony.

Map of German Kamerun.

In the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, Germany was forced to cede Kamerun which became a League of Nations mandate and was split into French Cameroons and British Cameroons. While the French fully took on this new colony, the British governed from their well-established colony in Nigeria. In 1946, the League of Nations mandates were converted into United Nations Tresteeships, which only pressed the question of independence closer to the surface in French Cameroun.

Division of French and British Cameroons.

In 1955, with the quest for independence bubbling across the continent, the French outlawed a radical political party, which sparked off a long and bloody civil war. The war ended with independence for French Cameroun at the beginning of 1960. Near the end of 1961, British Cameroon, which had been deciding whether to join with Nigeria or reunify with French Cameroun, united with French Cameroun and formed the Federal Republic of Cameroon. A little more than 10 years later, on 20 May 1972 the federal system of government was abandoned in favor of a United Republic of Cameroon. May 20 is now celebrated as National Day.

A group dressed to march on National Day in Cameroon.

If you are planning on visiting Cameroon, speaking French or knowing someone who speaks French is probably your best bet for enjoying your time there. The anglophone area of the country are small, and Cameroonian Pidgin English is not always easy to parse.


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