Growing up I had a passion for journalism and communication. So early enough, I honed the required skills: from accent to articulation, writing and body language to reflect the job I will be doing. As a Cameroonian who lives and practices in Cameroon, communicating in French and English is imperative to excel in a journalism/communication career. Moreover, as an English reporter, it always seems like you are doing yourself and your audience a favour by understanding your second language, French. Today, I’d like to tell you a story on what I caption “For Bilingualism’s Sake: The travails of an English Newswoman”
As a journalist who practiced with the Cameroon Radio Television, my day always started with a long thought about what stories I’ll be covering and this also involved waking up every 3am to keep an eye on what the papers are saying.
One of the interesting things about being a reporter in a city like Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, is that as you drive through the town on your way to work (though I don’t have a car, but the taxi driver drives me) you see thousands of things which could make it to the headlines but at the end of the day when you are writing your story, they will never come anywhere near the editor’s desk.
So, permit me share my experience with you. It all starts from the newsroom and even when I go out in search of the news makers that my editors believe are so important for broadcast in the setting we find ourselves in.
Now, if you attend any administrative meetings in Cameroon you must have heard the Territorial Administration boss shout “Le Cameroun es bilingue” and even the writing on the national symbols should have told you the country is bilingual. Most glaringly, the creation of the bilingualism and multiculturalism commission in 2017 is the same as writing it on a billboard “Le Cameroon es bilingue” so it sinks like never before a commission which is seen as a stitch in time.
On several occasions, I have had to attend an event with my French colleagues to gather feed for news. If it is an event organised by one of the state’s ministries, over 90% of the time, press kits will be prepared in French only, billboards, rollup banners and handbills all in French.
Over time, the more events I covered to gather news, I noticed that efforts to uphold bilingualism were not made and organisers expect the English journalists to put up with it. I grumbled within me almost all the time but how would grumbling help anyone?
On one occasion, I was sent with a French colleague (always a team of English and French speaking reporters) to cover an event organised by the Ministry of Commerce at Djeuga Palace, Yaoundé. Upon arrival, as the norm is, as a reporter when you get to an event venue, the first person you look for is the “CELCOM” French acronym for Communication Officer. The reason for getting in touch with the celcom first is so you may receive every press document and mark yourself present to have covered the event. So, on this day I asked for the press kit from the celcom and he handed my French speaking colleague and I one document written entirely in French.
“May I have the English version?” I requested seriously
“Nous avons juste une version. Vous êtes journaliste, vous devez comprendre le français. Utilisez celui-ci avec votre collègue » He answered rudely.
I had no choice other than translate the press kit from French to English to better understand the context of the event and to feed the angle of my report.
It was the thesis defence of students of the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences of the University of Yaoundé 1 and as usual, I was one of the reporters sent to cover the event. I stretched my microphone to one of the faculty lecturers for an interview and I asked my questions in English and asked him to respond in English because I’m an English reporter, he could equally answer in French for the French news cast.
“Je ne parlerai pas en anglais. je ne parlerai qu’en français. Vous êtes journaliste, vous allez le traduire. C’est votre travail » He said with so much arrogance.
I was shocked to the marrows. I have never known that journalists are also translators. I had no choice so I had to take it as it is. Furthermore, I was the only one who asked a question but couldn’t get served in my language of reporting is a slap to the face of English-speaking journalists.
Not that I don’t understand and communicate fluently in French oh, I do. I’m a very bilingual Cameroonian journalist but English is my first language of communication and with which I practice at ease. Making an English journalist translate press documents before writing a news story is not only time consuming but slows down creativity and productivity. I need to understand the content in French, render it in English before writing my story. Meanwhile, my French speaking colleague has her story ready to be aired (perhaps) I, the English-speaking journalist is till translating essential documents from where I can get content for my article. I find this as deliberate injustice to English speaking journalists and a gross disregard for bilingualism.
I thought I was just being overbearing and wondered if other English-speaking journalists have the same experience. Concerned about the credibility of information we disseminate, I approached my Editor-in-Chief who then assigned me to carry out a little investigation amongst other journalists to find out their experience with press kits at events and the feedback was one: English journalists are having a hard time in the field because all documents almost always come in French. The journalist is then obliged to translate the document before exploiting it for his or her news story. These translations are not often accurate and thus makes the news not credible.
“For bilingualism’s sake, these documents should be rendered in English and French so our work will be easier. If the organisations or ministries do not have professional translators, they could hire a bilingual staff for bilingualism sake, hire a French and English communication staff to ensure these documents are made available to journalists in both languages. Its aching and it appears the English journalists are less important.” An English journalist said.
“If these people really want the information to reach the English-speaking population, they must help journalists to covey this message by providing bilingual press kit to ease understanding for all journalists. Cameroon is a bilingual country, they should try to reflect that at least” another journalist added.
« Il est vrai que les journalistes anglophones de Yaoundé sont confrontés à des difficultés sur le terrain avec les dossiers de presse. Ils sont toujours en français et parfois je me sens mal pour mes collègues anglophones parce que si les tables tournaient, je ne suis pas sûr de pouvoir me débrouiller » A French speaking journalist reaffirms.
When government cabinet was reshuffled and new ministers appointed, that night journalists were deployed to the various ministers for interviews. I was assigned to interview the minister of Small and Medium Size Enterprises. Once I asked my question, the man spoke in English and proceeded to answering the question in French too. Surely because he understands the importance of bilingualism thereby making the work easier for reporters.
One day, I’d to go down town to do a vox pop, randomly interview people, seeing that I’m an English reporter and my feed must be exploited in English, having interviewed about six persons who all refused they can’t speak English, as a matter of fact, they don’t understand my question and they insisted I speak in French. Not as if I can’t speak French but how does an English news reporter gather feed in French for an English report? For bilingualism sake, what anyone living in Cameroon can do is understand and speak basic French or English so life would be easier for everyone especially news men and women.
One of the very good things that CRTV does is help its staff improve their language. Some months ago, the channel manager arranged for reporters to take TOEFL (TEST OF ENGLISH AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE) test. I was very touched by the efforts of the staff at the centre. Though it was an English centre, the staff endeavoured to serve everyone who came in the language they understand, seeing that both English and French speaking journalists came to take the tests. This is an effort I applaud because the centre understands it is operating in a bilingual country and so for bilingualism sake, serving clients in both languages will impact and foster collaboration.
At a time when Cameroon is sandwiched by incessant socio-political unrest, partly blamed on the authorities’ inability to uphold bilingualism at every level, the least a system should do in order to meet free press demands is make documents bilingual and easily exploitable for both English and French journalists. In a bilingual nation, no language should be more superior to the other.
Press freedom is not only the right to express oneself but the right to access information and report in the language you are most comfortable with.
*Ayuk Renette, Yaounde.