After participating in the Olympic Games, seven Cameroonian athletes have apparently 'defected'. Though their disappearance might puzzle some, Yaoundé's younger generation seems unfazed and even empathic.
By Anne Mireille Nzouankeu, Yaoundé
Bouenguegni Patrick, a 22-year-old student, is frantically messaging with friends online. The chat is about the missing athletes.
“Objectively, I think that they stand a better chance of succeeding in Europe than in Cameroon. I think they are looking for better working and living conditions," he says. All his friends share this opinion, he notes.
So do other young Cameroonians. Thirty-five year-old journalist Jean-Bruno Tagne actually knows some of these athletes. “Having been around these sportsmen and knowing the conditions under which they live and train, we can at least understand that, in a survival reflex, they try to flee,” he says.
The act might even have been encouraged by friends and families who expect so much of them, Tagne theorizes. “Admittedly, not all of them are going to succeed, but those who are a bit lucky will be able to train one day under good conditions, will be paid correctly – which is currently very far from being the case for athletes engaged in Cameroon.”
Sports journalist Ateba Biwole agrees. "Without supporting this act, I understand, and I think they can better do their job in Europe," he says.
'To the frontline'
The missing athletes are boxers Abdon Mewoli, Blaise Yepmou Medouo, Serges Ambomo, Christian Donfack and Thomas Essomba, female football player Drusille Ngako and swimmer Paul Edingue.
In a telephone interview conducted by the Cameroonian daily newspaper Le Jour, the boxers’ coach, Justin Tchuem, talked about his missing trainees. “One evening, they left and never came back. They vamoosed after making sure that we were asleep and all our attempts to find them were in vain," he said.
Tagne readily shares his thoughts on what motivated such an act. “The reason for the defection of these athletes is the same as that for all candidates of illegal immigration give,” he says. “They seek a better existence, a country where they think they can live better. They are all young. They charge ahead saying ‘To the frontline’.”
Not the first time
The disappearance of Cameroonian athletes in international competitions is not new.
“Examples abound of runaway athletes who have become great champions in their host country and seem to motivate others candidates to do same,” says Tagne. He cites the boxers Issa Hamza, Hassan Ndam Njikam and Herman Ngoudjo.
According to Tagne: “Many are taking advantage of competition in so-called big countries to escape.”
Essomba’s disappearance in London is not his first post-Olympics vanishing act. “This boxer had already disappeared after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing,” explains Biwole. “However, he returned to Cameroon after a while and told reporters he had done so in the hope of finding better living and working conditions in China.”
Worth the risk
The missing athletes won no medal at the 2012 Olympics. Before leaving for London, Cameroonian newspapers had publicized the poor conditions that the sportsmen had to deal with, noting the insufficient financial and material resources made available to them.
"These athletes have surely told themselves that their future is uncertain in Cameroon and it is better to be in Europe, even at the risk of being illegal immigrants,” said Minette Ninko, a 20-year-old student. “For as long as the state will not improve the living conditions of young people – by providing employment, for example – there will always be such cases of defection that do not honour our country."