Since January 17, English-speaking parts of Cameroon have had their internet blocked. Although no official reason has been given, residents of the African country say it's an intentional act by the government, affecting about 20 percent of the population.
This apparent crackdown on dissent is affecting people far outside the country's borders, including my own family in Ottawa and Montreal. I am the son of a Cameroonian immigrant, and my family has had to find other ways to reach loved ones in affected areas. Social apps like WhatsApp and Facebook are lifelines between members of the African diaspora. When I was growing up, calling cards were always on our grocery list, until the proliferation of instant messaging and VoIP technologies made them obsolete. Now, we can't access them to reliably check in on our loved ones and see how they're being affected.
For people currently inside Cameroon, it's even worse. "We have empty offices all over the city. All tech companies are down," Otto Akama, community manager of a tech hub in the city of Buea, told CNN earlier this month. Without internet access, local businesses are hurting: Internet Sans Frontières has estimated that the shutdown has cost them over $700,000 USD. The first African winner of a Google coding contest, who is a 17-year-old Cameroonian, is among those affected. For now, travel through potentially dangerous areas is the only way to get online.
"When there was internet, we had WhatsApp. It's like going back to the Dark Ages"
Cameroon's case is different than recent internet outages in countries like Turkey, which faced a social media block in late 2016. With the use of VPN services like TunnelBear, and the addition of dark web links to sites like Facebook, those blocks could be easily circumvented.
In Cameroon, if anyone is suspected of traveling with controversial images on their phone and intending to post them once they reach a place with working Wi-Fi, they can have their devices confiscated or worse. But many have not let this stop them.
To find out how people are fighting back, I reached out to Benn Bongang, a professor of political science and public affairs at Savannah State University (and former journalist for Radio Cameroon) who recently returned from a visit there.
"Someone just sent me an email and she had to go from Limbe to Douala [60 km away] to [get internet access]. She runs a travel agency in Limbe, and she's felt the economic cost," said Bongang.
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Like my own family, he's finding it more difficult to communicate with relatives. "Now, to talk to my sister in Bamenda, I have to go back to the regular telephone. We used to buy calling cards all the time to talk to people back home but [when there was] internet, we had WhatsApp. It's like going back to the Dark Ages."
He explained that, for people who can afford it, traveling to the capital city of Yaoundé to buy local sim cards is an option. Out-of-region sims have become lifelines of data access. This method is preferable for people who want to post images of protest, like the ghost towns where businesses are closed as a form of economic resistance.
Right now, my family back home in Cameroon is still getting the kids to school and managing to stay mobile in the face of demonstrations. We can still communicate with those who have internet access. They form a bridge to the others, but without an end in sight, it's hard not to be frustrated and fearful.
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