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Students in Cameroon Threaten Another Hunger Strike for Better Conditions

Public university students in Cameroon are threatening to resume a hunger strike if their demands for better learning conditions are not met. Students who qualify for university want financial aid and better facilities.

A salsa lesson is taking place at the Yaounde 1 campus, as students prepare for the new school year by learning new dance steps.

But in their run-down dorms that have not been renovated in decades, the mood is grim.

"Being a student in Yaounde is very difficult, said history student Eric Koizah, who has a leaky ceiling in his room on the top floor. "If you look at the lodging facilities, it is not quite good. Libraries in particular are outdated, academic structures are outdated and the system is not functioning so well. We want total amelioration of the conditions of the Cameroonian student."

Five students just stopped a 10-day hunger strike for better overall conditions, including financial aid and scholarships. One of them, Tsela Evina, says he lost five kilograms on his rail-thin frame.

He says a hunger strike is better than a violent protest, because at least he is not being arrested and beaten up by police. He says he is protesting because students have become what he calls "untouchables."

"You cannot have a girlfriend," he said. "You cannot be considered when you reach a place, when you are a student, they say 'oh go away.' We are always badly dressed, always begging for something to eat. When a relative sees you coming into his home, he just asks people to make you go back. He knows you would always bring problems."

At another campus outside Yaounde, students argue at a streetside café over their exact cost of living, which they say goes above $100 per month.

Thirty-year old economics student Emmanuel says he has been working odd jobs to get by, including carrying cement at night, but that others steal or become homeless.

"I can say we are suffering, we are suffering," he said. "We do not have enough money to pay, no money for rooms, money for eating. When you are a poor student, you cannot pay per year, you can only pay for a month.

Some girls, Tsela says, revert to prostitution.

"It is too much," he said. "That is why girls are obliged to do prostitution. Every prostitute that you will see in the town are students, graduate students, yes, since they are obliged to do it to continue. Some are obliged to go abroad. All the students are looking forward to how to go abroad nowadays."

Just before the presidential election this week, government officials met with the five students, pleading with them to stop their hunger strike and agreeing to consider their complaints.

The communications minister said the matter has been resolved.

At the ministry of higher education, officials there said they were too busy to comment because of the election and the new school year.

But the director of an international relations university in Yaounde, Jean-Emmanuel Pondi, says the solution should be to move toward more private universities.

"Those who complain I think they are right to do so but whose fault is it? It's not only the fault of government, the government has some faults, but I think that education has a price. If you want good education, you must [pay] the price and unfortunately in Africa we want very good education, but we want free education," said Jean-Emmanuel Pondi. "And some even want to be paid, to have scholarships, to go to school. Now, when you have the structural adjustment programs one of the problems has been to totally, totally dislocate our educational systems."

But linguistics student Tsela still believes bright young people should have a right to free education. He says he is ready to start his hunger strike again, if his demands are not seriously considered.

"We have suspended because we are going to do it again," said Tsela. "We have just suspended because we have been asked to suspend it, but we are ready to go until death."

The government has already launched an investigation into an earlier complaint that many professors were forcing male students to pay for good grades, while coercing female students into sex.

This, government officials, university directors, and even teachers' association agreed was unacceptable. But the investigation has yet to produce results or decisions.