It has been 13 years since Cameroon instituted free primary education to meet one of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals
. But the program has led to a shortage of funds to pay teachers and many are refusing to teach or have abandoned their schools, despite threats of dismissal from the government.
Many teachers at a Catholic school called College de la Retreat in the heart of Yaounde are returning. Classes began this week in schools around Cameroon for the 2013-2014 school year.
Most schoolgoers like Blandine Mbassi told VOA they are happy to return. The nine-year-old class-six pupil, whose dream is to become a medical doctor, said they had their first lectures in some subjects. "Mathematics, French, English, science. I want to be a doctor," Mbassi said.
But while classes have begun in the cities, it is not the same situation in the country's hinterlands. There, education officials are still calling on instructors to return to school to teach.
An education official in Cameroon's South West Region, Francis Ngundu, sounded this warning note to absentee teachers. "We are sending echoes of warnings to those teachers because it is government's intention to make education accessible to as many people as possible," Ngundu stated.
Many of the teachers have simply neglected such calls for them to resume. Letuma Prudence, a primary school teacher, was transferred to a village called Koza in the far north of Cameroon, 1,300 kilometers from her home town of Bamenda in the northwest. Prudence says she worked in Koza for a year without getting paid.
"In that village, there is no light, no water. They stay in thatched houses and I had been there for one academic year, no salary, nothing. Now at my age I am begging from my brothers and sisters," she explanned. "I do not think I will go back."
Thirteen years ago, Cameroon's government instituted free primary education as part of efforts to increase school attendance and meet the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education. But this led to a drastic reduction of funds for basic necessities, because the payment of school fees was suspended.
The government took it upon itself to provide the basic school needs, in an initiative called Minimum Package. But the funds are just too minimal as confirmed by Sofa Stanislos, mayor of a locality called Tubah. "Last year, 2012, one classroom had only about four packets of chalk. The headmaster can not use four packets of chalk in a class for one year. It is grossly insufficient," Stanislos siad.
In a bid to supply growing school needs and pay teachers, parents have decided to institute the payment of compulsory levies before any child is admitted in government schools.
Parent Killian Nsom said that with such levies, education can not be said to be free in Cameroon. Why should the government tell us that they are operating free government schools and yet we still spend fabulous sums of money? We pay school fees," Nsom explained. "The government has not furnished us with teachers."
VOA asked the secretary-general in Cameroon's ministry of basic education, Leke Tambo, if the imposition of such levies is not a hindrance to the policy of free primary education?
"The law of education of 1998 that is currently being applied says that education is a responsibility of the state and the community, because it is difficult for the state alone to do everything alone concerning the delivery of education," Tambo responded.
Last year's monitoring report for the Millennium Development Goals said progress is being made towards increasing universal education throughout the world.
But the goal remains elusive in sub-Saharan Africa, the globe's poorest region. Two years before a 2015 deadline, observers in Cameroon note that despite the government's efforts, the school attendance rate is barely 65 percent.