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Cameroon Undertakes Nationwide Census

Cameroon is conducting its third-ever nationwide census as an independent nation. The census is one of the conditions set by donor countries for a possible future cancellation of the nation's foreign debt. It is meant to help in the efficient management of resources.

It has been 18 years since Cameroon last attempted to carry out a nationwide head count of its people. And so, this time, census organizers began preparations with a public education program, aimed at eliminating any mystery surrounding the process.

Cameroon's development minister, Augustin Kadock, is in charge of organizing the census for the government, and explains why it must be done.

"When we have to select policies for development projects, or [education] of boys and girls, or agricultural investment, it can be very important to know how many persons are living in this area, or this other area," he said.

The United Nations Population Fund recommends that national censuses be carried out every 10 years. However, they are extremely expensive, highly complicated and require massive logistical coordination and technical know-how.

In its 44 years as an independent country, Cameroon has only attempted to count its citizens twice, in 1976 and then again in 1987. Results from the 1987 head count were never published. And today, the country has almost no accurate statistics on its own people.

The problem is especially serious, Mr. Kadock says, in Cameroon's two main cities, which have experienced population booms in recent years.

"For the towns like Yaounde and Douala, very much, our problem now is that we don't know how many the population are in these areas," added Mr. Kadock.

In Ngoaekele, a neighborhood in the capital, Yaounde, a census team is encountering the practical difficulties of the count first hand.

Here, a teenage boy with a wheelbarrow negotiates a dirt path eroded by heavy rains and inaccessible by car. Houses are packed together. Some residents in Yaounde must pass through the houses of neighbors to access their own homes.

Census workers cover the area mainly on foot, working from outdated maps.

Team leader Marie-Josephine Ngo Bikes says, just finding people is often difficult.

Cameroon has two official languages, French and English, and dialects from around two dozen African language groups are also spoken. Ms. Bikes says, census-takers often must rephrase or simplify questions, in order to be understood.

Census workers use four-by-four vehicles in outlying areas, others travel by bicycle. In some parts of the country accessible only by water, they use pirogues, a canoe-like boat.

Cameroon is receiving help from the United Nations Population Fund, which has given technical assistance and provided vehicles and computers. The U.N. agency's representative in Yaounde, Faustin Yao, says, although the process is costly, it must be done, and will benefit Cameroon in the long run.

"It is not just head-counting," he noted. "A census is a major undertaking, which takes years to prepare and years to finalize. And we are involved in all of these processes. We are involved, because it is our mission."

Census-taker Ms. Bikes says, so far, things are going well. Most people she has interviewed already know about the census. And fears that census workers would be greeted with suspicion and resistance have proved unfounded.

She says most people understand the census is a positive step for Cameroon.

Jenny Banye, a resident of Ngoaekele, echoes the attitude of many of those being interviewed.

"It's going to improve the living standards, because, by knowing how the people live, the conditions in which people live, their environment, it will help the country to know what they need, and to increase their living standards," she explained.

The three-week interviewing phase of the 2005 census began November 11. The census is one of a series of reforms and development projects required by the International Monetary Fund, if Cameroon is to have some or all of its foreign debt canceled. The country is classified as one of the world's 38 highly indebted and poor countries.