By Eric Ndeh Mboumien Ngang
To me every day is a new beginning. However, having lived in Australia for 549 days (18 months), returning to Cameroon where I have spent 12,045 days of my life is going to be a newer beginning and a significant one for me. It makes me think of what Peter Legge, recipient of the Toastmasters’ Golden Gavel award, said: “You will be the same person in five years except for the books that you read, the places you visit and the people you meet”. Although it has only been half this time, the past 18 months has been a remarkable period of my life and I feel that I am going back to Cameroon as a changed person, though in a way I fear this newer beginning.
I have found Australians to be a nice and welcoming people and I took every opportunity to interact and immerse myself in the Aussie way of life. What I found most intriguing with Aussies was their false smile with a quick “lizard head nod” when you happen to pass them on the street. This might trick you into thinking they are interested in having a sustained interaction with you — but the nod is the beginning and end of the discussion. Aussies are people who want to be left alone.
On the other hand, when speaking to Aussie kids I always had to have an answer ready when they asked whether lions, giraffes, gorillas and/or tigers are often found wandering the streets in Africa. Sometimes I also had to respond to weird questions from older blokes. For example, this Aussie bloke asked me if there are any cars in Africa or if everyone rides horses. These sorts of questions gave me an idea of what people think about Africa; I guess the media has not projected the positive side of Africa. What I have done is use these opportunities to help these friends understand more about my home. I also told them how excited I have been to see policemen patrolling on horses and bicycles on some major streets of the city, something I have never seen in Africa.
I had the opportunity to share a house with five Aussies during 70% of my stay and there was a remarkable difference compared to sharing space with others in Africa. For my entire life, I was used to sharing my food and home with neighbours; I could always invite them over to share a meal or have a long chat. I also enjoyed seeing kids in the neighbourhood come out after school and during the weekends to play. I have missed this but I have also learned to embrace the Australian individualistic lifestyle.
There was also a lot to learn over the 18 months from South Australia and the other states I visited. The most remarkable thing I saw was that even though South Australia is the driest state, they have managed to enhance access to water and keep the state green. This is a striking contrast with where I come from. In most African countries we have abundant ground water and adequate rainfall, yet a large percentage of people do not have access to this basic resource. South Aussies have also endeavoured to keep their environment very clean. Littering is prohibited and the birds, trees and animals have rights of their own, upheld by various formal organisations and lobby groups. These are some big lessons I have seen and learned.
I have completed a Masters degree in Environmental Management and Sustainability which unsurprisingly entailed reading heaps of books and writing tons of assignments. It is a significant achievement to me as I am the first to attain this level of education in my family. Learning how to manage natural resources to ensure their sustainable use has been a rewarding journey for me. However, the most important lesson I am taking home from my studies is being able to critique information presented to me rather than accept dogma. I have also learned how to hold strong and defend my point of view, while valuing the views of others. As a student at UniSA, I have also cultivated a spirit of tolerance and respect for diversity. I come from a cultural context in Africa where many of the states are fragile with political and socio-economic turmoil because we have not learned to tolerate one another and appreciate our diversity. I look forward to preaching this message of tolerance when I return home.
Having had all of these experiences, I am excited to go home and the day I get off the plane I will want all these “western” ideals to be implemented on the ground. Of course, if I tried to do everything on my list I would be considered a misfit and rejected by my community. However, what I would like to do is;
- Begin yelling at people to stop littering the streets,
- Ask people to leave me alone as I have learned to like being left to myself,
- Openly critique things that I feel are wrong; even when I know they are long held and established beliefs,
- Tell leaders to their faces that they are responsible for the poverty and suffering of the masses,
- Force police officers to begin riding horses and bicycles to keep fit and respond in a timely fashion when criminals wreck havoc.
Thankfully, UniSA and my sponsors have been quick to realise that international students like me are in for a transition shock when returning to our home communities. Thus they have organised a set of re-integration workshops to psychologically prepare returning students. One thing I have learned during these sessions is that remarkable changes can happen when you subtly improve people’s understanding and help them to see the benefits of being part of proposed changes. I am confident that having this experience will help people like me ease tension when we get on the plane to return home in July.