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Cameroonians Will Read If Books Are Available – Dr. Fonge 

Interviewed By Walter Wilson Nana

The Metropolitan Library in Molyko, Buea, the only public library in the municipality, has clocked 11. The inhabitants of Buea – and beyond – are beneficiaries of the activities of this facility, conceived by Dr. Mike Fotoh Fonge, the Houston-based Professor of Education.

"When I got to the US," Dr. Fonge says, "I never forgot the background from which I came. I was aware that Cameroonians love reading but lacked books. So, I started the library concept to make available books to Cameroonians at all levels.

I felt the urge to support Cameroonian students and the public with this idea of a public library." At the close of his recent trip to Cameroon, Dr. Fonge, in this exclusive interview with The Post, discusses the dream behind the Metropolitan Library project, its difficulties and perspectives. Excerpts:

You run the Metropolitan Library; what is it all about?

When I embarked on this project, my initial intention was to cater for elementary school children. But, today, the library is serving people of all walks of life: medical doctors, students and teachers. We have books on all disciplines. People come all the way from Yaounde to tap from the resources of the Metropolitan Library. My ambition is to make books available to every person.

I am impressed with the fact that we have tailors coming into the library to look out for books on fashion designs; we have gardeners, carpenters, plumbers coming to find out and learn new things; politicians coming in to read new developments on American politics.  Even grand-parents come to the library with their grand-children. That is what I wanted the library to be. As you can see, we have reached a point where we are serving the entire community.

How did you come about with the idea of a public library?

There was the general premise that Cameroonians do not read. I countered this premise, saying that Cameroonians will read if books are available. If you get them books, they will read. Let me mention here that our Francophone brothers are making good use of the library, too.

People have seen that English is a major language across the world: we’re in a world of technology and we need to know the English language very well. Secondly, as far as I know, there is no other public library in Buea . The University of Buea has a library, but there are many books lacking there. So we have come to fill the gaps.

Which are the books that you think are needed by users of this library?

We urgently need books in the domain of Medicine and Law. These are the areas students are increasingly interested in. However, we need books in everything as far as I am concerned – even religious books. I will say almost every discipline is lacking. I am looking out for books on Engineering. We do not have books in that area.

I started the library about eleven years ago. Remember, I am not serving only the Metropolitan Library. There is also the bookstore where we give books at a discount. We have books for about FCFA 100, which is, basically, nothing. I have sent more than 1.5 million books to Cameroon. I send about two or three 40-foot containers of books every year.

How do you get the books?

I go to all the retail stores in Houston, in particular. I do a lot of business with Half Price Books, a company in Houston. I have brought five of their employees to Cameroon to see what I am doing. I get books from them on whole sale. I also have my colleagues in the University and my former students, who donate some of their books to me. In short, I get books from every angle; but, I use most of my money to buy them

Are the activities of the Metropolitan Library relevant to our community?

Yes, they are. That’s the feedback I get from the people using the library. The only thing lacking in the library is the internet. The place, too, is congested.  So, I need space for the students to read. I have the land but I do not have the money to build a permanent structure. That is where my problem now is.

Some observers of the library say they would wish to see a trained Librarian recruited to get the books arranged in a professional manner. How do you react to that?

I agree with the observation.  But, the problem is that I am charging students FCFA 200 a day to use the library and, if they pay monthly, it is even cheaper for them. So the issue boils down to the cost of paying the librarian in addition to the exorbitant  cost of electricity and water. Every month, I am on the minus. Getting a trained Librarian will cost me more money, that is why, for the meantime, and since I am using my salary, I will make do with what I have.

What are some of the difficulties you have encountered running the Metropolitan Library?

Like any other thing in Cameroon, the problem is that of exorbitant taxes. I have problems paying my employees and catching up with my basic costs. My salary, remember, is what I use in running the library.

I am almost thinking of closing shop because of costs and, if things do not improve positively, in the next few years, I may close the Metropolitan Library. For the last 11 years I’ve also been making a lot of efforts, but, although thousands of people will not be happy to hear this, I must admit that I am also thinking about my own future.

You sounded upbeat at the beginning. Apart from the seemingly daunting odds, what are your immediate plans?

First, put up a permanent building. That has been my goal and continues to be. I hope I can make it. I also hope to put in place a permanent library where students can come and surf the net. I need to set up computers.

I need to get a section for seminars in the library as well as a section reserved for Cameroon culture. Our culture is dying. I need to get a section reserved for our artefacts. Most of them are being destroyed. My wish is that of getting a place where people can come and read for pleasure and gain knowledge.

After eleven years, have you had support from, say, the Ministries of Education and Culture?

No! I have had zero support. It is only my wife who supports me in this endeavour. From the beginning, it was supposed to be an NGO: I got the paper work done but nothing has happened from the government side. Remember, the Metropolitan Library is a subsidiary of the Books ‘N Things Company. We donate books to schools: Saint Joseph’s College, Sasse, Bishop Rogan Minor Seminary, Bilingual Grammar School, Molyko, Buea and more. We have, so far, donated thousand of books.

The idea was to do a mobile library, with a vehicle carrying the books to the villages. Because I grew up in the village, I know the difficulties villagers face. I can say that my dreams have not been met because of crippling costs. Ultimately, my intention is to make books available to children in the villages.

What are your expectations from the Ministries of Education and Culture, in particular?

I wish that they could see my records and what I have done. I have documentations and testimonies for them to see what I have done for the nation. I also face too many problems with the customs officials. If the government could get me some clearance to bring in the books without any cost, I would appreciate that. Sadly, most Cameroonians are not aware of what I am doing in Buea, especially government officers.

The building housing the library may not look attractive, but what is inside the building is what matters. I’m proud that University Professors come in regularly to do their research.  I pray that the Ministries should reconsider and give me a helping hand. I also thank The Post for their strong support. They have been educating the public on what we do out here.

Is there anything you’d wish to share with Cameroonians?

Let the reading public get the news out to the public and be my spokespersons. They know what we provide here. Every day, we get about twenty new readers in the library: they should move out and tell others the good news.

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