Yaoundé (AFP) – Under-equipped, under-nourished, underfunded, and struggling to find facilities worthy of the name, an increasing number of Cameroon’s athletes are choosing exile to achieve their sporting dreams.
Over the past four decades, dozens have sought out opportunities abroad — as well as, in some cases, a different passport — leaving behind a country increasingly riven by a conflict in two English-speaking regions.
Only last April, five boxers and three weightlifters went missing while with their team in Australia at the Commonwealth Games.
At the previous edition of the games in Glasgow in 2014 more than a dozen athletes likewise jumped ship, including weightlifting champion Marie-Joseph Mfegue.
She ended up going to France, where she is now reportedly seeking French nationality.
Two years earlier at the London Olympics, seven of her compatriots — boxers, swimmers and footballers — also decided not to return home.
“I understand them as it is not easy here,” explains Jeanne-Gaell Eyenga, part of the women’s weightlifting squad who has been selected for August’s African championships in Mauritius.
“In Cameroon you can’t make a living from this sport, it’s not worth it,” she said in Yaounde.
– Bad rap –
A teammate from the north of the country is not even attending preparatory sessions in the capital, says coach Justin Nzali, citing inadequate accommodation and a similarly lacking nutrition programme for the squad.
Five men from Douala, some 300 kilometres (190 miles) away, have shunned a call up to their squad for pre-competition training which began three weeks ago.
“I can’t make them come if I can’t guarantee them accommodation and (good) nutrition,” says their coach Clement Mballa.
In a scenario which would be unthinkable in western countries, the training camp was held at the home of Paul Edouard Etoundi, alias ‘Krotal’, a former athlete and now a well-known rapper in Cameroon.
“We don’t have a training facility,” and if Krotal “had not made the space available we’d perhaps be out in the street selling peanuts,” says Mballa, citing the “difficult conditions” the athletes face.
– Nothing to eat –
“Often when they arrive at a camp they have nothing to eat,” says Mballa, explaining many athletes in Cameroon are not paid wages by their clubs.
He adds that as well as those who chose to stay behind in Australia in April three others from his squad secretly “migrated” to the United States.
Boxer Wilfried Seyi, 20 and a silver medalist in the Commonwealth Games in the 75kg category, is the only one of his team who went missing while Down Under to have returned since.
“I came back because I am a patriot, I love my country,” says Seyi.
But he added: “Coming back I thought a few things were going to change … but it’s not the case.”
And he went on: “Some of my colleagues who fled say their life has changed and that I’d be fine if I had done as they did.”
For Mballa, athletes quitting their homeland “penalises us but I understand as here they have no future.”
“What can you do when … returning from a competition abroad, their bonuses aren’t paid?”
The coach also complains that some countries who take in the former Cameroon athletes will offer them a nationality switch but do not pay any compensation to the clubs that first helped them to make the breakthrough.
That notably makes Krotal furious. “They are Cameroonian athletes who have gained all of their technical knowhow over the years here in Cameroon.”
“They became strong here thanks to our expertise, not thanks to support from some western guru who will come and spare Africa from famine.”