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Discovering The African People: The University of Dayton Immersion Programme In Cameroon 

By Julius A. Amin*

Recent events including the World Cup in South Africa have done much to redeem Africa’s global image. For too long, the continent was dismissed as an "exotic" place inhabited by "primitive" people. For too long, its people were considered as misfits in the modern world, and as a result some of the most vicious racial epitaphs have been detonated against them.

Early European visitors to Africa wrote about the beauty of the landscape, vegetation, rivers, lakes, and mountains, but labeled the inhabitants as "natives" and "sub-humans." Programmes such as the University of Dayton Immersion experience are designed to educate and reverse stereotypes.  Immersion participants are charged to "discover" the African people.

Begun over a decade ago, UD’s immersion experience in Cameroon added a practical and an international perspective to the students’ education. During the one month period students live with Cameroonian host families, visit villages and urban centers, travel to industrial sites, and engage in service projects. Participants also meet with key American officials including the US Ambassador, and leaders of major educational institutions.

In the most recent visit, Dr. Smith LaHoma Romocki, the in-country Peace Corps Director in Yaounde, urged immersion participants to challenge themselves and "make good of this remarkable opportunity" afforded to them by the University. Cameroon is "an amazing place," and "you must resist the temptation to examine this society through the lens of the United States," she added. 

It is, therefore, no surprise that returned immersion participants have sounded a similar tone. The Cameroon experience forced them to re-examine themselves and values. For them, Africa is no longer a distant and remote place inhabited by "strange people." Visits to sites such as the SONARA Oil Refinery, the Rubber Processing Factory, and the Brasserie Du Cameroun, were eye-opening.

During those visits UD students saw at work engineers, office assistants, physicians, teachers, accountants, managers, and other talented individuals. In an intellectual exchange at the International Relations Institute of Cameroon (IRIC), immersion participants were challenged to broaden their understanding of global issues. At the Seme Beach, immersion participants swam alongside Cameroonians.  At a local nightclub in Limbe participants danced to Makossa, Bitkusi, and Rap music. 

They enjoyed the music of Lady Ponce, P-Square, Justin Timberlake, and Usher.  At the Mars Restaurant, UD students and Africans watched Ghana defeat the US soccer team in a World Cup encounter.  And so it went. Those were ordinary things done by ordinary people, and thereby challenged widely held beliefs that the African people are "different." "People here are just like in the United States," an immersion participant said.

The University of Dayton Immersion Experience is about hope, human understanding, and community building. In Cameroon UD students learned social responsibility, diversity, respect for elders, tolerance of difference, and community consciousness. As a result they are better able to understand the human capacity to endure, hope, and dream for a better life. 

That, indeed, is one of the most enduring lessons of the immersion experience. In a world that has become increasingly cynical, violent, and self-centered, immersion experiences can help us to more fully understand the interconnectedness and interrelated structure of the human family. To immersion participants and their advocates, perceptions of Africa and its people have been altered forever.

*Professor & Chair, Department of History,
University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio

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