The Damage Caused by the 93-Day Internet Blackout in Cameroon

As part of the Technovation Challenge, Sophie Ngassa and a student work to build a mobile app to solve an issue they identified in their community.

Sophie Ngassa

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On Jan. 17, the internet went out in Bamenda, the English-speaking city where I live in the Northwest region of Cameroon.

The internet shutdown affected the Anglophone regions of Cameroon—approximately one-third of the population of the country. Meanwhile, Francophone Cameroonians continued to enjoy internet access. Why? The government claimed that Anglophone Cameroonians were using social media to spread rumors, fuel anti-government protests, and threaten national unity.

Just a day before services disappeared, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications issued a statement that warned social media users of criminal penalties if they were to “issue or spread information, including by way of electronic communications or information technology systems, without any evidence.” The statement also confirmed that the authorities had sent text messages direct to mobile phone subscribers, notifying them of penalties, including long jail terms, for “spreading false news” via social media.

For me, this shutdown was devastating. I’m a STEM advocate and a tech instructor for girls ages 10 to 18. I run after-school and holiday programs, where I teach girls hands-on digital skills at the Center for Youth Education and Economic Development (CYEED). My goal is to share my passion for STEM and to inspire them early on with the help of mentors, so they will stay engaged throughout their school year and their lives. In Cameroon, less than 30 percent of students in STEM programs are girls. My dream is to narrow the gender tech divide, so our women can have equal access to the economic opportunities STEM careers can provide. I am on a mission to eradicate the stereotypes about STEM education being for boys.

Naturally, the internet is one of the tools I use on a daily basis to access free online resources to train girls. I also belong to social online platforms where I gain skills and training. It is not an exaggeration to say that when I discovered that I could not connect to the internet, it was one of the most horrifying issues I have faced in life. I could not believe that it would now be impossible to express myself to the world, reach emergency services, or communicate with my family.

The nearest strong and reliable internet connection was three hours away on a very bad road, in a nearby French-speaking region. Every weekend, I packed my little backpack, bought a bus ticket, and traveled to the town of Baffoussam. It was the only way I could keep my work alive.

During the blackout, I was working on two main projects that required internet access. One was the Technovation Challenge, an international project to bring girls into STEM. As a regional ambassador for this program, I recruit and train girls to build mobile Android apps that will address problems in their community, using MIT App Inventor software. I estimate that because of the internet blackout, about 200 girls in Bamenda lost the ability to take part in the Technovation Challenge. That privilege was now reserved only to the girls from French-speaking regions of Cameroon.

The girls who could not take part have kept on contacting me to seek solutions. Many of them had taken part in the year before and were eager to do it again. But it was too expensive to move them to Baffoussam for training. It was a lost opportunity.

My second project at the time was the World Pulse Advanced Digital Changemaking program. In this project, I was not a leader, but a participant. World Pulse is a powerful digital platform uniting people from around the world who strive to speak out and build solutions to today’s biggest challenges. It empowers these leaders by advancing their digital skills and leadership, empowering them to mobilize others and create real social transformation.

I had only been in the program training for three weeks when the internet was shut down. I needed internet to access training material, do my assignments, run live calls in virtual classrooms with classmates, and have Skype calls with my assigned mentor, who helped me craft my vision and transform my project in to a reality.

I made up my mind to complete this training despite the internet blackout. It was a nightmare, very frustrating and painful, but I kept forging ahead while keeping a positive attitude. Thanks to my trips to Baffoussam, I was able to complete my online training after three months. In a competition between 30 women around the globe, my project titled “Bring a Girl to STEM” came first. Recently I was awarded as Featured Impact Leader for World Pulse. I will receive mentoring and financial assistance for my project that aims to attract and retain girls in the STEM fields. Had I not been able to pay for the bus trips to Baffoussam, I would have lost out on this wonderful opportunity.

The situation was even more serious for businesspeople, such as my co-worker who runs a big cyber cafe. Workers lost their jobs, and many businesses that rely on internet have also been shut down. People were left unable to support their families.

Finally, after 93 days, the internet was restored on April 20. All of us were happy to reconnect, but we will never forget the bad experience and all the opportunities lost. And it could happen again: The government statement announcing the restoration of the internet included a warning that the government reserved the right to kick people offline again if they “misused” it.

This threat is frightening to me. I call on the government of Cameroon to keep the internet on forever. The internet is a great tool for the development of a country. Furthermore, access to internet is a human right. It should be made accessible and affordable for all. I envision a country where internet is free for everyone to use.  I envision a society where everyone is trained on internet best practices and productive usage—especially women and girls.