Conflict shut schools. A teen teaches himself, one toy car at a time.

When separatist violence forced 16-year-old Awa Bless Chi to flee his home in Cameroon’s North West region earlier this year, there were many things he had to leave behind.

He couldn’t take the drawing board or working table where he’d spent long hours teaching himself engineering by building motors for toy cars. And he had to leave the well-thumbed schoolbooks that clued him in to the science behind it.

Then there were the people he loved: his recently widowed mother; the aunt, uncle, and cousins who’d helped raise him; a group of childhood friends.  

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But there was one cherished thing Bless could take. His electric toy cars – each of which he had built himself with materials from the dump. There was the plywood tank whose gun barrel swiveled 360 degrees, a dump truck that could lift and deposit cargo, a wooden bulldozer that pushed soil and rubble into tiny, tidy piles.

He packed each carefully into cartons, and hoped the driver of the minibus taking him from Nancho to the city of Douala would be careful. On every bump in the cratered road, he held his breath, praying his most prized possessions would arrive intact.

Three years into a conflict that hollowed out his hometown and forced him to quit school, Bless became one of nearly 500,000 Cameroonians who the United Nations estimates have been displaced by fighting between the largely French-speaking government and armed groups from its English-speaking minority, who are calling for independence.

In many ways, Bless knew, he was lucky. In his English-speaking hometown, he hadn’t been kidnapped from school, or beaten by separatist militants, or seen his house burned down by government forces, as other Anglophone Cameroonians had. And he had a place to go – a sister and brother-in-law living in the Littoral region, a French-speaking area outside the conflict zone.

Still, the move was jarring. Until late 2016, Bless had been on track to earn a place at university, dreaming of a career in engineering. Now he was a teenager with no degree, no job prospects, and no idea when he’d go home.

All he had left were his cars.

* * *

Cameroon’s rich diversity is a point of pride. “All Africa in one country,” English speakers say, alluding to the country’s mountains and beaches, its deserts and its rainforests. “L’Afrique en miniature,” French speakers boast of the country’s 240-some ethnic groups.

But bilingualism – the country was stitched together from a former British colony and a former French one – has also long been a source of tension. Although French and English are supposed to enjoy equal status, the Francophone majority has dominated politics and society since independence.

In late 2016, lawyers and teachers in the two English-speaking regions began to protest, calling the appointment of a large number of French speakers to their courts and schools a sign of marginalization. By the end of the year, police and army response to the protests had turned violent, and the following fall, an entity calling itself Ambazonia declared it was seceding.

Bless’ own teachers joined the protests, leaving students without any clear sense of when they could return to class. And then, when the strikes ended in February 2017, a new threat rushed in.

From the earliest days of the conflict, schools were seen by “Amba Boys,” as the mostly young and male Anglophone separatists are known, as a symbol of state control. So to clear the way for their new country, they began to burn them to the ground, kidnapping hundreds of staff and students.

“I left school because when you go to school, you’d be attacked, so we were afraid to go,” Bless says. What’s more, “The frequent military patrol at the junction around our school made us to be afraid because each time they were in that area, they’d shoot randomly in the air.”

Indeed, it was increasingly unsafe to go much of anywhere in Nancho, where he lived with an aunt and uncle. So he stayed home, quietly assembling toy cars from a tangle of wires, old motherboards, batteries, and scrap wood, plastic, and metal he’d skimmed from a local garbage dump.

It was a hobby he’d started when he was 8 years old, envious of other children around town.

“I was just playing as a child, and decided to try making my own toys, because my parents couldn’t afford to buy me real toys during Christmas, like other parents did for their kids,” Bless says. He learned the basics from local mechanics and his older brother Derick, who had studied car mechanics in school. The rest he picked up wherever he could.

* * *

In 2017 and 2018, the crisis’s brutality escalated on both sides. Ambazonian separatists attacked at least 42 schools between February 2017 and May 2018, according to Amnesty International, and killed 44 soldiers. Government troops, meanwhile, have been accused of torching entire Anglophone villages, torturing and arbitrarily detaining suspected separatists, and killing civilians.

Nearly 1 million children are now out of school across the country, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council – which experts say will carry consequences even after the conflict ends.

“There are [now] children who’ve been out of school for three years,” says Ayah Ayah Abine, president of the Ayah Foundation, a Cameroonian nonprofit that works with people displaced by the crisis. “It will take a miracle to fill that gap.”

At Bless’ home, meanwhile, things weren’t going well. His father had severe heart problems, and in August 2018, he died. Not long after, the family made a difficult decision. With the conflict refusing to ebb, it seemed unlikely the boys would go back to the local school anytime soon. So they went to live with their older sister Edith in Douala, a six-hour bus ride away. Derick went first, and Bless followed a few months later, in March.

In many ways, their new city was a rude shock. Kilomètre Cinq, the neighborhood where Edith, her husband, and nine other relatives shared a house, was crowded and gritty. Sewage gurgled up from broken drains, and mosquitos ducked and dived. On Bless’ first day, a street child snatched his cellphone out of his hand.

Nothing, however, felt more foreign than the language. Douala lived and breathed in French, which Bless barely spoke.

So he went back to what he knew. Inside the walls of his family compound, he tended to his cars, fixing nicks and dents and working on their wiring.

Originally, he planned to display his cars at the school his brother attended. But school authorities refused, he says, so he began simply lining his cars up outside his sister’s house, demonstrating how they worked to passersby and collecting donations in an old plastic bowl.

His street show was a hit, and local media wrote features on “L’ingenieur en herbe,” the budding engineer. But as flattered as Bless is, he can’t help but think of what he’s missing. He longs to be back in school, copying equations and studying technical drawing, his favorite topic. And he dreams of eventually going abroad to study. He missed the enrollment window this school year, but hopes to be back in secondary school before the end of 2019.

In the meantime, he hopes the conflict will end.

“I feel very bad because our own town is being destroyed,” he says. “I don’t support any of them [military nor separatists] because all of them always commit crimes.”

Each time he finishes a new car, he writes the same phrase in careful script across the body. It was true when he was home in the Anglophone North West, and true now that he lives far away in Douala.

Made in Cameroon.

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