African teacher, librarian seeks refuge at University

IBy Jake Weyer Innocent Afuh Awasom’s life is in danger. In 2002, Awasom blew the whistle on corrupt officials in his home country of Cameroon, triggering threats and attacks against his family and friends.

Awasom has temporarily escaped the danger, thanks to the Scholars at Risk Network, which placed him as a librarian at the University’s Magrath Library in St. Paul.

Awasom is the first person the network has placed at the University.

Danger in Cameroon

Cameroon is a republic in western Africa governed by a French-backed dictatorship. It ranked high on Transparency International’s 2002 list of the most corrupt nations in the world.

“The only way to stay safe is to stay out of partisan politics,” Awasom said. “(Government officials) don’t want people to have knowledge. Knowledge is power.”

With master’s degrees in zoology and library information science, Awasom found a job at the University of Ngaoundere in northern Cameroon. There he was a librarian and a library information science and environmental science teacher.

During the six years Awasom spent working at the university, the library budget was never used to purchase books or train employees, he said.

Each year, officials in charge of the library’s budget would tell the university that books had been ordered. However, all that would ever arrive were phantom shipments, Awasom said.

He tried to notify higher authorities of the fraud, but his complaints fell on deaf ears, Awasom said. Last year, a book contractor visited the library after receiving a tip that Ngaoundere’s library had not used its funds. Awasom showed the contractor the unfulfilled book orders. The book contractor then raised questions with university officials, one of whom was eventually fired for misusing funds, Awasom said.

Soon afterward, some of Awasom’s friends and students were attacked, he said. It was rumored that his life was in danger.

Safety in the United States

The Scholars at Risk Network includes universities and academic institutions throughout the world that work as match-makers for persecuted scholars, providing them with safe work and study space.

“Innocent was referred to us by another scholar,” said Rob Quinn, the network’s director. “We did some research and felt he had merit. He was already in Minnesota and the (University) is an early founding member.”

Awasom said he is also grateful to Associate University Librarian Peggy Johnson and Vice President for Student Life Robert Jones, who helped him gain his current position.

“Scholars and academics are targets for aggression because they are prominent and interested in expanding knowledge,” Johnson said. “We find it so humbling to work with someone who has been through this.”

Awasom’s arrangement with the network will keep him at the University through next spring. His return to Cameroon will depend on the political situation there.

Awasom said he is patiently waiting for the day he can return to his home and family. He said one of his goals is to write a textbook for African librarians.

“Normally when people leave Africa, they don’t come back. I think my mission is in Africa. If I can’t go back to Cameroon, I’ll be heartbroken,” Awasom said. “At times I sit and cry thinking about my daughters, but I know it’s better that I’m here.”

Jake Weyer covers faculty and staff issues and welcomes comments at [email protected]