The Cameroonian embassy has been situated at Amaliastaat in The Hague since 1975, and it is here where H.E. Madame Ambassador Odette Melono assumed office in September of 2008. We met in the congenial atmosphere of the chancellery to do this interview. Ambassador Melono is a lawyer by training, and graduated from Nanterre University, France. She is bilingual in French and English, with a charming French intonation whenever she employs the latter.
Ambassador Melono has three children, and she and her family live happily near The Hague. She told me that she has no difficulties combining her position of Ambassador with being a mother. “You know, I am an African woman; I can multi-task,” she explained with a smile. It is her friendly smile and spontaneity that strikes you when you meet her. When asked what made her decide to become a diplomat she explained that her mother, who worked in the Foreign Service, encouraged her to come home to Cameroon after her graduation and take part in an upcoming concourse at the International Relations Institute of Cameroon (IRIC). She liked the idea, took the test and passed. Her training as a career diplomat had commenced. Afterwards she was assigned to the legal department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she was in charge of matters pertaining to human rights.
5 September, 2008: a momentous day
It was then that Ambassador Melono’s letters of credence were presented, a procedure that marks the arrival of a new ambassador. She recounted how this day left a profound effect on her. “The protocol ceremony made me feel proud to be Cameroonian,” she said. “I can hardly describe what I felt when my national anthem was played in the courts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.”
Ambassador Melono’s appointment to the Netherlands was unique for two reasons. Firstly, at that time she was the only female Cameroonian ambassador serving worldwide. Secondly, she was the first ever resident Cameroonian ambassador to serve in the Netherlands. Up until that day, the Cameroonian embassy had always been headed by a Chargé d’Affaires. The Hague is her first overseas posting, although she has in the past represented her country at numerous international conferences.
The Ambassador explains that according to her, The Hague, ‘International City of Peace and Justice’, is a great city to work and live in as it is a quiet, green and a peaceful place – very much living up to its name. She adds that in a professional capacity The Hague offers a variety of opportunities, such as bi- and multilateral contacts. Serving in such an international environment is one of the great pleasures in her line of work.
Cameroon and the Netherlands
Pre-independence, the two countries trade relationship goes back as far as 1621, when the W.I.C (West Indische Compagnie) and MCC (Middelburgsche Commerciele Compagnie) concluded trade agreements in Douala.
Since the independence of Cameroon, Holland and Cameroon have enjoyed a friendly relationship and the two countries have a number of characteristics in common. They both have active and important seaports, serving not only themselves but their larger region as well. Cameroonians are known in Africa as diligent traders, as the Dutch are famous (worldwide) for their trademanship.
Furthermore, their passion for football is another shared trait. With enthusiasm Madame Ambassador talks about her country’s love for football, the nation’s number one sport. Some well-known Cameroonian players are: Thomas Nkono; Roger Milla, François Omam-Bijik, Enoh and of course Eto’o. They have all risen to international stardom, as have many of their Dutch contemporaries.
A mixed bag
They even came by their name by way of a much-loved Dutch delicacy, albeit through yet another country: in the 16th century the Portuguese named the land “Rio dos Camaraos,” as they were impressed by the amount of camaraos (prawns) found in the Wouri river near Douala.
Cameroon is synonymous for diversity, with just about every part of its composition being as diverse as could be. For one, it boasts a population of over 19 million made up of 240 ethnic groups. The climate ranges from very hot and dry to incredibly humid, depending on the area. The landscape in the north is mostly arid steppe, while the south is covered in lush rainforest. Cameroon’s economy also has a number of unique and varied systems, and even its languages, besides the two official French and English, are accompanied by scores of additional, local dialects.
It is a proud bilingual republic. This came about after its coloniser Germany lost the First World War and had all her colonies confiscated. The treaty of Versailles stipulated that some German colonies would become French and others British territory. Eventually it was decided that Cameroon should be divided between the French and the British, with 80% of the country going to France and 20% to the United Kingdom. In 1960 the French part of Cameroon became independent and the English section followed in 1961. That very same year the two parts decided to merge, bringing forth the Federal Republic of Cameroon. Due to this, Cameroon is a member of both the British Commonwealth of Nations and Le Francophonie.
As mentioned above, Cameroon is a nation of diversity. The economy is diverse, ranging from the two extremes: Kribi Deep Sea Port Project and Tontine. The Kribi project is a billion dollar programme, while Tontine is based on micro-financing. The Tontine idea stems from an old Cameroonian informal banking-saving system. A group of five, ten or more individuals agree on an amount they will deposit every week or month. The Tontine members meet and deposit their contributions in a pot. Every week or month a different person takes the entire sum. The scheme is based on mutual trust. Tontines are grass-root networking groups in society, encouraged by the government and are also excellent channels for people (women in particular) to network and pass on vital information to the community.
Kribi Deep Sea Port project: a game-changer
As far as economic development is concerned, “Kribi” is the magic word. Kribi is an immense three-phase project which should allow the country to surge to a higher level of development. Its official name is Kribi Deep Sea Port, and will be vital for improving the exportation of processed minerals, crops and natural resources in which Cameroon is so rich: gas, oil, iron, bauxite, coffee, cocoa, timber and cotton. It will also relieve the Douala port which nowadays mainly serves the landlocked neighbouring countries. Kribi was launched in 2009 and will be completed by 2014. Chinese expertise (China Harbour Engineering Co.Ltd.) has been called upon to help execute the project and of course a Dutch company, Royal Haskoning, is also involved.
At present, Cameroon lacks the energy sources necessary for further industrialisation, which is why they are building dams in vital locations, such as the Menve’le and Lom Pangar dams.
Growth through unity
During Ambassador Melono’s tenure the emphasis will be on the protection and promotion of Cameroon’s interests in the Netherlands through diplomatic relations with the Netherlands government, and commercial contacts and public diplomacy directed towards the Dutch in general. Two months ago a delegation from Cameroon came to visit the port of Rotterdam to see how things are done in the Netherlands.
Finally, Ambassador Melono relates that there are ten major countries with strong GDP growth in the world and six of them are in Africa. Cameroon’s two main cities Douala and Yaoundé are as vibrant as any other major metropolises in the world. The economy is surging, with a growth of 4% in GDP last year. She would like to see the Netherlands and Cameroon mutually benefit from the current situation. Her objective is to encourage Dutch companies to invest in Cameroon. In 2011, she led a trade mission to Cameroon and she is looking forward to leading a mission focussing on tourism later in 2012, and further unite the two countries.