Smith Fulbright Scholar in Cameroon
Last year, Smith students
won nine Fulbright Scholarships, a record for the college.
One Fulbright Scholar, Erica Nichols ’04, is spending
this year in Cameroon's capital city. She recently submitted
this piece about her life and work there.
By Erica Nichols ’04
I will never forget the day I
stepped off the plane and into my new life as a Fulbright
Scholar in Yaoundé, Cameroon, the west African nation’s
capital. Since September 2004, I have conducted independent
research here on a controversial oil project connecting Chadian
oil fields to coastal Cameroon for export. Oil resources affect
every aspect of life in this region. My experiences here in
Cameroon have shown me the true meaning of the phrase “cultural
exchange”, and I feel so lucky to be here.
My research is multidisciplinary, and focuses on the environmental
and social aspects of the Chad-Cameroon Oil Production and
Pipeline Project. A significant goal of project officials
was for the pipeline to serve simultaneously as a commercial
and development project, as opposed to creating another example
of oil wealth, exacerbating poverty and undemocratic governance.
The support of the World Bank and the imposition of its guidelines
and safeguards were aimed to reduce risks associated with
the project. Because of these development guidelines, the
pipeline is considered by some to be a model project for extractive
Unfortunately, there exist very few independent, academic
analyses of the project. Virtually the only sources of information
are produced by project officials or by critical non-government
organizations, each of which have unique motives and limitations.
The contradictions between these sources of information and
the lack of alternate sources make it very difficult to objectively
assess project impacts. One of my goals for this year is to
produce a work that will address this problem.
My research examines local impacts
of the Cameroon section of pipeline from a perspective of
international significance. I spend most of my time discussing
intricacies of the project with each project stakeholder,
from Exxon and World Bank officials to local indigenous populations
along the pipeline route. It is through these exchanges, in
Yaoundé and along the pipeline, that I am able to gain
an objective and more global understanding of the project’s
environmental and social impacts. I am particularly interested
in local perceptions of the project’s execution, for
instance in compensation for environmental damages and treatment
of indigenous peoples.
Information accessibility has been a significant obstacle
for me, but as a neutral researcher, I have been able to look
at the project through the eyes of each project actor, and
then assess how their roles affect rural Cameroonians and
their environments along the pipeline route.
I never imagined how wonderful it would be to be a member
of the Fulbright community. I feel supported in every endeavor,
and not only are our projects self-designed, but the program
is also very flexible to changes that arise during research.
Living in Cameroon has been a wonderfully enriching experience.
I have really enjoyed being immersed in French, and it has
been very exciting to be based in a large African city. I
have encountered many challenges during my time here, both
in Yaoundé and in the field, but I believe the key
to my success has been an open mind and passion for my research.
I feel like the luckiest woman to be here, with the tools
I gained at Smith and the financial support of the United
States government. I still have trouble believing that this
is my first post-Smith “job”: to research something
that fascinates me, live happily in Cameroon, and feel that
I’m really making a difference in the world.