The Law School Magazine The New York University School of Law

Student Spotlight

Cameroon or Bust

David Kienzler ’10 entered an African backwater a 1L summer intern, and left Chief of Kwa Kwa.

Printer Friendly Version

I admit I wondered if spending my 1L summer in Cameroon was really such a good idea. Most of my friends were eagerly anticipating a summer of high wages and ridiculous perks without ever having to leave the city. But looking back on it, I think I won. I ended the summer of 2008 crowned the Honorable Chief Dave of Kwa-Kwa, all they got were some free Yankee tickets.

Cameroon has twice topped Transparency International’s list of most corrupt governments, and the backwater village of Kumba is infamous even for Cameroon as the place officials go if they want a Mercedes. I interned at Global Conscience Initiative, a tiny domestic human rights nongovernmental organization in Kumba. I spent the summer in an office that lacked running water, consistent electricity, and Internet access, dealing with everything from fighting for prisoner’s rights and bail petitions to the day-to-day problems of people suffering under Cameroon’s extremely corrupt ruling regime. Additionally we coordinated efforts between NGOs and local barristers, started a human rights radio hour, and argued (futilely, in general) with all manner of government officials.

I’d be lying if I said I, or any of the other handful of internationals, achieved any substantial successes in our legal battles. But whether our bail appeals and rights conferences made a difference with the government, our presence had an impact on the local people. Everyone I met was amazing—just hardworking and intelligent and friendly. They seemed to be inspired by the fact that someone from America cared enough to come help out. And since “Whiteman” is still a pretty big novelty there, I was a major celebrity. I got a taste of what life must be like all the time for Brad Pitt. People I didn’t know always wanted to talk or share “a bottle.” I was a guest of honor at a wedding, a funeral celebration, and a baby shower, despite the fact that I hadn’t met the hosts till I arrived. I was kind of uncomfortable at first—I mean all I’d really done was to be American—but it seemed to genuinely matter that I was there trying to help, so I threw myself into it and the community loved it even more.

Pretty soon I was eating porcupine and fried termites in a three-sided shack that functioned as the local bar, huddled around a candle listening to the Euro Cup Final. (The whole town’s power was out. Again.) Or I was showing off my sweet dance moves. Inexplicably, the townspeople found this hysterical.

At work it was almost impossible to come and go without having to stop and play with the local kids who hung out around the office. We’d run around, they’d beat me up. It was a nice change of pace after being yelled at by the chief state prosecutor for meddling in his allegedly corrupt affairs and a heck of a lot better than doc review. At the end of the summer they even performed a song about Chief Dave and GCI as a thank-you for all our work.

So. The whole chief thing. Partway through the summer, GCI did workshops on conflict mediation for the councils of a number of surrounding villages. During a mock workshop in the office I was cast as a chief and I played it up. I chose Kwa-Kwa because frankly, it had the coolest name, and I spent all day in character, demanding to be referred to as Chief. My native coworkers couldn’t stop laughing, so the title stuck. And being in a small town, pretty soon I couldn’t walk down the street without people calling out, “Chief of Kwa-Kwa!” Eventually the village council of Kwa-Kwa came in for their training and (much to my relief) found it hilarious too. So as part of the big GCI festivity celebrating the end of the interns’ time there, I was officially crowned the Honorable Chief of Kwa-Kwa. I even got a chief’s hat! They walked me through the ceremony, explaining the significance of each part, and then explained my powers and duties. If anyone touches my hat they have to give me a goat, which is pretty sweet. On the other hand, I now also need to get 15 wives, which might be tricky given my current level of debt and inability to get a date.

I have been assured that my position is being maintained till I return. I confess it has not been easy readjusting to a world where I am not celebrated; attempts to get my classmates to call me Chief have not met with much success. But I guess there’s always my 2L summer, which I’ll be spending in South Africa. Cape Town, here I come!

All of 2009 Student Spotlight

2009 Home