Saturday, June 6, 2015

Cameroominations: First the Bad News

On our last workday in Cameroon I sat on the veranda of our house and looked at the woodsmoke over some of the houses in the distance, watched a rooster fly up on the fence and crow, and visually followed the men with insecticide pumps as they walked out to their farms. I felt like I was trying to fit the rest of my life’s worth of enjoyment into the few minutes I had before I went in for breakfast. (We were scheduled to leave before regular breakfast time the next day.)
All in all, I like Cameroon. Though few given a wide range of choices would choose to live here, the place is livable. I consider getting used to the dust and mud kind of like that first few seconds when you get in the water when you’re swimming. You get your coping mechanisms in place and get used to the new routine and then fill your mind with the good things.
This post will be in two parts, bad news first.
Let me begin with a story told me by one (of the eight billion current inhabitants of our planet) who would disagree with the conclusion I draw from it.
Unlike Papua New Guinea, which has no dry season, only drizzle and torrent, Cameroon has a definite dry season from about November to about the beginning of June. (Quantifiable predictions in Cameroon seem to include the notion of “give or take fifty percent.”) During the dry season, the regional (we would say provincial) governments grade the roads and clean the gutters so that once the rain starts, the water drains off the roads, into the gutters, and off to oblivion. Or at least that’s the idea. I don’t know if the work is done by tenured-for-life government employees or private contractors, but I’m guessing the latter.
In this particular case, the cocoa growers in a certain area were unable to get their cocoa to market because the road had been graded improperly. The road flooded in the rains, the mud became soft and gooey, and the trucks could not get through. So the growers did what any decent, self-respecting businesspeople would do: they found the means to clear the gutter and “dry” the road enough to make it usable themselves.
At which point they were sued by those “responsible” for fixing the road in the first place. We’re talking comparatively rich government employees (or contractors) hiring comparatively rich lawyers to take comparatively poor cocoa farmers to a court financed primarily by the comparatively rich. The farmers had the choice of either pooling months’, if not years’, wages to hire a lawyer who would enter the courtroom with the cards stacked against him, or simply to pay what was demanded. I don’t know how the suit turned out, but the lesson was clear (to me, anyway): government “services” exist primarily to benefit those who provide them, not those who supposedly receive them.
Is it any wonder that two billion people went to bed hungry last night and that tens of thousands will starve to death today?
Three people every second drop off into a Christless eternity. Many of those have no conception of commitment to Christ beyond fire insurance: Jesus is OK if you think you need him to keep you out of hell, but he’s irrelevant for everyday life. And, of course, most Africans do not believe in the white man’s conception of hell, so Jesus to them is completely irrelevant.
When it comes to helping people feed their families, does the church have nothing to say besides “Let’s try harder to put the right people in charge of the system of coercion?” The Christians in Nigeria tried that with Goodluck Jonathan in 2010, and the result was so wonderful that when he ran for re-election against a Muslim earlier this year, the Christians voted for the Muslim. That sure makes Jesus relevant!
This is not to say that all government employees follow the incentives to self-indulgence. The medical clinic in Big Bekondo is staffed by a nurse and a pharmacist who are both competent and dedicated. The Christian tertiary schools in Cameroon graduate competent men and women who consider it their calling from God to teach, heal, enforce the law, or whatever within the system to the glory of God. But to the degree that Jesus was right that few are those called to life and many are those who choose destruction, one would predict that the proportion of such workers is small.
Most people would say that the work done by the conscientious minority makes up for the parasitism of (what I would predict is) the majority. Further, they would say that because the poor need these services but cannot pay for them, it is only right that the bill be paid by the rich: in Cameroon’s case, rich merchants pay duties on imports from overseas.
I think the truth is most clearly communicated by a game I’ve played with the Cameroon flag.

Let’s start with the Wikipedia explanation of the symbolism:
The center stripe is thought to stand for unity: red is the colour of unity, and the star is referred to as "the star of unity". The yellow stands for the sun, and also the savannas in the northern part of the country, while the green is for the forests in the southern part of Cameroon.
The sun, the savannas, the forests – “O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain….” Makes your heart go pitter-pat, doesn’t it?
How about if we turn the flag on its side, green at the top, red and the star in the middle, and yellow at the bottom?

What would the symbolism be then?
I’d say the green represents the rich at the top of the society, the red in the middle represents the “public servants,” and the yellow represents the poor at the bottom. The star represents the interests of the poor, which are the province of the “public servants,” whose job it is to soak the rich, and whatever resources they don’t use for their own purposes trickle down to the poor. And, as mentioned, once one gets a government job, it is for life, after which is pension.
Jobs in the voluntary sector, bad: hard work, high risk, low pay. Jobs in the tax-supported sector, good: easy work, low risk, high pay. What’s not to like?
We see the same idea on the flag of the great state of Louisiana: “The flag of Louisiana consists of a heraldic charge called a ‘pelican in her piety,’ representing a mother pelican wounding her breast to feed her young from the blood.”

The government is a mother bird feeding her babies, ostensibly through her sacrifice. Not mentioned is the tendency of those in the “public servant” class to live at a higher economic level than those they supposedly serve. Nor does anyone consider the metaphor of adult citizens as baby birds an insult.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing I heard from a Cameroonian Christian was his frustration that his countrymen were baby birds looking for handouts from the government and always seeking outside funding for church projects.
The same gold on red “star of unity” features in such places where government functionaries “see that those least fortunate have access to what they need to live a good life” as the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam. The same idea in different colors is on the flags of Cuba and North Korea. And, of course, the stars of state-level unity on Old Glory have been kept boxed into one nation since 1865.

If the folk in these countries are suffering, it is certainly not because those at the top of the heap have been infected with Quill Pigism.
Part of the social structure here is the system of chiefs.
The position is a relic of the colonial days, when the colonial governments would use influential locals to accomplish colonial ends. Postcolonial “independent” governments continue to fund them, though the local system of “kingmakers” – I actually had a man introduce himself to me as “a kingmaker and cocoa farmer” – puts the power a bit more in local hands.
As would be expected, the chief’s palace is larger and has more amenities than his subjects’ houses, and he is expected to put on feasts, including wine in abundance, for his visitors. He is expected to have his finger on every important activity in his realm, helping to pay the bills and to bring in outside funding.
As part of the red band with the gold star, those (few?) chiefs with scruples do their best to better the lot of those who do not live as well as they; those without are simply parasites. Fortunately—or maybe not, depending on the motives of the kingmakers—they can be removed.
The first line of the national anthem is, “Cameroon, the cradle of our fathers.” Veneration of ancestors is a part of the African mentality simply incomprehensible by Westerners, so I assume I don’t understand it and so won’t try to explain it. I would like to mention, however, that I find the first line of the anthem ironic because most of those venerated ancestors would not have considered themselves cradled in Cameroon, which has always been an invention of the European colonists. They would have considered themselves primarily, if not exclusively, members of their clans; as transportation and communication improved, some of them may have considered themselves primarily members of their tribes. But few would have identified themselves by the administrative district imposed by the colonial powers.
Of course, now that youth attend school and get jobs all over the nation, clan and tribe are becoming less important. An Oroko man from Bekondo who marries a Fang girl from Yaoundé and settles in Douala will speak English or French at home with her and their children. Unless his parents speak English or French, they will be unable to communicate with his children, and unless he has some great desire for his children to learn Oroko customs, they will identify primarily with Cameroon and aspire to become part of the “public servant” class.
Let me end on a hopeful note. Though the amount of trash strewn about in the cities and road towns defies description, the same is not true in the villages. Cameroonians are no worse people than anyone else, and they prove it when they are treated like people and not baby birds. I'll show what I mean in the second part of this post.

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