The passageways leading from the plane to the baggage claim were actually lighted and the broken cement floors had been replaced with new ceramic tile. But the most shocking change was the disappearance of the young street boys grabbing your luggage as you chased after them, not knowing whether you would every see your bags again. The government had done such a thorough job that I had to ask for help and I was offered a luggage cart. The final triumph was a taxi without a broken windshield and an inflated price.
Unfortunately the renovated airport and civilized arrival appeared to be the only improvement in Cameroon since my last visit. The characterless city of Douala was exactly as I had left it a year ago. Walking on the streets was extremely unpleasant, dodging motorcycles, cars and avoiding broken sidewalks and potholes. Hot, muggy, overcast, and congested, my friends and I were the only white people on the street, most foreigners driving to their destinations in their SUVS and BMWs. One of my friends pointed out a $125,000 Mercedes speed by in front of us. Seeing their surprise at such wealth, I walked them over to the Akwa Palace Hotel to show them the stunning beach club hidden in the garden behind. In Africa, whites are never questioned when they enter 5 star hotels; the room rate here was $230 a night. An average monthly salary in this country is $90 for a 72 hour week. There is a small group becoming multi millionaires as 90% of the population slips deeper in desperation. Where is this wealth coming from?
There is an oil pipeline from Chad through eastern Cameroon, south to the beaches of Kribi a seaside resort town. An oil spill several years ago, and a bunch of run down hotels do not offer much as a tourist attraction. But Kribi has a better source of income than tourism. People in high places are being paid by Exxon to allow them to move oil through this country since Chad is landlocked. And owners of businesses involved with transport, refining, and sales are also growing rich. Timber is another profitable industry in the east of the country. The Europeans have been involved for years cutting down forests with ridiculous cheap Cameroonian labor. Most of the wood leaves the country in many different forms. The corruption and abuse here remind me of the rape of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium from 1885 until 1908. ( recommended reading King Leopold’s Ghost)
Each time I return to this country, my ire is raised with the endless stories of corruption and the struggles of the poor villagers. So after traveling by private car for over 7 hours to Fundong, (besides the poor, only the Peace Corps subject themselves to the horrendous public transportation), I am sadden when I see how several friends of mine are suffering.
My neighbor became a single mother at 14 years old. With a primary school education, living in a mud brick house with three children ages 7-13, she has struggled alone for years, barely surviving by cooking and selling fried donuts on the street. Desperate for affection, she is seduced by a young guy passing through town. She gets pregnant and then we have a fourth child living in poverty. Why? Abortion is outlawed even in cases of rape, men won’t use condoms, women are afraid to say no to the men, men feel no responsibility to the women they impregnate, and the list goes on. These are only a few of the reasons the birth rate is out of control. The next day as I was walking down my dirt road, one of the students from GBHS, the bi-lingual high school, greeted me with a 7month pregnant belly. Her mother has four other young children and the living conditions are dire. She had to drop out of school and she had not been able to afford to go see a doctor yet. Her mother finally put together 15,000 CFA ($30) so she was able to have blood tests and examination. And of course there is no father anywhere in sight.
I am just imaging the more than 6000 people that would still be fetching water from a dirty stream if I hadn’t answered an ad on a volunteer website three years ago. Thanks to One Family International, friends and family and my generous thoughtful brother, we have been able to improve the quality and health of people’s lives.