The stories repeat themselves in this country. The government gives generously to public works and construction projects for public schools and villages. They pick the contractor and give him the money. The recipients of the work have no say whatsoever in how the job is done. They have no access to the cost of the supplies and labor or how the money is spent. And most of the time when the job is finished, most of the money has gone to the contractor and government officials, with little of the funds actually used on the job.
The following is such a story. Three years ago, the government had given 35 million cfa ($70,000) to a private contractor to build a water catchment system for a village and public high school. The source was inadequate and the tank was not built correctly. The taps were not working and the source eventually dried up … The money was gone as well as the contractor. It was astounding that most of the people in the school and village gave a shrug and said what can we do? Complain to who? Last year our nonprofit built a water catchment system for the same high school and parts of the village, which served over 1200 people at a cost of only 2,000,000 cfa ($4000).
A great contradiction in this country is the statement that primary school education is the right of all children. But there is no free education. Tuition is mandatory in every public school, ranging from $40 a year up to $100 plus books, uniforms and supplies. With average salaries less than $100 a month for the majority of people, this keeps a large portion of the population from going past elementary school or ever registering for school. Many children begin at age 5 and quite by age 11 because they have to work or help at homeThe public school buildings are built by the government but chairs, desks, electric service and a water system are usually not part of the project.
This is a responsibility of the parents. The teachers appointed by the government are paid by them. But this is never enough for the number of students. The PTA, yes they have them in Africa too, hires extra teachers who are paid less than $50 a month. New teachers appointed by the government work the first three years without pay. I guess they survive on the kindness of strangers.
In the secondary school, some classes have over 100 students. Books, supplies and uniforms must be bought by the families. They also pay a PTA fee each year per child for school maintenance. It has been known that principals, who are in control of the school budget, often choose to improve their homes instead of the school they are in charge of. Many students go to school without books, or pens. In many poor families with too many children, only one child in a family is able to go to school. When the father is the wage earner and he dies, that is the end of an education for any child in the family unless extended family help.
When the first president of this country was in power, there was an attempt to help the poor. International scholarships were given to outstanding students from needy families with the hope they would return home after finishing their education, bringing new ideas to help educate and build the country. The current president and his cronies, in power since 1983, do not want to bring western ideas here, just foreign investors who will enrich the ruling class.
The minimum wage is 28,000cfa ($56) a month. Besides not being a living wage, it is irrelevant since there is also a law that gives employers the choice to decide how much they can pay their employees. Young boys in their twenties, without an education, drive taxis owned by wealthy people. They work six days a week, from 6am to 7pm and are paid 15,000cfa ($30) a month. One round trip (1400 cfa per person) pays the driver’s monthly salary. The taxis, most of them being death traps, carry seven people plus the driver. Imagine four passengers in the back seat and three plus the driver in the front. From personal experience, I almost want to compare this to the trains that took the Jews to the concentration camps, and sometimes you end up like they did. Recently the brakes failed on one of these cars, and slide off the side of the road, falling on a house. The car, carrying a can of gas in the trunk, burst into flames, the house burning as well, killing the women cooking in the kitchen and the pregnant passenger who could not get out of the car as it fell. The other passengers were able to jump and survived with injuries.
Being poor in this country is being at the mercy of the ruling class without any social services, living wage or voice in the government. Their lot can be compared to the serfs in 19th century czarist Russia. After making several trips and living in the village for 7 weeks at a time, I have to admit the Cameroonians in the village have a much better attitude than I do towards their situation.