The seventies in New York City was the showplace for new wave foreign cinema and I became an avid film buff, dropping names like Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Truffaut and Goddard. The other day as I was walking up the dusty dirt road in Fundong, watching small children carry plastic containers of stream water on their heads, one of those films,” Christ Stopped at Eboli” (1979) came to mind. The original Italian title, “Cristo se a fermato a Eboli”, was directed by Francesco Rossi and adapted for the screen by Carlo Levi from his book of the same name. Levi, a doctor and a painter, in 1935, was exiled for his anti fascist beliefs, to a remote region in southern Italy. During his year in this impoverished southern region working as a doctor, he was shocked by the crude and primal state of the inhabitants’ existence there. As the village people told him after he gained their trust, “Christ stopped short of here at Eboli”, which meant to them they had been bypassed by Christianity, by morality, by history itself.
As I travel around the villages in northwest Cameroon, I am reminded and angered by the conditions the people are living with, very similar to the quality of life Levi experienced 75 years ago in southern Italy. The other day Leo and I drove to the town of Baufman, 15 km from Fundong for a meeting with the town council. Many villagers who have to travel to Fundong, return to Baufman by foot, sometimes carrying kilos of produce on their head . The drive was challenging on a partially leveled dirt road, intermittent with patches of rocks and deep crevices. The truck struggling up dirt paths in four wheel drive and the storm of dust attacking us, was a preparation for things to come.. The lack of rain created an unbearable dust storm all over the town of Baufman. I seemed to be the only one aware of this natural disaster. I can’t decide whether to call the Cameroonian’s reaction to their condition resignation, apathy, hopelessness or all three. Adding to the dust storm created by the motorcycles that sped by, I gave up exploring the town and hoped we could start our meeting as soon as possible. Last year we had explained the importance of boiling drinking water to prevent intestinal diseases (many actually were not aware of this phenomenon) and limiting the number of children per family. Efrim, a university graduate in agronomy and business law, who was born in Baufman, had encouraged us to come to speak with the village again this year. He told us that some of the people had begun to boil their water now but the concept of giving birth to only 2 or 3 children was still not understood. There were several Fulani herders at the meeting who had lost all their animals 20 years ago with the eruption of poison gas from Lake Nyos. The government still had not compensated any of the victims of this tragedy. One of them had come with his two daughters to the meeting asking for help to continue their education. With all this hardship the most amazing thing is the gracious, polite, welcoming attitude I am always greeted with. The extended family is huge in this society. If siblings die, brothers and sisters raise their nieces and nephews, or cousins or the children of friends. Many entire families are supported by one child who has made it through university to become a professional.
I have met several people who have succeeded in rising above the poverty they were born into. Patrick, the high school principal is one of them. He was one of eight children and the only boy in the family. His parents were poor uneducated farmers, but with persistence and hard work he finished university and graduate school. With his help, all of his siblings’s children are in school. He has been insisting since my arrival that I visit Menka, his village where most of the family still live. Tolerating the usual bad roads, clouds of dust each time we passed another speeding vehicle or sweltering heat if we closed the windows to avoid the dust, after a three hour drive we reached Menka. Rolling hills, green pastures, endless fields of vegetable crops and trees swaying in the breeze, created such an idyllic setting that most of us would assume life was almost perfect here. But once we arrived in Menka and were greeted by a welcoming committee, I realized there was another story to be told. To refresh everyone’s memory, Patrick, my host, is the principal of the high school where I had facilitated the water project with the ngo OFI. Not a surprise, this village of 10,000 residents also had no source of water, except the dirty streams they shared with the cows. Fifteen years ago the village council initiated a water project, collecting monies from residents who could afford to contribute and finally several years ago, the project was begun with the building of a cistern on top of the mountain. Last year a governmental agency gave a $30,000 grant to install the first kilometer of pipe. But the village had no control over the contractor who did the work; he was appointed by the government. It is a known but unspoken fact that most of the government contracts are negotiated with payoffs to government officials from the contractors who want the job. After the contract is given, the chosen contractor takes a minimum of 20%-50% off the top for himself before he even does the job. The size of the PVC pipe in the contract was too small to carry water for 10,000 people, six kilometers down a mountain, so the village pulled together another $9000 to pay for a larger diameter pipe and an extra kilometer extension. Now the African bank has awarded another contract for $30,000 to build a holding tank for the water flowing down the mountain. But again, it only allows for a 10 cubic ft tank while the village needs a 50 cubic ft tank. The $30,000 is enough to install a larger tank but the bank refuses to alter the contract. So again half the money will disappear in someone’s pocket. The village needs another $60,000 to complete the job and so I was approached with the project and the problem. This is the third village counting on me to find funding for water. Together the total population of the three villages is 27,000. Two of these villages also have no electric. But they all have hope, continue raising their crops and drawing water from dirty streams four or fives times a day. But the most important change is that many have realized the importance of education for their children and are trying to send them to school.
How is it possible that a country rich in over 90 exotic woods, with abundant mineral and oil resources, is unable to provide clean drinking water for its population?