Playing the Godmother

There was a knock at my door early this evening as my young friend Rahina and I were sitting down to devour a plate of spaghetti covered in fresh tomato sauce.  My pregnant 19 year old neighbor Clarice had come to fill empty plastic bottles with cleaner water from my tap.   Already seven months pregnant, I didn’t want her  to climb down to the stream,besides the trek to carry dirty water up the hill. And she rarely  had enough money to buy wood to boil the  dirty water.  When I offered her some spaghetti, she questioned whether I had remembered to cook Rahina’ s sauce without wine.  Rahina, a young Muslim girl of fifteen, is a card carrying believer, adamant about not eating anything cooked in alcohol.    Assuring both of them of alcohol free food for Rahina, we cleaned our plates and chatted about Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez.

I was surprised they were aware of the two North American singers since most families have no television or radio and rarely have seen foreign films except bad Nigerian soap operas.  But in all third world countries, cheap copies of music DVDs are around.  I opened my iTunes song list and both of them were like little children on Christmas.  Giving me an ego boost, both girls begged me not to leave so soon. I had been in the village almost five weeks and wanted to do some traveling,   Clarice asked me if all Americans were as kind as myself. What could I say. Living here in rural Africa has brought out my better side.

After they left, my neighbor Remi came to ask for more pain meds for his headache.  I always come supplied with my favorite remedy for aches, pains and insomnia, Canadian Tylenol with codeine.  Remi is a fourteen year old, living in a mud brick hut with his mom Vivian, his eight  year old brother Shelton, and a six month old baby brother, who is mentally challenged.  There are no fathers around to help. When I arrived several weeks ago, I found the family barely surviving.  After the birth, Vivian was sick for two months and used up her savings of 100,000fr($200). She earned $10 a day making and selling fried donuts if she had money to buy the ingredients.  I gave her 50,000 fr ($100) to start fresh and get back into business. I don’t know what she would have done if I hadn’t appeared.  My landlord, her uncle had been paying the school fees for her sons. Her son Remi has been selling water at one of the taps we opened in town last year. Since we gave a guarantee deposit of $160 on the tap, we have decided to fund his school fees  next year with the money he collects. Once we have reached the deposit amount, we will close the tap since the villagers refuse to pay for clean water, the equivalent of four cents for 20 liters. They would rather go to the stream, drink dirty water and get sick. They think we are taking advantage of them as in previous years the taps were open, until the Snic water company closed them  when the village council refused to  pay the $2000 bill.  We negotiated with Snic,paid $1000 and reopened the taps, hoping to give people clean water for a few pennies.  Habits based on ignorance are hard to break.

Talking with some high school students one day, I realized they knew nothing about the continent they lived on.  Over the years I had visited the government high school, raising money for their water project and buying garbage cans for recycling.  The principal was supportive of my offer to teach a class on African countries and their politics.  I gave two hour long lectures, beginning with the word dictator which no one in the class could define.  Without television, radio or newspapers, current events were inaccessible. There is a scarcity of books in schools and homes. Of the class of 45 students only 2 had televisions and radios.   I suggested buying a portable radio for 4000fr ($8) but most students said that was too expensive for them. When I suggested to the class they should consider if they married, having only 2 children to be able to have a decent quality of life, one boy raised his hand to speak. While I videotaped him, he explained he was the 24th of 48 children. His father cared nothing about any of their welfare or sent any of them to school and was abusive to the wives. He was putting himself through high school during vacation. Several of the older boys, during the three month summer vacation, stay with relatives in the big cities, sell clothes and food in the markets and earn enough to pay their tuition.

A few weeks ago as we were visiting the three villages with a plan to repair and rebuild their water catchment and stand pipes, we visited a small government primary school. All the government had done was appoint three teachers and pay their  $100 salaries each month.  The parents built the school, built tables and long benches and had to hire 3 more teachers who were paid $40 a month through the PTA. There were no books, pencils, windows, or electric.  There was  a small generator. They hoped someday to have a computer.  We were returning the following week to give out over 100 dresses donated to me in the States by the non-profit Little Dresses for Africa.

I decided I would get the school a used computer.  A friend who built internet cafes in several villages, including Fundong, rebuilt an older desktop and sold it to me for $60.  The parents and teachers and students welcomed us with speeches, dancing and great emotional outbursts when we placed the computer in front of the school.   The children were so scared they didn’t know what to do with the dresses except hug them tightly to their chests.

While I was at a friend’s house the other day, there was a young Muslim girl of twelve visiting them.  She was hiding behind my friend’s wife when I realized she had a deformed arm. I asked if she went to school and I was shocked when she said never.   The next day I decided to go talk with her father who gave me a different interpretation of the situation. When she was small, he had sent her to school but she refused to go. So he never tried again and now he couldn’t afford to send her.  I suggested the reason she probably didn’t want to go to school as a small child was because the other children made fun of her arm.  He said she was too old now . I disagreed, discovered the annual tuition was $50 with uniforms and books and agreed to pay for her to return to school.

Sometimes I feel like I want to save everyone I meet here. I have found books for Remi and Clarice to read and defended a boy who was being paid $30 a month driving a cab until his boss agreed to pay him $50 a month.   I cook meals and share my food with several of my neighbors.  I offer my business skills to the women  who are struggling in small ventures. One of the members of my Fujwa women’s group, was  making  yogurt  in her house.  She was spending 115,000 fr a month,  and if lucky, grossing 140,000 and working 6 days a week. If milk went sour or was not sold she would lose money.

The water system we created at Meli high school stopped flowing a few weeks before I arrived. No one was called to investigate and do repairs. Finally after visiting the school, I called the plumber. There was no waterat the school or at the other taps that served the village for over 6 weeks. I remember a few years ago on the coast of Cameroon in Kribi. I was staying at a rundown hotel on the ocean and each room I was shown had a broken air conditioner.  When I asked the manager if they ever serviced and cleaned them, he had no idea what I was talking about.  Maintenance is a little used word in this country. So when something breaks they lose interest. The only equipment that seems to be maintained are cars but that is after they break down. Clean water is a new concept. They have lived without it most of their lives. Hopefully tomorrow we will have the taps flowing again.

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