C’est la Cameroon

Most Cameroonians  never call you but beep your phone. That means you either call them back or they beep you again until you call them back.  The cell phone networks are both owned by two foreign companies; MTN from South Africa and Orange from France.  There is now a Cameroonian company as well, called CAMTEL which it not as well known. The old saying “time is money” is so true when you are using your mobile phone here. Unlike most cell phones in the States with monthly rates, here you put money into your phone and it seems to evaporate quicker than steamy glasses clear. There is no way to track how much you are paying per minute; the rates fluctuate all day. Yesterday after I bought 1000 franc telephone card and scratched out the code to enter into my phone, it was unreadable.  I brought the card to the main office of MTN in Douala, assuming they would give me a new card. They examined the card and told me I have to wait two days before they will decide if  I get new credit . I never received credit.  Last week I decided to check one of the many bonus messages from MTN. Buy 500 cfa of credit and get 5000 cfa good until midnight.  I made one call at 2 pm and then when I tried to call friends in Douala after 5, then 6,then 8, I got a recorded message claiming the circuits were overloaded until the next day. Everything gets overloaded here. The electric circuits go on and off 5-10 times a day so I bought a voltage regulator to keep from blowing out my laptop. The taxis and buses are so overloaded people sometimes sit on each other…and the body odor is fierce.  Most Cameroonians wash their bodies and clothes with cold water infrequently. Another reason not to take public transport.

Most of us have found that buying in large quantities is more economical. But not here in Cameroon.  You can buy 1 kg of rice for 400cfa or 50 kg for 19,500cfa and pay 390cfa a kg. the total savings is $1. I was approached by a young woman named Aita asking for a 50,000 cfa($100) loan to reopen her small grocery shop. When I asked her to break down her profit on each item she intended to sell, I was shocked to see large bulk items like 50 kg of flour, brought in less than 10% profit while cheaper products which she could buy with less money and sell quicker, gave her 14%. Most of the women I have met doing small business have not gone past primary school where they barely learned to read or write so expecting them to figure out pricing is overwhelming for them.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, get a job teaching and wait 3 years for your back pay.  What is the reasoning behind this, possibly to discourage teachers.  In the village, 300 cfa (60cents)for a yogurt is  unattainable for most . My neighbor’s children told me they had never eaten yogurt until they met me.

The other day in Douala, I asked my Italian friend if he could find someone to take me into the poor areas of the city. He suggested a Cameroonian friend who had taken him when he was investing the poverty in the city for his work. So the next morning Ibrahim and I traveled around to several extremely depressed areas, slums being a good word to describe them. When it rained, the residents showed me the water line, almost 3 feet high. Most of the houses were on low ground so their meager homes would flood. At times they could not open the door of the house for days for fear of flooding everywhere.  After three hours on the back of a motorcycle under the heat of the sun, I decided that the miserable living conditions of poor people in Africa are much the same. Tin shacks, grey cement structures, piles of garbage everywhere, rats coming out at night, streams of dirty water running down the mud streets, single women with too many children to care for; for most the same struggle year after year. And the rate of HIV is rising with few getting tested and more getting infected.

I left Cameroon yesterday and flew to Addis Abba. Many of the passengers were Chinese workers. They are everywhere in Africa, their companies winning contracts to build roads, stadiums and buildings. They bid so low, paying workers meager wages that none of the European companies can compete  As the shoddy buildings in China collapse, why will there be any difference here?

After landing in Addis and walking into a huge modern airport, I was hoping that life would be better here.  Visas are available on arrival for $20, they ask only for your passport and they fill out all the paper work for you.  When I go to Cameroon, I have to have an invitation from an organization, a round trip ticket and $141 for the visa.  Do they actually think anyone wants to stay.  Most young Cameroonians I know desperately want to leave.  Unfortunately life does not look much better in Addis.

Walking is dangerous and unpleasant since roads are being torn up and grey ugly buildings are going up everywhere.  Private taxis are so expensive… I spend almost $8 each time I have to go somewhere. The public vans, as usual, are so old and overloaded and a perfect opportunity to be robbed. I was told this by a young student.  The famous Merkato,supposedly  the largest in Africa, is several square blocks of shacks, buildings from the time of Halle Selassie (1940’s-50’s) that are grey from pollution and cement buildings under construction, held up by wooden sticks.  I had not seen beggars very often in other African countries I had been to in recent years, but on every street in this city there are beggars The irony is that when I was here in 1974, one of the few things I remembered was the huge numbers of beggars everywhere. Has nothing gotten better?   I will start traveling around the country tomorrow to report more.

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