HUMAN INTEREST STORIES
The Sherriff of Douala, Cameroon
The New Shoes
Antoine's Little Sister
Postscript to a Village Visit
A Vegetarian's Dilemma
A High Price For Cheap Petrol
Live and Let Live
THE SHERIFF OF DOUALA, CAMEROON
EMMANUEL has a strong, longish face, heavily lined, and
lightly bearded. He has bright sparkling eyes, and a deep, rich voice.
But that is about the extent of the physical gifts with which nature has
endowed him. His body is short, and he has two twisted, virtually useless,
childlike legs, on which he shuffles along crablike.
He was born in a village located roughly halfway between
the large seaport of Douala and Yaounde the National capital, but has
spent 30 of his probable 40 odd years eking out a living on the footpaths
of Douala, shining shoes. His current beat is outside the Akwa Palace
Hotel, where he is well known, and tolerated by the kind management.
Despite his handicap, and the poverty that engulfs him,
he is eternally cheerful, with a ready smile, or a hearty laugh. Whenever
I walk past, he calls out "mon ami", and looks pointedly at
my shoes. Resistance is impossible.
It would take a truly hardened soul to not respond with
emotion to the hardship witnessed throughout Africa, and Emmanuel and
many like him are a constant source of humility wherever I drift into
self pity over some small issue.
Recently I was chatting to him, and asked what gift he would
like me to bring him on my next visit. He pulled a battered string of
rosary beads out of his pocket and asked if I could bring him new ones.
The he asked me if they made cowboy hats in Australia. When I assured
him they did, he asked if one was a possibility, and would a sheriff's
badge be asking too much. "I like to be called the sheriff"
The night before I left Douala, I saw him at dusk, flying
down the traffic choked main street on his improvised vehicle, oblivious
to the oncoming traffic. His "vehicle" is an upturned bicycle
with a third wheel, and a platform on which he sits. He propels the machine
by turning the peddles by hand.
As the sheriff disappeared into the sunset, I couldn't help
but contemplate how much a trusty new steed would mean to him... a motorised
shopping cart, or wheelchair. This much loved man, who is an inspiration
to all who meet him deserves a break in life, especially in a country
where fifty is about life expectancy.
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THE NEW SHOES
There are a number of families I share friendships with in Yaounde, and
every visit, I usually enjoy a meal with each of them. One such family,
twelve adults, and a group of children of various ages, and all related,
are high on my list of favourite people.
Usually we go down to the markets, and I enjoy watching the women barter,
a skill I am lacking in. They then prepare a feast, which includes a great
variety of dishes to cater for my vegetarian diet. Mind you, it's not
always so. I arrived early one Sunday morning, and one of the women was
having breakfast, visualise; take a glass of water, stir in a two spoons
of sugar, dip bread pieces in the sweetened liquid, and eat. But when
they have the opportunity, they also have the culinary skills.
One day, we sat around chatting after the meal, and I said that on my
next visit I would like to bring a gift for the whole family in appreciation
of their hospitality. This started a dynamic conversation, during which
one of the youths, soon to start university muttered, "I don't know about
a family gift, all I want is a pair of shoes." I tried not to over react,
and glanced down to see that he was wearing a pair of battered thongs.
I had not realised that they were all he had as footwear.
I told two of his aunties that I would like to buy him a pair of shoes
for his first term in university, and we all headed off to the markets,
with me keeping out of sight. The price would have been much higher if
Monsieur le Blanc (white man) had been sighted as the financier for the
They arrived back with a pair of designer brand joggers, which cost about
AU$22.00. I couldn't help being bemused by how much more Westerners pay
for the same shoes, and imagine that it somehow makes them superior. When
I okayed the purchase, the teenager threw his arms around me, and announced
he was now the happiest man in the world.
I didn't see him wear them; They had been carefully put away so that
he could dazzle his friends with his new shoes, when he arrived at university.
I often reflect on this incident, and the comparative values of our societies.
How many youths in the West would even offer a cursory thank you to parents
for a pair of shoes. To the young Camerounian man they were the start
of a new life.
It was also very touching, and selfless that the other members of the
family were not disgruntled, but happy that one of theirs had received
a gift. Africans are very much part of the whole in their approach to
family and life.
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ANTOINE' S LITTLE SISTER
Antoine is a charming young man in his late 20's. Desperately poor, and
with little hope of finding permanent work, he still maintains his faith.
As with a whole generation young men in Africa, he hasn't married. Not
because he doesn't want to, but because he could not possibly support
them. The spectre of the 1980's recession that gripped the continent with
the collapse of oil prices, still hangs over the region, and will have
major repercussions on African society, for many years to come..
Antoine has mastered English, and makes some money teaching, on an ad
hoc basis. On days when he has nothing to do, he goes to the British Council,
and furthers his studies. As he said, " you must keep yourself busy to
maintain your dignity".
One day we were talking, and it was clear to me that he was having a
battle maintaining his self control. I knew that he had lost two sisters
and his father to illness in recent times, and at my urging he opened
up. Recently his little sister, just 22 years of age, had died following
childbirth. He sobbed as he told me that the birth had gone well, but
then infection had set in, and she died after three days.
"Why did she have to die sir" he said, "all she needed was a simple antibiotic,
but we couldn't afford it". "She was so beautiful", he went on, as I floundered,
lost for words, and choking back my own grief.
On every visit to Yaounde I seek out Antoine, and employ him as an interpreter,
and assistant. On my last trip I couldn't find him, and no one who knew
him had heard from him. I fear for his well being, and hope that he has
gone off to his village to live. Antoine, like many people on the vast
continent of Africa, deserves something better from life........ especially
when we in the West think nothing of an antibiotic, that would have saved
his beautiful young sister, and given him and his family joy, and hope,
rather than tragedy.
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POSTSCRIPT TO A VILLAGE VISIT
A beautiful Sunday morning in Yaounde, and I am heading
out through already cluttered markets and suburbs to a village about two
hours drive away, near Sangmelima. I am traveling with a Deputy from the
National Assembly... the deputy having a local political problem to solve.
We arrived around noon, and the village had prepared for
a full council meeting, and lunch. A cow had been killed and cooked over
an open fire, and there was much red wine being consumed. After lunch,
the meeting was convened. This particular village had purchased a very
small generator capable of running an amplifier, and a couple of light
The head chief, a very old man, sat and listened as dozens
of speakers had their say, and village leaders slowly moulded the argument
into two distinct points of view. Along the way the deputy was given a
grilling, and then dressing down, and left in no doubt as to what was
expected of him. This was truly democracy in action at grass roots level.
As we departed, one of the dissenters, high on red wine,
harangued me, possibly believing that I had in some way influenced the
decision that had gone against him. The next day I was horrified to hear
that the gendarmes had arrived later and arrested him for behaving in
an offensive manner to their honorary consul.
But the real horror came on Wednesday, when it was announced
on the radio that 31 people from that very village had died from drinking
bad water. Life is cheap in Africa. Ironically it was at that very time
that I learned via CNN that the long suffering people of my city of Sydney
were complaining about a dictum urging that drinking water be boiled for
the next two weeks. I am told that the media was full of stories of the
"great inconvenience" every day for weeks. In Cameroon the story of the
death of thirty one villagers didn't raise a ripple on the pond of every
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A VEGETARIAN'S DILEMMA
Cameroon is awash with lush tropical fruits, and on arrival
I usually head off to buy a large hand of sweet bananas for about 20 cents,
a bag of small intoxicating mangoes when in season, pineapples and other
fruit to die for. This along with fresh french bread, available throughout
the country, enables me to lead a healthy life whilst there, and usually
lose two or three kilograms as a bonus.
Camerounians on the other hand, are bemused by this strange
character from the West who shuns, chicken, pork, beef, mutton, goat and
fish. They laugh at my comment that I don't eat anything with eyes, and
themselves take every opportunity to partake of meat sourced protein.
As in Australia, this is not a problem for me, but it can
be inconvenient when I attend a catered for function anywhere in the world.
On one occasion I was invited to dinner by a Cabinet Minister,
and a group of officials from his Ministry. I had not had the nerve to
tell the Protocol Office that I was vegetarian, and arrived at the restaurant
resigned to having to break my routine.
Each dish was served buffet style, and I was able to bluff
my way through with small pieces of meat and fish, plentiful helpings
of salad, and wine. But then a special dish arrived, chicken cooked in
a traditional way.
The very charming Minister then announced that not only
was he a Minister of the Government, but also a tribal chief, and it was
his duty as chief to select the one to receive the tail end of the chicken,
and... as their guest, this honour was to be granted to me.
Perhaps emboldened by the wine, and the thought of choking
on the chicken's tail end, I confessed to my unusual eating habits. The
table erupted in laughter, and the good Minister re- allocated the chicken
to an appreciative alternative.
The difficulty with advising a host of your dietary needs
in that part of the world is that they tend to then want to join you out
of courtesy, and it is painful to watch carnivores munching on salad alone,
whilst eyeing the meat at the next table. But then perhaps it's a better
option than facing another chicken tail.
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A HIGH PRICE FOR CHEAP PETROL
Yaounde is located in a hilly region of Cameroon, and the
railway line from the North wends its way through a series of valleys
as it transits the city, and heads off in the direction of Douala. Heavily
laden freight trains are susceptible to derailment on the narrow gauge
tracks, and this often occurs, without major mishap, save inconvenience.
In 1997 a train was derailed in the suburbs, in an area
of industrial development, markets, and residential quarters. One car
was a petrol tanker, which overturned, and began spilling refined petroleum.
Petrol in Cameroon is about four times the price of that in neighbouring
Nigeria from whence much is smuggled, and locals took the opportunity
to collect what they could. Hundreds of taxi drivers and others arrived
with buckets, drums, and dishes to collect the petrol.
In the midst of this activity, someone took a breather,
and lit a cigarette. In the ensuing inferno 220 people were burned to
death, and hundreds seriously injured. Many of the injured died in hospital.
The hospital system was not equipped to cope with such a disaster, burns
victims needing specialist care. The French government flew a specialist
medical team in, but one can only contemplate in horror the suffering
that was endured by many victims, and the long term effect on their families.
It was truly a case of a high price for cheap petrol.
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LIVE AND LET LIVE
I am bemused by Westerners' perceptions of themselves as
tolerant, forgiving people, living in an open, free society. In reality
we are bound by diverse, and mostly intolerant rules, which set moral
and community standards, with few exceptions allowed.
Douala, and Yaounde are large, modem cities in the western
style, Douala being a very. cosmopolitan city of 2.5 million or so. Typical
dress is western or traditional, with businessmen usually preferring a
business suit. In Douala there are a small number of men _ who wander
the streets stark naked. During the day they roam, or sit, around the
main thoroughfares, (often close to international hotels), and at night
sleep under a sheet of plastic or cardboard. They are totally passive
people with wild, matted hairdos, and few belongings. They are following
a past, primitive lifestyle.
The populace ignore them, and they are left to their own
devices. In most western countries they would be aggressively rounded
up, and locked away, being considered an affront to decency standards.
In Cameroon they have their freedom, are unmolested, and accepted as being
slightly different, but still human beings, with equal rights.
Which society then is the more sophisticated ?
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