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" he said.

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.

Max Shean

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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 deal.

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.

Max Shean

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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.

Max Shean

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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 bulbs.

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 day life.

Max Shean

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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.

Max Shean

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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.

Max Shean

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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 ?

Max Shean

 

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