Saturday, May 10, 2008

May 1st – A tribute to Djoumessi Mathias

May 1st is a special day in the history of West Cameroun. It is the day to commemorate a man who in most recent history, helped change the face of West Cameroun, Dschang, and most specifically Foréké, Dschang. I’m only just learning about this incredible Chief, and look forward to sharing more with you as time goes on. He was living proof that faith can move mountains and his faith shaped and changed the lives of all who knew him. He had a most significant effect on members of his own family, particularly in view of traditions long held in this tribal culture.

It has been two months now since my last blog post. I feel I’ve been irrevocably changed, from the inside out. I’ve learned what its like by actually living life in a village in Central Africa; Dschang. You have to understand that out of 18 million people, the two major cities of Yaounde and Douala have approximately four million people combined and there are perhaps a handful of villages the size of Dschang scattered throughout Cameroun. The rest of the population lives in very small communes and rural villages. There are even villages within 15 km from here which still do not have electricity. Oh, it is on the drawing board and may actually be available between now and 2013 despite the promise of the Head of State in his 2007 annual address to the Nation to bring consistent current to each and every Camerounian in all ten provinces.

Speaking of electricity, I thought I would take some time to tell a little story; one I’ve lived. The main power producer and distribution company is now (since 2002) owned by a US company, AES being the major shareholder. AES has operations all around the world, and are operating throughout Nigeria and Cameroun. Before 2002, the electricity company was owned and operated as a State owned company. Not good for the citizens of Cameroun. Do you know that if you had a complaint, back in the old days of course, that your bill wasn’t right for example, you might just find your electricity to your house just stop – say due to unexplainable and sudden technical difficulties with the pole or connection just outside. And, those “technical difficulties” might go on for long periods of time (sometimes weeks) due to the fact that qualified technicians just may never seem to find the time to come out and actually fix the problem. People were actually afraid of being made an example of, even if they were in the right about a problem. This was usually due to erroneous charges on invoices which could not be substantiated but appeared on the bills nonetheless.. Perhaps a faulty computer accounting program or some other such nonsense. It has, again in the past, been another sort of mafia in this country. People didn’t want these strange technical difficulties, so they just stayed quiet and allowed themselves to be abused by the literal local power(s) that be.

A little background here. After AES took over the State owned electricity company, managers of the newly formed company were in one of the local offices whereupon they discovered the wage statement of one of the employees. When asked if this statement represented a week’s wages, they were told no, this was per month. Horrified, AES decided to set up a commission to study and restructure wages for all employees of AES-SONEL.

The government of Cameroun, who retains a small percentage of ownership, flatly refused and did not permit any increase in wages or salaries for any of these employees. As a result, now that there are more and more customers who want current connected, there are not enough technicians to do the installations; not sufficient wages to attract skilled workers and thus again, the citizens of Cameroun suffer at the hands of their “duly elected” officials in government. If AES-SONEL would be willing to take the funds allocated for the increase in wages and salaries for their Camerounian employees, and instead allocate these funds for development, all Camerounians could and would benefit from funds available on the balance sheet as normal business operational expenses.

Back to our story. Mama owned a little business, in a small building in the front of her property which had a separate electricity meter to it. She owned a grinding machine which grinds all kinds of things…such as corn, peanuts and other things which then become the main staples of their diet here. She hasn’t run this business for several years now, and wanted to sell her machine to another business owner, and did so about a month ago. The problem began when the new owner of this grinding machine wanted the electricity turned back on so he could operate his business. Should have been just a phone call, n’est pas? Wrong answer!

Mama called the local electricity company and told them to stop the current, which they did in February, 2006. It is now 2008 and would you believe she was still receiving bills with amounts due throughout 2007 when there was zero electricity consumed, even according to the invoice. Now you can imagine, when Antoine and I decided to take a serious look into this issue, we didn’t like what we found. Being an American I decided we needed to ‘do something’ about this.

Antoine personally went to see the director in charge of customer service at the office in Dschang; as a matter of fact, he want twice on his own, and the third time decided he’d take me along to help solve the problem. After all, AES-SONEL is primarily operated now as a US company. Seems, that this particular customer service director, went to the old State “school of business”.

We waited for him in his office for about an hour or so at which time he finally received us. We had questions on some of the charges and in particular the continuation of invoices long after the current had been stopped to this meter. After he became belligerent and loud, which I’m sure he was taught in the ‘old school’, he told us that if we wanted copies of the invoices, we would have to have our attorney request them. You must know that “them be fightin words” to an American so I proceeded according to standard business protocol. I wrote a letter to his boss and outlined not only this customer service director’s unprofessionalism, but all of the inconsistencies I found through careful examination of all the invoices.

Oh, did I forget to mention, that when looking through the invoices, I found one with a consumption of 600 kWh in one month well after the electricity had been stopped and the final meter read. Even at the peak of the business usage, the consumption never went above 1/20th of that amount. Must have been another accounting error!

Things like this have been going on for decades here. Today, AES-SONEL is owned by a US company as the majority shareholder, and business ethics did in fact prevail. I’m happy to report that the director of customer service of the Dschang office was called into his boss’s office, informed that “the customer is king”, and told to make sure that ‘business as usual in the Dschang office’ strictly adheres to AES-SONEL’s regulations with regard to the polices and procedures for cutting off, assessing charges and reestablishing current in a new customer’s name. We know this first hand because Antoine was in the boss’s office while this reinstruction was going on.

On another note, the new photos posted are of a local Community effort Antoine decided was necessary for the area (quarter) of Dschang where mama’s property and the family compound is, called Ngui.

Whenever it rains, the dirt road which runs through the property floods and creates lakes (not pools) of water and mounds of red mud, which does not drain properly. The photos now posted are of the week long community manual labor force which hacked out a drainage ditch leading into the larger drainage pipes maintained by the public works department of Dschang. You will notice that some of the members of the manual labor force were only a couple of feet tall! And you will also see that the next President of the Republic himself does not shy away from such manual labor!

Speaking of rain, it certainly complicates getting the laundry done. Here, it takes between two to four days from the time you take the dirty laundry pile out, soak it in soap in a large tub of cold water which typically sits outside overnight, is hand scrubbed on a plastic board piece by piece, rinsed by hand two or three times with separate bucketsful of water carried from the borehole on the property, wrung out, and placed (without clothes pegs) on the outside laundry lines. Have you ever put out laundry on an outdoor clothes line without clothes pegs? Tricky to say the least and I have learned a new way of hanging up laundry because if not done properly, the clothes fly off the line the minute they start to dry only to land in the red dirt which is everywhere. And if that happens, cursing is the only recourse.

In order to get these clothes dry, one has to hope and pray that especially now as its the rainy season , we get enough hours of sun during the course of a day to actually dry the clothes. During this time, one has to stay at home in order to monitor the weather and clouds outside and time it just right to take down, fold, and put in the empty laundry tub, in the likely event it decides to suddenly pour, bring inside and wait until the monsoon stops. Once the rain completely stops, you can put out the laundry again and pray that the sun comes out to finish drying the wet clothes. As this process can take more than one day, when it gets dark one trudges outside yet again, to take down and fold the wet clothes, pile in the empty tub, start the process again the next morning. We don’t leave clothes out overnight as there are too many bandits and you might just see your favorite red shirt which you have lovingly washed by hand, on someone else downtown.

Only after the clothes have been hanging long enough to thoroughly dry can the laundry be brought in and ironed in an attempt to take away that cardboard feel when laundry has been left outside to dry for a couple of days. Phew! This is the way Antoine and I do laundry together once every two weeks.

I have all of my life, lifted the lid of the washer, added the laundry soap, bleach and water softener, turned a few knobs, walked away and waited the 40 minutes for the load to finish the wash cycle. I would repeat the process by opening the dryer door, throwing in the wet laundry, a dryer sheet, turning the appropriate knobs and the start button. After another 40 minutes or so, I would take the now dry clothes and if time permits, fold and put away. Certainly a different way of life and gives one a real appreciation for what many in developed nations totally take for granted as one of the most fundamental of chores of modern day life.

I have gone into such detail so that everyone who reads our blog can begin to understand just how difficult day to day life is here in the village in 2008. I have not even attempted to describe the process and time taken associated with hand planting and harvesting food grown in the ‘farm’ which consumes the course of a waking day not including the time it takes in the preparation of the food. This is typically women’s work, and a lot of women still cook on fires outside which adds another element; gathering and chopping wood for those fires, as well as starting and making up the fire. Not a packet taken out of the freezer, thrown in the microwave and dinner served in all of 15 minutes.

It is not hard to understand how the creative impulse (spark) simply does not exist when the day light hours are taken up with fundamental chores in order to keep the home environment somewhat clean as well as the body fed. Take all of this and multiply by the number of children in each family and you might just be able to begin to appreciate what the typical ‘wife’ has to do to care for her husband and children. There are not very many wives who work outside of the home and have professional careers. The ones that do will typically sell wares as vendors in the local marketplace. They work hard each and every day of their lives, manual labor. Most hope that their husbands make enough money and bring home in order to buy the food and other essentials supplementing what they grow in the farm. When husbands have more than one wife being very typical in this culture and therefore more than one family, you can imagine how difficult some of these women’s lives are in simply raising their children and how poverty exists as the way of life for most Camerounians.

We’re lucky in this compound because the borehole is already on the property so water is relatively convenient. Mama does have indoor plumbing and so has a bathroom with a small hot water heater hanging on the wall, and a sink with a cold water tap in the kitchen. But, because it takes electricity to pump water inside, the amount of water consumed indoors is minimized to save on the electricity costs. Just imagine the millions of women and children throughout Africa who do not have such conveniences, and have to spend many hours a day just getting water.

So there you have it; a peak into life in Dschang, Cameroun May 1st, 2008. This is what God has decided is part of Antoine and my journey to become Head of State, as of this moment. This too will pass, and I hope to be able to post more in the coming week(s). The internet connection has been abysmally slow so it’s been virtually impossible to actually upload a post, let alone the photos to accompany this newest post.

Please continue to pray for us as we carry on in this very difficult journey. It is not at all glamorous nor easy. We appreciate your support on all levels.

God Bless us. God Bless Cameroun and all of Africa.

Anita Lynne NDEMMANU