Corruption is a big issue in Cameroon, and just about everyone I met there complained to me about it. Unfortunately though, it has become so entrenched in ordinary life that even those who complain about it are part of the corrupt system.
Whilst I was enjoying my hedgehog in the hotel restaurant the waiter came along to chat. He raised the usual complaints against corruption but then remembered his job and asked if I was enjoying my meal. He asked if hedgehog was also protected in my country.
Yes, apparently I was half-way through eating a protected animal. Horrified, I asked how come I had been served it – was this a farmed hedgehog?
No, it wasn’t. Apparently the hotel sourced their protected animals from hunters in local villages, but it was ‘no problem’, since this was a government-owned hotel so no-one would dare complain.
Everyone, including those who complain about the corruption, will always take any opportunity they can find to ‘beat the system’, as is clearly apparent, in almost all African countries, in the attitude to queuing. A queue is seen as an open invitation to show your strength/power/initiative. Some just brazenly walk to the front, usually either the big women with their voluminous boubous billowing behind them, or the ‘big’ men with their self-important briefcases and designer sunglasses. More commonly people sidle alongside the queue, striking up a random conversation with a stranger near the front, or they just hang around until they can somehow blend into the line.
Even after two years out here I still object strongly to such antics, and no-one jumps in front of me! I use my elbows, I complain loudly, I shuffle along two inches behind the person in front leaving no space for intruders – anything, in fact, to protect my place in the line. Not that it helps, of course, as usually they just go further ahead and push in front of someone more accommodating, but it is a principle that I will not let go. What has surprised me though is that I am usually the only person objecting to such behaviour. To me there is little hope of stopping corruption whilst Africans continue to accept, even admire, such petty rule-breaking.
One guy here in Cameroon told me a great story about corruption. A neighbour of his was travelling east to visit his daughter. She had met a man and fallen in love, and she wanted her father to meet her new man, and perhaps give his permission for the couple to marry. Even in a modern family where the daughters are allowed to move away from home for work, the most important achievement for women is a good marriage and the production of heirs, so the neighbour was trying to hide his excitement and pride – and relief – at this turn of events.
He set off on the long journey, taking with him a bundle of plantains and a big healthy cockerel – the former he feared he may lose on the road, but he was hoping to present both for his daughter to cook a celebratory meal. He was also, like all travellers, carrying a collection of small change. At the various roadblocks he handed over this small change, and then as he had half expected he was asked to submit the plantains for inspection. He handed them over.
At that point the cockerel cried out, and the young man inspecting the plantains looked up with interest. He would have to inspect the cockerel too. This was too much for the father-in-law-to-be, who protested and said it was a gift for his daughter and her young man, that they were to be married and he couldn’t go empty-handed. The ‘negotiations’ went on for quite some time, but it became clear that the cockerel would have to be handed over too.
Sad, angry and rather embarrassed, the neighbour arrived rather later than hoped at his daughter’s home. He apologised profusely for arriving empty-handed and they both lamented their country’s sad decline into the mire of corruption. The prospective son-in-law was also late, but finally they heard a motorbike horn hooting outside the gate, and he drove in.
He had a big smile on his face; he had had a successful day at work. On the back of his bike was a bundle of plantains and a big healthy cockerel…