Saturday, February 23, 2008

It’s Good To Be King?

My travel companion, Guy, and I eventually made it to the mostly Muslim town of Foumban. There, we stayed at what I deemed Hotel Sans Eau (Hotel Without Water) and were awakened every morning to the Muslim call to prayer. It had been a few years since I’d experienced that dawn ritual, and it served to remind me that, in addition to one god and 5 daily prayers, the Muslims seem to be steadfast believers in addressing the community through overblown and distorted PA systems.
In Foumban, Guy introduced me to Jean-Daniel, another friend of my Swiss-Congolese friend Jessica. JD was a genuine and soft-spoken man who lived in Douala but was in Foumban because his father just died from Meningitis. Over Cokes and beers that night, JD took moments to stare pensively into space and then engage me in conversation.
“It is time for me to make a change, Adam. I lost my mother before, now my father. I am finishing school for Communications, and things are to be very difficult.”
“How much longer until you finish school?”
“One more year. But with my father gone, I now have to care for my entire family. My brother and sister, they are still younger than I am and I must pay for their school. I need to make a change, and I do not know what to do. I am sad that Jessica was unable to bring me a camera,” JD sighed. “I wanted to take photos of my father, but now I have lost both of my parents. It is too late.”
As JD described his situation, and outlined the odds stacked against him, particularly the odds of finding a job in Cameroon after finishing college, my heart sank. Guy had finished school as an electrician a few years previous, but he is unable to find consistent work as an electrician, so he chauffeurs for a government employee when he is in town, and finds odd work in-between. Not the most hopeful of situations.
JD was so clearly intelligent, genuine, and sensitive that my mind raced for ways to help him. As I suggested he spruce up his resume so I could see if there were any possibilities at my company’s offices in France, he was very appreciative.
I felt bad though, as we talked about the abundance of jobs and the quality of life in the US. I felt guilty and as I often do when I talk with people in developing countries, I under-exaggerated our money and opportunities. It made me feel guilty thinking about the opportunities that are everywhere around me, and that it wasn’t JD’s fault that he was born into a much more difficult environment. These are the cards we’re dealt.

Evening Football, Foumban

The next evening, JD took Guy and I to the Royal Palace in Foumban. The palace is the home of a man who is at the latter end of a dynasty that has existed in Foumban since 1394. JD told the story of men leaving tribes and double-crossing other tribes in order to establish what is now Foumban, and passing down the role of Sultan of the Bamoun people from one generation to the next. The palace was enormous, and was encircled by several large buildings which housed the Sultan’s countless wives.
“So how does the Sultan decide when he wants another wife? Do women come to him?” I asked.
“No, he simply goes into the market or has his men speak to the woman. She comes by force,” JD explained.
JD took me to a larger-than-life bronze bust of the Sultan, who simply appeared to be a fat man with ugly glasses and military jacket.
“Want to take a photo?” JD asked.
I didn’t. I felt nothing but disgust. In my mind, I cursed the man whose image I was looking at. He was no better than the rest of the Bamoun people. There were people scraping together meager existences just outside his palace while he lived a life of privilege and had the power to acquire women by coercion, against their will.
The Sultan was just a man, lucky to have been born into his situation. As far as I could tell, no effort or work was required for him to obtain his position and his luxuries. His countless cars, his opulent home, and his opportunities were available to him simply by his birth. It wasn’t exactly the same, but I silently wondered whether JD ever thought the same of me.

Munching a carrot, Nkongsamba

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Blogger Kristina said...

you always enlighten me and make me think :)

February 23, 2008 at 10:30 AM  

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