Friday, March 18, 2005

Geni's Story

We had a barn-burner of a thunderstorm on Friday night in Yaounde. The hills surrounding the city create a sort of echo-chamber for the thunder, which rolls and rolls into the distance. It rained solidly for a couple of hours.

About 9:30 that night, Leah received a call on her cellphone. It was our cook, Geni, and she was screaming so loudly, I could hear her on the other end of the room. Geni, her ten-year old son, and her younger sister, had recently moved into a new home, not far from the girls’ school. They had already gone to bed for the night, but were awakened by floodwaters that had risen above the sides of their beds.

I hopped into the mission car and drove over to pick them up. I almost got stuck in the mud myself – thank God for four-wheel drive! The three of them were soaked; we got them into warm, dry clothes and they spent the night at our house.

The next morning, I drove them back home to assess the damage. Their neighborhood sits literally in a valley, off a major road in the city. Simple cement-block buildings with zinc roofs are crammed side-by-side. Red dirt roads with deep trenches criss-cross the makeshift community.

I’ve been in poverty-stricken areas in the Dallas area, but this beats them all.

Geni lives in a small three-room apartment, with cement floors. There are six or seven similar apartments in the same building, which surround a small courtyard area. As I stood in Geni’s doorway, waiting for her to gather her wet clothes, I watched as the neighbors went about the task of cleaning up after the storm. They acted as if everything went exactly as expected. They had obviously been through this routine before. They hung out their clothes and rugs; they swept water out of their rooms and off their porches; they wrung sopping-wet towels, all the while, laughing and bantering with one another.

Geni said that the neighbors knew that flooding was a possibility; they had simply failed to warn her. Thus, as it began to rain earlier in the day, the other families had put their valuables up, off the floor. I believe that Geni was genuinely disappointed that no one had told her to do the same.

As a result, she lost some possessions, including some of her son’s schoolbooks and papers and a good portion of her food supply.

And she has no legal recourse. The landlord is not legally required to warn her of the dangers of living in such a place. And if she tried to move, she would lose the advance money she has already paid.

This tiny, back-street, dangerous neighborhood is the norm in Yaounde, and probably most large urban centers in the world. Those who live here struggle to survive, working at whatever jobs they can find during daylight hours, then spending the night hours in less than peaceful surroundings.

Geni probably doesn’t consider herself a “poor person.” And maybe she isn’t. After all, she has a couple of jobs, and so does her sister. She’s also very active in her local church, which she attends faithfully every Sunday and Wednesday.

But Geni is only one of thousands, and millions, of young women who eke out a fragile existence in much the same way in Yaounde and the other large cities in sub-Saharan Africa.

This evening, as you tuck yourself into a warm, dry bed, remember the Genis of this world.