Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Civil Servant's Tale

Mr. O sits in his desk in a corner of the hallway, one of three work areas crammed into a space originally meant to get from one end of the building to another. At least the hallway has windows. The closest window is open, but during the afternoon showers, raindrops fly onto Mr. O’s desk.

Lately, I have spent a lot of time with Mr. O, a government worker in a local office (he is one of the few Anglophones working here). Perhaps it is this familiarity that permits him to be open with me. Or perhaps it is because he thinks I can help him somehow.

He looks world-weary as he rubs his head in both hands. I guess that he is in his fifties; he appears to be healthy, but complains that he has recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure. The doctor thinks he has been under too much stress.

“Everything is vanity,” he says to me, quoting from Ecclesiastes. He knows that I am a pastor, and he frequently gives me tips and advice on how to run the Mission. He is a practicing Catholic himself.

As I balance myself in a rickety chair with no back, he tells me that this is no place to work. “Look at these working conditions,” he says. There are no phones on the desks (employees must use and pay for their own cell phones), no computers, no photocopiers, no clocks. The walls needed to be painted six years ago. Everything is handwritten, either copied meticulously into gigantic ledger books or filed into construction paper folders.

But Mr. O has precious few options. He’s worked in this office for six years now. Before that, he had a top-level job in a government Ministry for 22 years. All those years, he says that he reported to work at 6 am and stayed until 7 or 8 pm.

He can pinpoint precisely when it all went wrong – 1992. That was the year that civil servant salaries were slashed by 75% across the board. Except, of course, for the men at the very top.

Mr. O was eventually reappointed – to this lower-level job, which he clearly hates. Now he makes less than $200 per month – this after 28 years of loyal service to his country.

He is not “bitter” the way some people could be in such a situation. There is, after all, nothing he can do. This is the way things are. He is more sour about the conduct of his French-speaking fellow employees. “If you bring an issue to one of them,” he says, pointing at others who occupy desks around him, “they will ask you for money first. They are all corrupt. We Anglophones are different. We know how to work hard.” However, he does make it clear that he is happy to receive a gift after a service is performed – this is not bribery, but reward for a job well done.

Of course, in Mr. O’s politics, the Francophones are also to blame for the rest of Cameroon’s ills – they hold all the power, the key positions, the presidency. “Unless you know somebody in a high position, you will never be promoted.”

He has seen and experienced too much to think that things will get better soon. Revolution is completely out of the question – no one wants Cameroon to fall under the affliction of violence which plagues so many other West African nations. Reform is difficult in such a corrupt context. Flight is almost impossible, since Western countries are reluctant to grant visas to poor Africans. There’s not much more to do than continue to show up for work.

I ask an obvious question: “If all of you government workers are unhappy with your salary situation, why don’t you go on strike?”

He responds by telling a story. Recently, Cameroonian taxi drivers decided to go on strike in protest of some government policies. When the government got wind of it, they simply brought a union boss into their office, paid him a handsome amount of money, and the strike was promptly called off.

And so Mr. O continues to go to work, supporting his four children who are all in school at various levels. This is also a financial burden for him, but it is the most important use of his money. He doesn’t want any of them to be stuck in civil service. Instead, he is steering one to be a pharmacist, one a lawyer, and another into engineering. But every month, he worries about the money.

This is Cameroonian-style poverty. Mr. O and his family don’t struggle to put food on the table or clothes on their backs. They make enough to survive from day to day. But he doesn’t make enough to easily send his children to school, or to save for retirement, or even to make tiny but important improvements to his life. As a result, his dreams are crushed. Every little hope is a vain one.

In the end, this is the crushing result of corruption – the death of small, but significant, dreams.