Friday, July 28, 2006

The Big Man

I have written often in this space about the problem of the poor in Cameroon. Poverty is grinding and miserable, and I’ve admitted to having feelings of Western white guilt and anxiety.

But yesterday, I had a necessary and interesting experience which highlights the other side of the problem in this corner of the world.

I met and visited a Big Man.

The term “Big Man” denotes a rich African. (Well, technically, I am a Big Man, too. Ebede says that all white men living in Africa are automatically considered “Big Men.” But I don’t play the role nearly as well.)

It was time to pay the rent for one of our Central Province churches, and I had discovered that we had a new landlord who happened to live and work in Yaounde. I went to his office to speak to him about our church building rents, but he wasn’t in. A secretary called him at his home, and he told us to come over and meet him there.

He lives in a section of town called “Santa Barbara” – and for good reason. This is where all the government ministers live; all the houses are large and painted orange or pink. The Big Man laughed and said that he was the poorest man in the entire neighborhood -- and he probably is!

His house is at least three stories tall, with fifteen bedrooms (enough for his sixteen children!) and decorated in modern furnishings, including TVs, stereos, and what Leah and I laughingly call “Big Man furniture,” which are huge and gaudy couches and chairs. I saw at least six cars in his driveway, and I even got a ride in his brand-new Toyota Land Cruiser.

As he was giving me a tour of the area behind his house, he pulled out a wad of ten thousand franc notes (equivalent to $20), and handed them out to the guys standing around. He did a lot of handing out money, actually. Not surprisingly, everywhere he went, there were a lot of people standing around, waiting for him to ... hand out money.

I also saw a lot of children on the property. Pointing at them, I asked him, “Are these your children?” He said, “No, you know in Africa, when one person in a family does well, he feeds the whole family.” Thus, his mansion in Santa Barbara holds, not only his immediate family, but cousins, nieces, and nephews, as well.

This particular Big Man made his money in business. I can’t honestly say if he came by it honestly, but … he owns a lot of property across Cameroon. He showed me around his recently-completed eleven-story office complex near the Mission Office. One thing is for certain – he’s successful, wildly successful.

In Cameroon, he’s in a very tiny, almost miniscule percentage of the population. He is one of those persons of whom it is said “gets richer while the poor get poorer.” And as hard as it is to believe, he really is not nearly as wealthy as many of his neighbors in Santa Barbara.

I wonder what moral and ethical responsibility this man bears toward the welfare of the poor in his own country. Yes, he takes care of extended family members. But what about the wellbeing of the entire region? Shouldn’t his business practices contribute something lasting and vital to his own fellow citizens? Has he benefited from the rampant corruption of his society, or has he done something to stem it?

The point is this: there is money in Cameroon. Let’s not characterize Cameroon as a poor, struggling, resource-impoverished country. There are resources -– natural, human, physical, and spiritual. But for some reason, very few of the people are benefiting from those resources.

And one of those reasons has to do with the attitudes and practices of ... Big Men.

Don’t get me wrong – I liked this Big Man. He was kind, jovial and warm. He’s a committed and active member of his Catholic church. I even negotiated a lower rental agreement for the church, because I convinced him that we were doing God’s work!

Of course, Jesus always ran into problems with Big Men. For some reason, they always got mad at him ...