Estelle

I’ve written before about the severity of corruption here. It infects every aspect of life. From govt to businesses to non-profits to members of your own family. Take the case of Estelle:

Estelle is actually an example of everything that’s right with hardworking people in Cameroon. She’s 21 years old, has little education, multiple informal jobs, and one daughter. She is unmarried and lives in the same house as her extended family – her mother, daughter, at least one sister, and many cousins. She also works extremely hard. I originally hired her to wash my clothes, but she has picked up more and more responsibilities recently. She is also reliable, honest, and wants to work for her income – all refreshing and inspiring traits.

At first I was paying her the same amount I had been advised was a fair price – 200 CFA per item washed (about 40 cents, excluding socks and underwear which are free). One day a few months ago she came by with the usual sack of clean clothes and proposed something:

First, she said, I was paying too much. I like my clothes washed more frequently than most people here, which is fine, she said, but that meant I was paying too much for a clean wardrobe. She proposed that instead of paying per item I just pay a flat monthly fee and she would come by every few days to wash whatever was dirty. It’s also tough to save money, she said, and she needed savings to pay things like her daughter’s school fees. Instead of just exchanging clean clothes for money, she asked that I pay her a flat fee of 10,000 CFA/month (about $20) and guard it for her at my house. Then whenever she needed it for her daughter’s school fees or other investments she would come and get it. After having been frustrated by people’s inability or lack of desire to save for anything, I was highly impressed by her proposal.

She came by regularly, taking and returning clothes and reminding me every two or three weeks that it was time to have my floors washed. I kept track of monthly payments on a sheet of paper and had her look it over and sign it each month. At one point I gave her an old cell phone. That way, I told her, she could be in contact not only with me but with all of her clients. Everything was working great.

From time to time I noticed that she seemed frustrated. She’d take my bag of dirty clothes and leave quickly without saying goodbye, or I’d ask her how she’s doing and she’d reply “Ca va en peu” (It’s going a little) or sometimes “Ca ne va pas” (It’s not going).

A couple weeks ago she came to my house in frustration. She had taken my clothes almost a week before but I hadn’t seen or heard from her since then. The reason she was so late with my clothes, she said, was that her brothers (45 and 28, both of whom live in nearby houses) had stolen them – and not only my clothes, but a foam mattress she had recently bought for her and her daughter. She had spent the last week trying to track down the clothes and mattress before finally resorting to getting the local gendarmes (police) involved. Upon handing over the stolen items, her brothers claimed that since Estelle was unmarried and they were the men in the family they were entitled to her possessions.

This kind of petty theft and subjugation of women is not uncommon here. Theft is common not just from those perceived to have money (ie Peace Corps volunteers or white tourists), but from anyone that has something someone else wants – whether it be govt officials, NGO directors, bank managers, or anyone else. Traditional gender roles and strict hierarchies are often exploited as a justification to line one’s own pockets. In the case of my stolen clothes and Estelle’s mattress, her brothers justified their own greed and laziness by claiming familial male entitlement.

I don’t feel threatened in this country, as the level of violence is fairly low, but I am extremely bothered by the pervasiveness of corruption, greed, and petty crime. My sympathetic self might suggest that anyone who lives day-to-day does such things partly out of necessity, but it’s not that simple. People who have plenty steal anyway. One public official in my town insists on charging money to show up at events he is invited to. The director of one prominent NGO in my town is the former manager of an MFI here, and he is commonly understood to have stolen money from that MFI. That MFI, in fact, is the last of four in Lomié – all four of which have failed because the managers and/or board of directors created ghost loans and stole all the savers’ money. I have never felt physically threatened, but I have been pick-pocketed. My house has never been broken into (though I know many volunteers who haven’t been so lucky), but I am asked constantly for money and gifts by neighbors, community members, and people I have never met. I have never been held up but by gun or knifepoint but I have given a loan to someone I thought was a friend only to have him promise to pay me back a tiny portion of the loan and simply blow me off time and time again.

The experience of Estelle is the perfect example of how this kind of attitude cuts development efforts off at the knees. When greed prevents people from allowing their neighbor, community member, or own sister from working toward their own advancement everyone loses. People dismiss, pacify or make excuses for this mentality by saying “T.I.A.” (This Is Africa), or suggesting that it’s a cultural fact of life that Westerners or ignorant/arrogant development agents have no right to criticize or try to change.

But that’s nonsense. Just ask Estelle.

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One thought on “Estelle

  1. wowwwwww. food for thought. thanks for sharing Andy. I enjoy reading your updates and am happy to see all these new ones! 🙂 lots of love to you and Estelle.

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