Category Archives: Cameroon

How Multinationals Dodge Taxes

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 165-167:

Two-thirds of trade happens within multinational corporations. To a large extent those companies decide where to pay taxes on which portions of their earnings. That leaves ample scope to avoid paying taxes anywhere or to pay taxes at a rate far below what purely domestic companies pay.

Imagine a multinational company making rubber chickens, called Fowl Play Incorporated. Fowl Play’s headquarters and most of its customers are in the United States. A subsidiary, Fowl Play Cameroon, runs a rubber plantation in Cameroon. The rubber is shipped to a factory in China, owned by another subsidiary, Fowl Play China, where it is made into rubber chickens and packaged. The rubber chickens are shipped to Fowl Play’s parent company in the United States, which sells them to mainly US customers.

Fowl Play could simply pay taxes in each location based on an honest assessment of the proportion of its income that accrues there. But it has a duty to its shareholders to maximize returns, and its executives want the bonuses that come from turning big profits, so its accountants are instructed to minimize the effective tax rate Fowl Play pays by booking more revenues in places with low tax rates and fewer revenues in places with high tax rates. If, for example, Fowl Play wanted to reduce its tax liability in Cameroon and the United States by shifting profits to China, where it has been granted a tax holiday to build its factory, it would undervalue the price at which the rubber is sold from the Cameroonian subsidiary to the Chinese one, then overvalue the price at which the Chinese subsidiary sells the finished rubber chickens to the parent company in the United States. All this happens within one company and bears scant relation to the actual costs involved. The result is that the group’s overall effective tax rate is much lower than it would have been had it apportioned profits fairly. Many such tax maneuvers are perfectly legal. When it is done ethically “transfer pricing,” as the technique in this example is known, uses the same prices when selling goods and services within one company as when selling between companies at market rates. But the ruses to fiddle transfer pricing are legion. A mining company might tweak the value of machinery it ships in from abroad, or an oil company might charge a subsidiary a fortune to use the parent’s corporate logo.

Suppose Fowl Play gets even cannier. It creates another subsidiary, this time in the British Virgin Islands, one of the tax havens where the rate of corporation tax is zero. Fowl Play BVI extends a loan to the Cameroonian subsidiary at an astronomical interest rate. The Cameroonian subsidiary’s profits are canceled out by the interest payments on the loan, which accrue, untaxed, to Fowl Play BVI. And all the while Fowl Play and the rubber chicken industry’s lobbyists can loudly warn Cameroon, China, and the United States that, should they try to raise taxes or clamp down on fiddling, the company could move its business, and the attendant jobs, elsewhere. (The BVI company is only a piece of paper and doesn’t employ anyone, but then there is no need to threaten the British Virgin Islands—its tax rate could not be lower.)

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Africa’s Resource Curse

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 4-6:

The sheer number of people living in what are some of the planet’s richest states, as measured by natural resources, is staggering. According to the World Bank, the proportion of the population in extreme poverty, calculated as those living on $1.25 a day and adjusted for what that wretched sum will buy in each country, is 68 percent in Nigeria and 43 percent in Angola, respectively Africa’s first and second biggest oil and gas producers. In Zambia and Congo, whose shared border bisects Africa’s copper-belt, the extreme poverty rate is 75 percent and 88 percent, respectively. By way of comparison, 33 percent of Indians live in extreme poverty, 12 percent of Chinese, 0.7 percent of Mexicans, and 0.1 percent of Poles.

The phenomenon that economists call the “resource curse” does not, of course, offer a universal explanation for the existence of war or hunger, in Africa or anywhere else: corruption and ethnic violence have also befallen African countries where the resource industries are a relatively insignificant part of the economy, such as Kenya. Nor is every resource-rich country doomed: just look at Norway. But more often than not, some unpleasant things happen in countries where the extractive industries, as the oil and mining businesses are known, dominate the economy. The rest of the economy becomes distorted, as dollars pour in to buy resources. The revenue that governments receive from their nations’ resources is unearned: states simply license foreign companies to pump crude or dig up ores. This kind of income is called “economic rent” and does not make for good management. It creates a pot of money at the disposal of those who control the state. At extreme levels the contract between rulers and the ruled breaks down because the ruling class does not need to tax the people to fund the government—so it has no need of their consent.

Unbeholden to the people, a resource-fueled regime tends to spend the national income on things that benefit its own interests: education spending falls as military budgets swell. The resource industry is hardwired for corruption. Kleptocracy, or government by theft, thrives. Once in power, there is little incentive to depart. An economy based on a central pot of resource revenue is a recipe for “big man” politics. The world’s four longest-serving rulers—Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Paul Biya of Cameroon—each preside over an African state rich in oil or minerals. Between them they have ruled for 136 years.

From Russia’s oil-fired oligarchs to the conquistadores who plundered Latin America’s silver and gold centuries ago, resource rents concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few. They engender what Said Djinnit, an Algerian politician who, as the UN’s top official in west Africa, has served as a mediator in a succession of coups, calls “a struggle for survival at the highest level.” Survival means capturing that pot of rent. Often it means others must die.

The resource curse is not unique to Africa, but it is at its most virulent on the continent that is at once the world’s poorest and, arguably, its richest.

Africa accounts for 13 percent of the world’s population and just 2 percent of its cumulative gross domestic product, but it is the repository of 15 percent of the planet’s crude oil reserves, 40 percent of its gold, and 80 percent of its platinum—and that is probably an underestimate, given that the continent has been less thoroughly prospected than others. The richest diamond mines are in Africa, as are significant deposits of uranium, copper, iron ore, bauxite (the ore used to make aluminum), and practically every other fruit of volcanic geology. By one calculation Africa holds about a third of the world’s hydrocarbon and mineral resources.

Outsiders often think of Africa as a great drain of philanthropy, a continent that guzzles aid to no avail and contributes little to the global economy in return. But look more closely at the resource industry, and the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world looks rather different. In 2010 fuel and mineral exports from Africa were worth $333 billion, more than seven times the value of the aid that went in the opposite direction (and that is before you factor in the vast sums spirited out of the continent through corruption and tax fiddles). Yet the disparity between life in the places where those resources are found and the places where they are consumed gives an indication of where the benefits of the oil and mining trade accrue—and why most Africans still barely scrape by. For every woman who dies in childbirth in France, a hundred die in the desert nation of Niger, a prime source of the uranium that fuels France’s nuclear-powered economy. The average Finn or South Korean can expect to live to eighty, nurtured by economies among whose most valuable companies are, respectively, Nokia and Samsung, the world’s top two mobile phone manufacturers. By contrast, if you happen to be born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to some of the planet’s richest deposits of the minerals that are crucial to the manufacture of mobile phone batteries, you’ll be lucky to make it past fifty.

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Filed under Africa, Angola, Cameroon, Congo, democracy, economics, education, energy, Equatorial Guinea, industry, labor, migration, Zimbabwe

Political Economy of the Roadblock

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 44-45:

Our two-jeep convoy slowed as it approached a roadblock deep in the tropical forests of one of eastern Congo’s national parks. Manning the roadblock were soldiers from the Congolese army, theoretically the institution that should safeguard the state’s monopoly on the use of force but, in practice, chiefly just another predator on civilians. As my Congolese companions negotiated nervously with the soldiers, I stepped away to take advantage of a break in a very long drive and relieve myself, only to sense someone rushing toward me. Hurriedly zipping up my fly, I turned to see a fast-approaching soldier brandishing his AK47. With a voice that signified a grave transgression, he declared, “It is forbidden to piss in the park.” Human urine, the soldier asserted, posed a threat to eastern Congo’s gorillas. I thought it best not to retort that the poor creatures had been poached close to extinction by, among others, the army nor that the park attracted far more militiamen than gorilla-watching tourists.

My crime, it transpired, carried a financial penalty. My companions took the soldier aside, and the matter was settled. Perhaps they talked him down, using the presence of a foreign journalist as leverage. Perhaps they slipped him a few dollars. As we drove away it occurred to me that we had witnessed the Congolese state in microcosm. The soldier was following the example set by Kabila, Katumba, Mwangachuchu, and Nkunda: capture a piece of territory, be it a remote intersection of potholed road, a vast copper concession, or the presidency itself; protect your claim with a gun, a threat, a semblance of law, or a shibboleth; and extract rent from it. The political economy of the roadblock has taken hold. The more the state crumbles, the greater the need for each individual to make ends meet however they can; the greater the looting, the more the authority of the state withers.

While we were visiting my historian brother during his sabbatical in Cameroon, we hired a driver to take us into the Southern Region. As we approached Lolodorf (a name dating back to German Kamerun), I stepped out of the car to take a photo of the sign. As I got back in the car, a policeman, who had been sitting in his car in the shade across the road, came over to tell us it was forbidden to take photos of road signs. After we politely asked why, he began to find fault with the windshield documentation required for the hired car. He went back and forth to his car several times, supposedly checking with his superiors, while we quietly waited to see how much of a bribe it would take to get free of him. He asked for all our IDs, and we gave him anything except our passports. After perhaps 20 minutes of quiet back and forth, we were able to pay him a “fine” equivalent to about US$10, enough for him to buy more beer for his afternoon in the shade.

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Filed under Cameroon, Congo, democracy, economics, labor, migration, military

Quinine’s Role in Exploring Africa

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 310-311:

On October 29 [Heinrich Barth] heard that a British expedition had steamed up the Benue River. He had urged this mission on the government two years earlier but hadn’t heard a word about it since. He traced the rumor to a man in Kano who had seen the steamer on the Benue. Barth questioned him closely and was convinced that the rumor was true.

Barth wouldn’t know the details for many months. The mission had left Britain in early June 1854. When its commander died soon after the boat reached the island of Fernando Po in the Gulf of Guinea, Dr. William Balfour Baikie assumed command. Baikie, who later became Barth’s friend and supporter, took the 100-foot steamer Pleiad up the Niger for 700 miles. In early August the Pleiad entered the Benue and ascended it for 250 miles. At the end of September Baikie turned around, reaching the Niger on October 20, while Barth was in Kano. By February 1855 the Pleiad was home.

Every previous excursion on the Niger had proven deadly to Europeans, mostly because of fever. But the Pleiad’s entire crew—twelve Europeans and fifty-four Africans—survived because of an experimental therapy—prophylactic doses of quinine. This success altered the course of African exploration. The voyage also proved Barth’s conviction that the heart of Africa could be opened to commerce through navigation of the Niger’s watershed.

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Filed under Africa, Britain, Cameroon, disease, Europe, malaria, Nigeria, travel

Slavery and the Ngaoundere State

From “Raiders and Traders in Adamawa: Slavery as a Regional System” by Philip Burnham, in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. by James L. Watson (U. Calif. Press, 1980), pp. 46-48:

The Adamawa jihad was undertaken by small groups of Fulbe who were substantially outnumbered by the autochthonous ‘pagan’ groups of the region. Ngaoundere was certainly no exception in this regard, and the rapid integration of conquered Mbum and other peoples into the Fulbe state, which transformed large numbers of former enemies into effective elements of the state political and economic apparatus, is truly remarkable.

The limited information that we possess concerning the organisation of the Wolarbe Fulbe who first penetrated the Adamawa Plateau and attacked the Mbum of Ngaoundere suggests that they were a semi-nomadic pastoral group. Slaves definitely formed a part of Wolarbe society prior to the jihad, and it is possible that some of these slaves were settled in fixed farming villages which served as wet-season foci and political and ceremonial centres for the transhumant families of Fulbe pastoralists. At least a rudimentary system of political offices, with titles for both freemen and slaves, was in operation prior to the jihad and had probably been adopted by the Wolarbe during their earlier period of residence in Bornu.

On analogy between the pre-jihad Wolarbe and better-documented cases of similar semi-pastoral Fulbe groups composed of both free and slave elements, it is probable that the initial group of Wolarbe who took Ngaoundere did not exceed 5,000 in number, including women, children and slaves. But in the course of several decades of fighting against the indigenous peoples of the Ngaoundere region, the Fulbe were able to conquer and reduce to slavery or tributary status large groups of local populations who certainly outnumbered the Fulbe conquerors by several orders of magnitude. These conquests were assisted by alliances between Ngaoundere and other Fulbe states as well as by the progressive incorporation of ‘pagan’ elements into the Ngaoundere army. Conquered ‘pagan’ village populations located near Ngaoundere town were often allowed to remain on their traditional lands. Their chiefs were awarded titles, and the whole village unit was allocated to the tokkal (political following) of a titled Fulbe or slave official in the Ngaoundere court, who became responsible for collecting annual taxes and raising levies of soldiers for Fulbe war expeditions. In return, the ‘pagan’ group’s loyalty to Ngaoundere was rewarded principally by opportunities to secure booty in war, and this incentive was probably the primary factor which allowed the Fulbe to secure the allegiance of conquered groups so rapidly.

The tokke units (plural of tokkal) which formed the basis of the Ngaoundere administrative system, had their origins in the leadership patterns of mobile pastoral society and were not discrete territorial domains ruled by resident overlords. Rather, tokke were sets of followers, both Fulbe and members of vassal peoples, who were distributed in a scattering of different rural villages or residential quarters in town and who were allocated to individual office holders living at Ngaoundere at the whim of the Fulbe ruler (laamiido). Such a spatially dispersed administrative organisation lessened chances of secession by parts of the Ngaoundere state and yet was an effective means of mobilising and organising an army.

In addition to locally conquered ‘pagan’ peoples, the size of the servile population at Ngaoundere was further enlarged by slaves captured at distances of 200 to 500 kilometres from Ngaoundere town itself. These captives were brought back for resettlement at Ngaoundere either as domestic slaves or as farm slaves in slave villages (ruumde). This long-distance raiding, which was a regular occurrence from the 1850s up until the first decade of the twentieth century, was a large-scale phenomenon, and European observers at the end of the nineteenth century estimated that as many as 8,000 to 10,000 slaves might be taken on these raids annually (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1972:76, 204-205; Loefler 1907:225; Ponel 1896:205-207). Those captives who were not settled at Ngaoundere were sold to Hausa or Kanuri traders, and Adamawa soon gained the reputation as a slave traders’ Eldorado (Passarge 1895:480). By the second half of the nineteenth century, Adamawa had become the main source of supply for the Sokoto Caliphate (Lacroix 1952:34).

Summing up the demographic situation at Ngaoundere in the nineteenth century, we can say that at no time following the establishment of the Fulbe state did the proportion of slaves and vassals to freemen ever fall below a one-to-one ratio and that for most of the period, the ratio was probably more like two-to-one. Modern census figures, although they can be applied retrospectively with only the greatest of caution, tend to support this interpretation. Thus, in 1950, there were approximately 23,000 Fulbe living in the Ngaoundere state as compared with 35,000 non-Fulbe who were still identifiable as ex-slaves, vassals, or servants of the Fulbe (Froelich 1954:25). It goes without saying that in modern conditions, when all legal disabilities and constraints on movement have been removed, the proportion of servile to free would be expected to drop. But nonetheless, as late as 1950, we still encounter almost a three-to-two ratio.

Whatever the exact number and proportion of slaves in the pre-colonial period, they were not all of uniform social or legal status, and it is instructive to attempt a classification of the various forms of servitude in practice in nineteenth-century Ngaoundere. The Fulbe language makes a distinction between dimo and maccudo, meaning respectively ‘freeman’ and ‘slave’, a discrimination paralleling the basic one made in Koranic law. Membership in the legally free category was attainable through birth to two free parents, through birth to a slave concubine having relations with a freeman, or through manumission. A slave concubine herself, having borne a free child, would also become free on the death of her child’s father. Free offspring of slave concubines were not jurally disadvantaged and as the decades passed after the conquest, many of the Ngaoundere aristocracy and even several of the rules had such parentage.

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Rapid Fall of Germany’s Overseas Empire

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 365-394:

Today, a bronze historical marker in Belgium memorializes the first British shot of World War One and the first death in battle involving British troops. According to this marker, the opening round of uncountable millions was fired by Corporal Ernest Thomas of C Squadron, 4th Royal Irish Dragoons on August 22, 1914, in a cavalry action near the town of Casteau, Belgium. The first combatant killed, a German uhlan (mounted infantryman), is credited to Captain Charles B. Hornby in that same action. Captain Hornby pierced the unfortunate uhlan’s heart by saber thrust—an ironically old-fashioned death (on horseback, with a sword) in what was to become a decidedly modern war (mechanized, faceless), its human toll exceeding 14,000,000. But the markers’ assertions do not stand historical scrutiny; their authors disregard earlier campaigns in far-off Africa.

The first British shot of the war actually occurred on August 5, fired off by Regimental Sergeant Major Alhaji Grunshi, a black African soldier serving with British Imperial forces a few miles north of Lomé, in German Togoland. The first recorded British death in battle, one Lieutenant G. M. Thompson of the Gold Coast Regiment, took place sometime over the night of August 21–22, also in Togoland: Lieutenant Thompson, given command of a company of Senegalese Tirailleurs, fought it out with German askaris in a confused action in the thick bush on the banks of the river Chra. His comrades found him in the morning, lying dead and covered with insects in the midst of his slaughtered command. They buried them that way; the Senegalese arranged around Lieutenant Thompson’s grave like a loyal pack of hounds around the tomb of a Paleolithic chief.

After less than a year of war, the German Overseas Empire—one of the main catalysts for the war in the first place—seemed nearly at an end.

In China, on the other side of the globe, the small German garrison holding the Kiao-Chow Concession found itself besieged by a Japanese Army 23,000 strong, supported by a small contingent of the 2nd Battalion of South Wales Borderers. The Concession—a 400-square-mile territory centered in the fortified port city of Tsingtao on the Yellow Sea—had been ceded to Germany in 1897 as compensation for the murder of two German Catholic priests by anti-Christian Chinese mobs. Tsingtao’s commandant, Kapitän zur See Meyer-Waldeck, held out against the siege behind the city’s thick walls for two months, under continual bombardment from land and sea as Japanese Infantry assault trenches pushed relentlessly forward. Realizing the pointlessness of further struggle against the combined might of the Japanese Army and Navy, Meyer-Waldeck surrendered his garrison of 3,000 German marines and sundry volunteers at last on November 16, 1914. It came as a surprise to him that the Japanese and the British were fighting together against Germany—they had signed a secret mutual defense treaty in 1902, only now bearing fruit.

Meanwhile, Australian, New Zealand, and Japanese forces easily captured German possessions in the South Pacific. These included the Bismarck Archipelago, the Caroline Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, Palau, New Caledonia, and Samoa—where the Kaiser’s barefoot native soldiers sported fetching red sarongs beneath their formal German military tunics—and Kaiser-Wilhelmsland, now the northeastern part of Papua New Guinea. Here one intrepid German officer, a certain Hauptmann Herman Detzner, who had been off exploring the unknown interior with a contingent of native police, refused to surrender and remained on the loose in the wilderness for the duration of the war. He turned himself in to the occupying Australians on January 5, 1919, wearing his carefully preserved and outdated Imperial German uniform—a kind of German Rip van Winkle who had been asleep in the jungle while the world changed irrevocably around him. By July 1915, of Germany’s prewar colonial possessions, only German East Africa remained.

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Filed under Britain, Cameroon, China, Germany, Ghana, Micronesia, migration, military, nationalism, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tanzania, war

Cameroon Tales: Two Cooks

For most of his recent sabbatical in Cameroon, my brother stayed in a big hilltop white-elephant of a house overlooking a small village on the busy main highway between Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, the main port city. The house was the ostensible headquarters of a personal NGO owned by an international businessman from that village, whom my brother had once helped get started in the business of importing cars from Europe into Cameroon. As village benefactor, he had later acquired overseas aid to build and maintain a village well, build a nursery school, and build his own seldom-used mansion.

My brother’s housemates there were three men from neighboring Central African Republic, speakers of a Gbaya language called Suma who were working on documenting their language, on a project funded almost entirely out of my brother’s own pocket. He has known the elder two men (now in their 50s) since the late 1970s, when he was working for the Peace Corps and then USAID in the then Central African Empire.

To feed himself and his team, my brother asked to hire a cook from the local village. The sleazy caretaker of the mansion, a childhood friend of the benefactor now in his 40s, recommended the 16-year-old girl living with him, who soon proved that she neither knew how to cook nor cared to learn, even when an older woman was hired to help teach her.

One day the young cook got a call from her elder sister telling her that the latter’s baby was very sick, and asking for help. My brother offered to give her an advance on her salary, since it was so near the end of the month anyway, so that she could send some money to her sister. But her man (the caretaker) took that money, beat her, and forbade her to visit her sister. The cook then came to my brother and asked for more help, but the caretaker swore that he never beat her (even claiming she had attacked him), and that he never took her money, only “put it aside” in order to prevent her leaving to go take of the sick baby.

Although the cook threatened to leave the caretaker—just as she had earlier infuriated her family by running away from home to be with him—she soon relented, made up with him, and returned to work as if nothing had happened. Nevertheless, her enthusiasm for cooking never improved, and my brother finally fired her a few weeks before we arrived for our visit.

The replacement cook was far from a spoiled brat. She was the devoutly religious, 30-something mother of four young children whose husband had abandoned her in Kribi, on the south coast, whereupon she tried to find her sister, who had married into the village where we stayed. She ran out of cash in the market and crossroads town nearest her sister’s village, but a taxi driver from the latter village was kind enough to give her and her brood a free ride to her sister’s house, which had only one room to spare for her and her four kids.

Lacking land and a husband, she resorted to gathering forest herbs for sale by the roadside to earn a little cash. The village chief’s unmarried son dallied with her for a while, but he was very likely scared off by the prospect of raising her four kids (although she blamed it on his inability to abide by her strict religious scruples). The chance to cook for a household of foreigners was a godsend—except for the jealousy it aroused among the other villagers.

She proved a diligent and capable cook who used her new supply of cash to rent some land and pay a crew to clear a field for planting—all just in time for the start of the rainy season. And she was finally able to pay the village medic to treat her two-year-old boy for worms.

When it came time for my brother and his team to leave the village, he promised her whatever food supplies remained in the kitchen. She didn’t show up for the good-bye party, however. Instead, she waited out behind the kitchen until after darkness fell and all the guests had left—so that no one would see her carry the extra food to her sister’s house, and then spread gossip about the passing good fortune of one of the most destitute women in the village.

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Cameroon Tales: The PTA Meeting

After spending our first night in Cameroon in a hotel in Yaoundé, we changed money with a friendly Nigerian Igbo at the Hilton, went shopping for food at the central market and for baguettes at a suburban bakery, then drove the two hours back to the village where my brother was staying in time for a short rest before the parent-teacher meeting for the local preschool (maternelle) that we were invited to attend that afternoon at 4 p.m.

We had been invited in order to thank my brother for his small monetary donation, which had enabled the teacher to buy some new and much needed school supplies. The meeting was held in the salon of the chief of the village, and my brother and I stopped to buy a half-dozen large bottles of beer and soft drinks for those who attended. We purchased them from the village patriarch’s store, waking him up from his afternoon nap on his front porch.

In the chief’s salon, we found about a dozen parents seated across from the sofa that the chief had reserved for us, and an open box of school supplies on the coffee table in the center of the room. As others were allocating the drinks we had brought, the chief told me my brother had never accepted his offers of homemade oil palm wine (there called vin blanc) but he wondered whether I would like to try it. After a moment’s hesitation, I said I would be happy to, rationalizing that the alcohol in it would help neutralize the residual bacteria. The chief then called for his palm wine and filled two stemmed glasses from his cupboard. The palm wine was palatable, though poorly filtered.

The president then rose to welcome us, asking first whether he could address me in French (rather than switch to English, presumably). My brother assured him I spoke several languages, neglecting to mention my poor speaking ability. In fact, I could follow the proceedings pretty well until they later gave way to more free-flowing conversation and storytelling.

Then the president introduced the maitresse, who did a show-and-tell of the supplies she had bought, which included various (French) literacy and language materials, workbooks and educational activities, and about a dozen rolls of toilet paper to be used in the brick outhouse that had been started behind the school building. She regretted only that she had not been able to obtain materials to teach numeracy as well as literacy. As she finished, she offered to turn over her receipts to my brother, as the donor, but he suggested she turn them over to the president, who had replaced a corrupt predecessor.

The president was a successful businessman who got his start as a chauffeur for Catholic nuns, and my brother’s regular driver would usually rent the president’s car when he hired himself out as a driver. The maitresse was a trained and dedicated teacher who had recently fallen victim to pickpockets in a shared taxi on her way home from a bank in Yaoundé with a loan of 1.5 million francs CFA with which to build a house. She was very slowly paying back the loan from her very modest teacher’s salary.

After the formalities were over, the conversation drifted to other topics. One man asked us why Obama was not (yet) intervening in Libya. (This was an overwhelmingly Christian village less concerned than a largely Muslim village may have been about the delicacy of American relations with the Muslim world.) Later, after somebody else told a story about an encounter with a large snake, this same man said he had seen a show on National Geographic about people handling poisonous snakes without getting bitten. He obviously had access to satellite TV and was concerned to educate himself as well as his children. He and I (and the chief) were the only ones drinking the chief’s palm wine instead of beer.

Big pot of ndole

Ndole, a stew of bitterleaf, ground peanuts, and fish

We finally made our exit, explaining that our new cook had made a big pot of ndole, the national dish, to welcome us. This stew of bitterleaf greens, ground peanuts, and fish or meat takes a lot of time and effort, so everyone was impressed. In fact, we had hardly finished eating when the chief showed up at our door, with the village patriarch and another of his drinking buddies, saying they had come to sample our ndole, which their wives rarely made. They pronounced it very well prepared, at which my brother could not resist telling the chief that he could be eating it more often if his son had gone ahead and married the cook after romancing her. They finally left after finding out we had no more beer or wine on hand.

The tale of two cooks will be the next installment.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Binga, Befam

The dusty dirt road from Lolodorf to Ebolowa was only 107 km long, but it took us three hours to cover the distance in our hired Toyota sedan, over ten years old and without air-conditioning, so we often had to choose between keeping the dust out and the heat in, or letting some dust in to get some fresh air. By the time we reached the outskirts of Ebolowa, we were ready for a refreshing lunch stop in as nice a restaurant as we could find, so we began asking people on the street to direct us to the nearest hotel, which turned out to the brand-new, European-standard Florence Hôtel. (We found out too late that we would have had many more choices had we driven into the city center first.)

We felt out-of-place from the moment we entered the front gates and noticed the newer Mercedes and Land Cruiser parked inside. The feeling only increased as our parched and dusty party of four were ushered to a linen-covered table with fine silverware opposite a wooden bar counter with a premium selection of duty-free-shop liquors on the wall behind it. Despair mounted as we perused the menu. The cheapest main dish cost 4,000 francs CFA (< 10 USD), and the price of the table d’hôte buffet set out for a banquet meeting then underway of visiting dignitaries from the Société Nationale d’Investissement du Cameroun was 12,000 francs CFA.

We finally settled on vegetable soups for starters and fruit plates for dessert (each about 2,000 francs), with nothing in between, and bottled water to drink. Our waiter was pleasantly accommodating and even brought us extra water at no charge. He very likely assumed we were missionaries, especially after we quizzed him about the words that marked the women’s and men’s rooms, binga and befam, respectively. (It was like seeing wahine and kane on the restroom doors of a French brasserie in Honolulu.) The restrooms were otherwise to European standard, spotlessly clean, with hot and cold running water, airjet hand driers, and toilet paper. In fact, they were the nicest restrooms we used during our two weeks in Cameroon.

We stopped later in the afternoon at the Repere Bar on the outskirts of Yaoundé in order for our driver and my brother belatedly to eat their main courses, beef stew with manioc and rice, respectively, for 500 francs each, while my wife and I each had a large bottle of Guinness, for 900 francs each. (The facilities there were rather more basic.)

The language we had encountered on the doors was Bulu, a dialect of the Beti language group widely spoken across the rain forests of southern Cameroon and neighboring countries. The current president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, comes from the Beti-speaking region. According to our Florence Hôtel waiter, binga means ‘women’ and minga means ‘woman’, while befam means ‘men’ and fam means ‘man’ (a near homophone of French femme). Speakers of Castilian or Catalan can get a taste of the closely related Fang dialect online.

This kind of distinction is typical of Bantu languages, which mark different noun classes with prefixes that distinguish singular from plural in the case of count nouns. Or at least they do so in Narrow Bantu, if not so regularly in Wide Bantu (or Bantoid) languages. In fact, the word bantu means ‘people’, while muntu means ‘person’. And that’s why so many placenames in parts of Cameroon start with Ba-.

The most memorable introduction to this phenomenon that I’ve ever read was a passage in African Language Structures (U. California Press, 1974) by William Everett Welmers, who on p. 160 applies Bantu noun class and concord systems to words borrowed from English:

kipilefti ~ vipilefti ’roundabout(s), traffic circle(s)’
digadi ~ madigadi ‘fender(s)’ (< mudguard)

KeRezi (a fictional Bantu language)
mudigadi ~ badigadi ‘bodyguard(s)’
mutenda ~ batenda ‘bartender(s)’
matini ‘martini’ (with ma- marking mass nouns for liquids)

UPDATE: We’re back from Cameroon and will have more tales to tell, but only after finishing taxes, posting more photos, and hitting the road for another week of travel.

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Far Outliers Off to Africa for Two Weeks

The Far Outliers leave tonight for a two-week trip to Cameroon to visit my historian brother who’s on sabbatical there helping to document some languages from neighboring Central African Republic, where he served in the Peace Corps many years ago. It’s a long way for a short trip, but it’s the chance of a lifetime. It’ll be our first trip to the continent. We’ll be in good hands, but we’ll have very limited access to email and the web, so I may not be able to respond to blog comments. I hope to take plenty of photos to share via Flickr and to get some firsthand exposure to the English-based pidgin, Kamtok, which I understand still thrives in the northwest region (former British Cameroons).

With all the economic woes facing highly developed economies, it’s heartening to read some good news about economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The economic transformation that has taken place over the last decade has laid out a solid foundation from which to build on. According to the International Monetary Fund, real GDP in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 5.7% annually between 2000 and 2008, more than double the pace during 1980s and 90s.

The collective output of it’s 50-plus economies, meanwhile, reached US$1.6-trillion, far greater than, say, global industrial power Republic of Korea.

Not surprisingly, Africa’s impressive economic momentum over this period owes much to its natural resource wealth that includes a majority of the world’s platinum, chromium and diamonds and a large share of global oil and gas reserves and gold and uranium deposits. However, rising prices for these commodities is only part of the story. According to McKinsey, natural resources and related government spending accounted for 32% of Africa’s GDP growth, with the remaining two-thirds nicely distributed across other sectors, notably wholesale and retail, agriculture, transportation and telecommunications.

Underlying this economic breadth, says the report, is the African consumer. From 2005 to 2008, consumer spending increased at a compounded annual rate of 16% and rose in all but two countries. Millions of Africans have moved from the “destitute” level of income below US$1,000 a year to the “basic needs” level between US$1,000 and US$5,000. A smaller portion have moved into the middle income bracket of US$5,000 to US$25,000.

“There is a lot more going on than just natural resources,” Mr. Field-Marsham says. “The middle class is exploding. They are buying soap, they’re buying beer, they’re buying telephones, they’re building housing, and they’re buying cement. Now, everybody has a stake.”

We’re taking a few small electronic gifts for my brother’s friends and colleagues: flash drives, memory cards, rechargeable AA and AAA batteries, and such.

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Filed under Africa, Cameroon, economics, family, travel