While teaching journalism in Cameroon last month, I was once again astonished at just how big our cultural divide can be when it comes to determining who the victims are in society.
I used the case of a 1993 Supreme Court decision to take a two-and-a-half year old girl from her adoptive parents and give the child to her biological mother.
Don Terry’s lead in his New York Times article begins : “BLAIRSTOWN, Iowa. Aug. 2 – When she is grown up, maybe Jessica DeBoer will understand why the adults in her young but complicated life have caused so much hurt in the name of love.”
At this point I asked the young journalists in Yaounde, Douala and Ngaoundere, who the victim in the story is, because journalists are supposed to side with the victims. The second sentence in this form of lead should identify with the victim. To my surprise, in all three cities, they almost unanimously said the victim is the biological mother!
Don Terry, who thinks like most of us identified with little Jessica : “But starting today, the two-and-a-half-year-old has more immediate lessons to learn, namely how to live without the only people she has ever known as Mommy and Daddy, Robert and Jan DeBoer of Ann Arbor, Mich.”
The Cameroonians’ reaction goes beyond the general ignorance that what happens to a child at that age marks it for the rest of its life. “The girl will forget,” they said. The only journalist out of almost 80 who agreed with me had some notions of modern psychology and said this could upset her mentally for the rest of her life. The others could not understand.
I have tried to understand why the Cameroonians react this way to this sort of drama. To me it has always seemed children are the pillows with which adults fight each other. It seems to me there are two factors here: the role of children in destitute countries and the role of the extended family.
In these countries, people have children, not because they want them, but because they can’t avoid them and because they need them. Although the population situation has changed and children no longer die off in the numbers they did before Whites came with vaccinations and other medicines, mentalities have not changed. (Child mortality is estimated at 65 per 1000 live births).
At the beginning of the 20th century Europeans and Americans had large families too. As medicine progressed so did the standards of living and in two generations, the size of families dropped radically. Today, a family with three children is considered sizable. Even at the end of the 19th century education was fairly universal. Economic development with greater distribution of wealth is clearly a factor.
Cameroon is one of the most corrupt countries in the world (see Transparency International) which means there is no Middle Class to speak of (half the population lives below the poverty line) and little chance for anyone to improve their sort; education is far from universal (only 38% of girls in the North get to school for example) although we are told more than 60% of those above the age of 15 can read and write. Life expectancy is 52 years.
I found people to be fatalistic. Corruption is so open even President Paul Biya is condemning it although he has presided over it since 1982. It seems all those who raise their voices against it are either bought off once their voices are heard or disappear into a very nasty prison system where laws of exception have allowed the Army to carry out summery executions.
Tribal hierarchy is still prominent and the Chief usually gets the last word (over the government) and is often bought off by corrupt officials. In the North, Muslim Sharia law can replace the state justice system. It is not unusual for villagers to vote the way their chief tells them to. It is often a question of who gets land to till and what money changes which hands. Corruption is a top to bottom phenomenon. People do not believe they can wield democratic power and refuse to take advantage of it at election time.
So, with more people but no more wealth, Cameroonians have not had the leisure higher standards of living bring to make the kind of change in mentalities the wealthy North was able to do over a hundred years ago in family size and more than 200 years ago in education and democracy.
The other reason they do not see Jessica as a victim may lie in the tradition of extended families. There is no such thing as adoption or the isolated family as we know it. Polygamy is common enough and a man with three wives can easily have 30 children. The children are cared for collectively by the village and aunts and uncles play major roles in education and discipline.
When parents die of Aids for example, other family members step in to help, increasing their own economic burden. In worst case scenarios, brothers and sisters will take care of each other. But some of this may be breaking down too. There is a new urban phenomenon of youth from the countryside roaming the streets in violent gangs. Very often extinguished parents have sent them to try to earn money for the family. As said above, with lower death rates, there are many more mouths to feed and no more wealth to feed them.
Children remain the labor and source of wealth they have always been for their parents. Parents feel their survival depends on how many children they can put to work for them. In countries where there is no welfare system to step in, fear of being left to die is justified. (I watched helpless elderly, who lost everybody around them, die slowly in the streets during the Congo war in 2003. The situation in encircled Kindu was so bad, people could not help themselves, let alone anybody else).
The Cameroonians were also outraged when I told them we have not only associations but laws for the protection of animals. They complain that our animals eat better than they do.
But as a social worker catering to refugees once told a Cameroonian exile “we also treat our people better than you do.” She says that the attitude of treating people and animals well, of respecting life, is something which is not separable.
It is hard to imagine how societies like Cameroon will change until mentalities do. Part of this has to be identifying the weakest and most helpless as the victims. Those who attended my training session are the educated. They should be the first to comprehend this.