I worked for several years in the personnel department of an oil company. Oil companies in Cameroon, as elsewhere, I guess, do pay their people well, at least by local standards. It is not rare for employees, especially those in senior management positions, to walk home with 7-digit-salaries at the end of each month. However, and this is my personal experience, many — and by no means all — employees whose files I handled had problems coming open with their salaries to their spouses. And this always brought problems in families.
A few examples may make my point clearer. Not only once, but several times, I had wives of workers coming to insist that we reveal their husbands’ salaries to them. One walked into my office one day with three children, sat on a chair, before I even invited her to, and created quite a scene, screaming that her husband was not taking care of their children and that she would not leave until we told her exactly how much her husband was earning. She wanted us to give part of that money to her on the spot or she would show would strip herself naked right there. As she talked, she was already taking off her dress. It was with much difficulty that I calmed her down, telling her a strip-tease scene would not do much to help her cause. “Look at these children,” she screamed. “I don’t have what to feed them with and he — talking about her husband — was doing nothing to help.
It would seem her husband, who worked two weeks offshore and two weeks off, hardly came back home when his stint offshore was over. He would — the woman told me — disappear into the arms of another woman in the seedy part of the city, and would leave from there back to work. “If he cannot take care of his own children,” she screamed, ” you people will have to give me part of his salary. These are his children; they are not a product of prostitution (she used the colourful word “akwara”). Unfortunately, we could only ask her to go to Social Welfare and lodge her complaint there.
After attending to several of such cases, I decided that the best thing would be for me to be as open as possible to my own spouse. I showed her all my pay slips and took her to my bank and gave her signatory right to my account. I am also a signatory to her own account. An amazing thing happens when you involve your spouse in your monetary dealings. All of a sudden, money ceases to play a divisive role in your family and becomes, to a large extent, a unifying force. It is no longer the master that many people make it to be in their lives, but a servant that it is meant to be. It can then be used for the good of the family, not for its ruin. When you hide your salary information from your spouse, he or she imagines what must be in your account and act on that imagination, even if the bank account is down to zero.
Let me take one concrete case of a worker who retired but hid information about his retirement package from his spouses — he had two of them — and crashed not long after retirement. He was a guard and I was his supervisor for several years. He was among the lower staff the company decided at one time to lay off and who were given good departure packages. A good number of them made good use of the windfall and are today doing well; but not our man.
Shortly after he left, I ran into him at the bank. He excitedly told me that he was about to buy a plot in Bonaberi for a house. I was surprised that he had worked for so many years without a house to his name. Unfortunately for him, he sank money into a marshy plot in Bonaberi only to learn a few months later that the Douala man, who sold it to him, had already sold the same piece of land to two other buyers. A good chunk of that money thus went down the drain.
I also learnt that he had decided to take in a third wife, a fresh graduate form the University of Buea, and several years younger than our man’s first daughter. The other two women apparently said the new wife would only come into the house over their dead bodies. One day, the story goes, one of his sons, a drug dealer, tied the poor man to a post in front of their house and had his mother and the other wife give the poor man a thorough flogging — a mini ‘scourging at the pillar’ of sorts. They wanted to know how much money was in his retirement package. What he had done with it. Why he was already paying a bride price for a third wife when they, the older “mbanyas” had nothing. The poor man, bruised and bleeding, owed his life to the timely intervention of scandalized neighbours. He then fled to Limbe and took in his UB graduate. The story goes that a few months later, his young “chou-chou”, realizing that the man’s bank account was already empty, threw him out. He came back to his family in Douala but did not, unfortunately, survive for long.
Hence the importance of involving our spouses in our financial dealings when we are still in active service. When the time comes to go, as it will inevitably do, we will be well received at home as our spouse would know just how much we are coming back home with, and together we can plan what to do with the package, for the good of our families.
When I talked to a group of retired people some months ago, one of them stood up and asked me to shut up. How did I expect him to reveal his financial dealings to his wife. “Do you know Maria?” he screamed. When I said I didn’t, he asked if I was eager to send him early to his grave. “Maria will disappear with that money before you can open your eyes,” he said, to applause from people of like minds. I told him that if he had been open to Maria, she would have no reason to run away with his money. “Since you’re hiding it from her, she imagines that you are perhaps richer than you really are and would run away with your money at the least opportunity. But if you have been open to her, she would instead cooperate with you in the use of money that is not only yours, but your family’s.” He said I was talking nonsense.
I know there are many people — young and not-so-young — who think and behave like the polygamist mentioned earlier, or like the man who shouted at me for daring to suggest that he should open up to his wife with his financial situation. Experience, however, shows that when you come open and clean with your financial information, your spouse — unless he or she is a real donkey — would hardly run away with your savings. Why? because it is no longer your money alone; it belongs to your family and the two spouses have a duty to protect it, for good of the entire family.
Douala, August 29, 2016