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 opening up to their spouses about their salaries. 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. She screamed 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 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 shouted. “I don’t have what to feed them with and he”, talking about her husband, “is doing nothing to help.”
It would seem her husband, who worked two weeks on our platforms 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 a number 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 happened when I involved my spouse in my monetary dealings. All of a sudden, money ceased to play a divisive role in my family and became, to a large extent, a unifying force. It was no longer the master that I had made it to be in the past, but it instead became the servant that it is meant to be. My spouse and I could then jointly use it for the good of our 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 your 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 two spouses. 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 each given a good departure package. A good number of them made good use of the windfall and are today doing well; but not this particular individual.
Shortly after he left, I met 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 his 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 from the University of Buea, and several years younger than his first daughter. The other two women told him flat out that 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 scandalised neighbours who came to his rescue. He then fled to Limbe and took in his UB graduate. The story goes that a few months later, his young “chou-chou”, realising 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 always does, we would be well received at home because our spouse would know the worth of the departure package that would be used 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 in my face. When I said I didn’t, he asked me to sit down and stop talking nonsense. “If that’s your own way of trying to send me to my grave before my time, then that’s not funny at all. Maria,” he shouted, “will disappear with that money before you can open your eyes.” His intervention received laughter and applause from others of like minds in attendance. 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 dismissed me with the wave of a hand, saying that 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