I once heard a truly pathetic and heart-rending report on Cameroon Radio-Television (CRTV) about the apparently very lucrative and booming trade in girls from our land to the Middle East. They rush for the Arab gold and end up – for the most part, it would seem – as house and sex slaves. The appeal made by the rescued girls, all in tears, to the powers-that-be to step in and rescue their sisters-in-misfortune, who are still in chains in the homes of Arab slave drivers, could hardly leave anyone indifferent, and I hope those in authority do feel the same way as some of us do. If they do, can they do something about it?
I am, of course, aware of the laudable efforts being made by charitable organizations, notably the Justice and Peace Commissions of the Catholic Church in the Bamenda Ecclesiastical Province (Bamenda and Kumbo, notably), to rescue such unfortunate girls and bring them back home. They deserve the full backing of our government.
We may, however, tend to focus our attention so fully on the Middle East that we over look what is happening next door – in our own homes. Girls from poor homes – many, but by no means all – who clean our homes, cook our food and raise our own children for us are sometimes not in a better position than those girls enslaved in Arab countries.
A case in point. A story is told of a Jesuit priest in Douala, who was once the principal of College Libermann, one of the most well-known Catholic institutes of learning in our country. Many graduates from that institution have, for several decades now, oiled the hinges of leadership in every corner and in every domain of the public, private or confessional life in our land and beyond.
One such graduate felt so happy with his former principal that he invited him to dinner in his sumptuous bungalow in one of Douala’s exclusive neighbourhoods. He and his wife were very happy to show him their luxurious home, a visible symbol of wealth and success. They proudly told the priest how much they show their appreciation to the Almighty through generous donations to the Church and to charitable organizations around them. That was the only way they thought they could pay back our Lord for his goodness to them.
The priest, however, noticed a young girl, barely in her teens, wearing a sad face, carrying a baby on her back and cleaning one of the couple’s several cars in the yard. No sooner had they settled down for an aperitif than he saw the same girl going in and out of the kitchen and for several minutes was busy with the food; then she rushed to attend to the needs of the couple’s little ones – three in number — who seemed to yell and scream for everything and for nothing all at once. When the screaming got a little too loud, the nervous wife would rush to the kitchen and could be heard muttering threatening noises to the poor girl to give the children whatever they were asking for so they would not disturb their august guest. Then she would come back to join them in the living room, visibly embarrassed and murmuring something about how difficult it is these days to get any good nanny. “They all want your money for no work,” she lamented.
After watching this scenario for a while, the priest asked who the young girl was. The woman of the house dismissively called her “C’est la fille Bamenda. Elle ne sait pratiquement rien faire, mon Pere.” (She is a Bamenda girl who knows practically nothing, Father).
The priest could take it no more. He stood up, thanked them for their invitation, praised them for their outward success, which was visible in their opulent home and life style, and told them he was leaving. He said he felt sick to the bone with the way they were treating their maid, a fellow human being and, before leaving, sent them to their Bible. “She is your own ‘Onesimus’,” he said, referring to one of Saint Paul’s pastoral letters, the Letter to Philemon, in which Paul urges a former slave owner, Philemon, to welcome back a fugitive slave, whom he [Paul] had converted to the faith in Rome. Onesimus, Paul tells Philemon, is no longer a slave but a fellow brother to you and to me (Phil 1:16).
As we rightly decry the fate of our sisters enslaved in Arab hands in the Arabian Peninsula, it may also be time for us to look closer to home, in our own home, perhaps, or in the house next door. There may just be an unfortunate girl – lightly dismissed as “la fille Bamenda” – who is living her own “Kuwait”, totally unbeknownst to us. It is perhaps high time we took the plank that is clouding our own vision of life around us before reaching out for the straw in the eyes of Arab slave-drivers and rapists.
Douala, July 20, 2016