(Revised and reproduced from Le Lien: Nkeng Shalom # 0002 of November 2001).
I operate a translation unit in the American Language Center of Douala. To keep it running, I need long-term customers, who can guarantee me long-term contracts. That is why I have been seriously courting the business community in Douala, even joining a golf club just to be as close as possible to those who, as the saying goes, call the shots in this country – economically-speaking, that is.
And this has been an eye-opener to me, especially the contacts I have had with those who negotiate contracts in companies. And he who says contracts in our country, naturally says kickbacks, cash-bloated brown envelopes that surreptitiously change hands under tables, sudden reversals of previously agreed terms at a moment’s notice when fingers have not been properly greased, etc. One particular case comes to mind.
Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
About a month ago, I received an unexpected call from someone in one of the companies providing services to the Chad-Cameroon Pipeline Project, which I had been eyeing for the past several months. In fact, a business proposal I had sent months earlier to that company seemed to have been holed up in someone’s drawer and all attempts to locate it always ended in a mute response from the guards at the gate, who would not even let me in. “Vous attendez, on va vous répondre,” (the classic “go and wait, we’ll call you, don’t call us”) response was all I got.
That is why that early morning call got me all excited. Half an hour later, I was standing before an elegantly-dressed lady with a radiant smile, a reassuring sight and a far cry from your every-day-Cameroonian secretary, who is more likely to frown than smile when you walk in. She told me she had heard the American Language Center’s translation unit did a good job and hoped we would act real fast on a document her boss was eager to have translated. I assured her she would not be disappointed with our work.
Her boss, an American in his late forties or early fifties, walked in as we were talking and said the document in question was a draft contract in French and “I don’t have a damn clue what it’s all about. How soon can you get me an English translation?”
After quickly browsing through the 20-page document, I told him he would have it back in a week’s time. “No, no. That’s too far away,” he cut in impatiently. “I want it tomorrow by noon!” I told him that if he wanted me to give him quality work, he would have to give me at least four days. He thought about it for a moment, a frown on his face, his fingers running through his graying hair and asked: “Is that the best offer you can make to me?” I told him it was and that I needed time to give him his money’s worth. “Four days is what you’ll get then, no more, right?” He asked, fanning his fingers in the air. “You can count on me”, I replied, a smile tickling my jaws. I had made it, at last.; or so I thought.
As he was about to leave the room, a thought seemed to strike him, for he halted, turned to face the secretary and asked if I had already signed what he called “a confidentiality clause” with the company. The answer being negative, he reminded her that I could not do any work for the company without first signing the said document. The secretary said she would introduce me to the lady in charge of contracts, who would take care of that.
I followed her to the adjacent office. She introduced me to another secretary, explained the reason for my presence, told me I was in good hands and then left, a smile still playing on her lips. As soon as she walked out, the lady in charge of contracts, even without acknowledging my greeting, and not even looking at me, again asked me what I wanted. I was taken aback by her question because the other lady did explain what I was there for in her presence.
The contrast between the two ladies was striking. Where the technical secretary was all smiles, radiating confidence and friendliness, the contracts lady was the stark opposite, looking as if a smile had not crossed her face in a year. She sniffed the air with suspicion, eyeing me from head to toe with some disdain. She then embarked on a series of questions spewing out of her mouth with undisguised hostility. Was my company legally registered? I said it was. What proof? I said I would bring her all the registration papers later. Did I pay taxes? I said I did. What proof? I said I didn’t walk around with my company’s tax documents on me but that I could bring them to her soon. How soon was soon? She asked. Tomorrow, I answered. “No! No! not tomorrow! Today!” she shouted, quite unnecessarily, I thought.
We finally agreed that I should bring the list of the documents she wanted that very afternoon at 4 p.m. I left her office feeling her hostile eyes trained on my back and escorting me all the way down the hall and out of the building.
When I arrived at 4 p.m., I was surprised that the guards would not let me in because, they said, the lady I came to see was not on seat. I thought they were just being mean to me but they assured me that she had actually gone out of the building and that I could either wait for her outside the gate or come back later, by 6 p.m.
I opted to loiter outside the gate, even trying unsuccessfully to strike a conversation with the guards, who looked scornfully at me, believing I was just one more jobless individual coming to beg for a job. They were already used to seeing such cases on a daily basis, I imagined. However, an hour or so later, I decided I had waited long enough and left.
The next day I was back there, but luck didn’t smile on me either. I was told she had gone across town for a meeting with a delegation from Chad. And this went on for about three days. In the meantime, the technical secretary was becoming hysterical as her boss was putting pressure on her to get the translation done without further delay. She was shocked to hear that the contracts department had still given me the go-ahead to do the work. Neither she nor her irate boss could locate the contract lady, as she seemed to be evading them as well.
I then informed the technical secretary that I was leaving town for a few days of rest and meditation at the Paul VI Memorial Centre in Mendankwe, Bamenda. “You have my contact number and if you’re still serious about us doing business, you know where to reach me,” I said. She said I would be hearing from them soon.
Three days into my stay in Bamenda, the lady in charge of contracts called and asked that I come over that afternoon to sign the contract, loudly grumbling that the technical group was putting much pressure on her to get their document translated. We then agreed that I would meet her as soon as I got back in Douala in two days time. She was indeed the first person I called when I got back to town. She asked me to pick up the document for translation from the technical department and call on her later to sign the contract. Two days later, I dropped the translated document off, to the delight of the technical secretary and her boss.
The technical secretary then called the contract lady to tell her the work was already done and that she should hasten up with the contract. She asked that I come to her office that afternoon at 4 p.m. When I arrived, I was surprised it was a different lady who received me, telling me she didn’t know why her colleague had not told me that the company already had a long-term contract with a translation agency signed back in January of that year!! We were in November. Without even taking her eyes off a document she was reading, she told me matter-of-factly that I was no longer in the picture. Bye!
The technical secretary almost hit the ceiling when she heard this and her boss, loudly regretting the near-total absence of ethical principles from business circles in Cameroon, went to see the said contract for himself. He came back later, looking totally dejected, to confirm that he had indeed seen a contract dated January, which did seem ‘genuine’ to him. He then wondered why we had to go through all this nonsense if there was already a contract in place. Turning to me, he shook my hand: “Sorry, my friend. I hope you’ll have better luck elsewhere. But,” he said as he walked to his office, “I’ll make sure you get paid for your work. It’s a great piece of work. Congratulations!”
I thanked him for his compliments and left, totally stunned by what I had just been through. A week or so later, I was called up to come for the payment. I have, however, turned down the ‘attractive’ alternative many friends have been giving me to sue that company. “Nail those idiots,” one of them loudly advised me. “Martin, you can make a fortune from this case. It’s an international company and they treat us like garbage simply because they are in Cameroon!” I said I would think about it. But, I feel comforted that in the midst of these intrigues, and back-stabbings, and reeking corruption, there are still Cameroonians, like the technical secretary, who are still willing to stake their reputation to defend what they believe is right. The forces of evil have not entirely ever-come the forces of good in this fight against bribery and corruption; and I hope they never will.
Douala, May 12, 2005