I have a friend in Loum, Cameroon, where I live. His name is Alphonse, and he works in a Banana plantation which belongs to the French company PHP Penja. So, you might think, OK, so what ? The thing is that he's 35 years old, and he looks 50. I didn't know that when I met him first, and I hope he didn't notice the expression on my face when he told me. He's actually a friend of my friend I live and work with, and everybody knows him, he likes to play with our children, and he usually shows up in the morning to drink coffee with us.
He works at PHP Penja, a 10 minutes walk from my home, and there you can see banana plantations, they cover 4'500 hectares. PHP Penja is the only big employer in the region, half of Loum works there, in fact.
And half of Loum is sick. You can see one of the reasons almost every morning when that airplane is cruising above our heads, looks like a 1950's model, propeller and all, a lot of noise and that yellow stuff falling all over the place, VERY close to our house. Pesticides.
The picture above is exacty that plane.
And Alphonse works there, 10 hours a day - doing the same work on the ground as the plane does above - spraying pesticides. I remember meeting him October 2013 first, when I started our activities in Loum, we were talking about his job, and when I was asking him about protection clothing at work he just shrugged his shoulders. That's one of the reasons he looks 50. But now, apparently, some workers have gotten appropriate work clothes. But that's not the only problem there is. His salary, as a plantation superviser's right hand, is CFA 50'000 a month, that's about 100 US$.
Now, we have CFA 100'000 for our family to live on. We pay CFA 20'000 for rent, about 10'000 for water and power (including power breaks every day in the rainy season, or, when PHP is on full power, they cut us too), take off school fees and clothes, we eat on CFA 5'000 a day, that's 10 US$ for 12 people. So we eat once a day, in general, at midday, and heat up the rest at night. Ndolé, Fufu, Plantaines frites (fried cooking bananas) and whatever the earth allows.
Now, imagine how Alphonse is doing with his 50'000 salary for a family of 6 ? Another reason for his looks. The other day he told me a story of a plantation worker who was sick. He was asking Alphonse if he could go home (plantation workers get around CFA 30'000 a month, BTW). Alphonse told him go see the boss. He did - and came back with a bruise. He didn't tell more, but he kept on working until the shift was over. And beatings are frequent, as Alphonse told me. Several NGO's already have reported to the human rights commission - ironically that's in Geneva, Switzerland - my country.
I don't think anything will happen. Offficials are bribed to keep shut and block further investigations (by whom, actually....?), the French have strong ties to Biya's regime, and right now we're preoccupied by Boko Haram up north, and several outbreaks of Typhoid fever, Malaria, Cholera (due to PHP's pollution of ground water, actually) and other sicknesses. Ebola is no subject, though. Luckily.
A couple of weeks ago, Alphonse asked me:
"Why don't you apply for a job at PHP ?"
"Me ? As what ?"
"We need IT people."
"I don't have diplomas."
"Don't need them, you're white..."
"Ah, ok. And who's my boss then ?"
"Mr. ..... , a French guy."
"I don't like the French too much, they're arrogant."
"But you could do something for us."
"How do you mean that ?"
"You live here, you have an African family, people trust you, and you speak French."
"What could I do for you ?"
"Write. You know how it is here. Nobody cares or listens. We're afraid to lose jobs, that's why we shut up."
"So you mean, I work in IT, and besides I observe and get information."
"Yes. And you have connections. You use Internet."
"I don't know. Could it be dangerous for my family and others ?"
"Not if you don't go public until you have proof. We need someone in the inside, and as a white..."
"Let me think about it. I'll be back in summer for sure, you know that."
And that's how the discussion ended finally. When I came back to Switzerland, I didn't think about it anymore - first. He called two days ago for a chat. And now it's come back - and I think I'll accept.
(Note, January 2019: PHP Penja still exists, nothing has changed. As long as Paul Biya is president, all efforts to make such stuff public won't get published on MSM. I did actually pass by there in 2016, but the boss was not present multiple times for an interview. I suspect that somebody told him that a white guy lives around here who puts his nose into things that doesn't concern him. I'm in steady contact with Loum on Whatsapp, and as I said, nothing has changed.
People there still also say that the bosses there are part of the Masonry and do strange rituals. One of the directors there died of "unknown causes" when I was there, at the age of 51. Some said he wanted to leave the order but wasn't allowed to. But since Africans are very superstitious, I regard this with caution).