By Tikum Mbah Azonga
The question of a healthy environment is currently one of great concern here in Cameroon. The problem is so intense that I believe that if a rigorous scientific study were to be carried out to see how clean the environment is, the result would be a disappointment. So the ministry of the Environment and Nature Protection (MINEF) on the one hand, and the Ministry of Public Health (MINSANTE) on the other hand, should take note.
Where the stench is coming from
You do not have to look far to see to what extent our backyards (in the large sense of the word) are filthy. If you are in any Cameroonian town, just look at the back of houses and homes or other buildings, including government offices and you will see all types of dirt. It is worse in the “social” vicinities such as drinking spots. All around, there are layers and layers of rubbish that have accumulated over a long period without being removed, and worse still, without being noticed. These include broken bottles, plastic bags (which scientists and researchers have found that they can take decades of years to decay, if at all). Other garbage items one can readily see include cigarette butts, bits and pieces of paper, decaying particles and morsels of food, torn and abandoned garments, and many more.
Perhaps you would think that where food is sold, especially the make-shift “restaurants” that today abound in the urban settings, the situation is better. The plain truth is that there is no difference in such places. In fact, it would appear that the women (it’s mainly they) who cook and sell food “out” would care to clean up their “spaces” before beginning the day’s business. However, far from it, they simply arrive, install their equipment and start selling over yesterday’s dirt which is superimposed on the previous day’s dirt, which in turn is juxtaposed between the dirt deposited previously. And so, it is some kind of embedded composition like the utterances and phrases in a linguistic corpus. What that means is that customers who eat regularly at a particular food selling spot will the nest day return to the same filthy environment they left the day before.
If a visitor does not have a strong and resistant stomach, they may through up on approaching what pass for “public toilets”. A vast majority of them do not have toilet seats; neither do they have flushing facilities. They stink firstly because users do not care to position themselves well before “delivering the goods” , and secondly because the custodians of the places do not know or do not care to know that the hard ware stores and pharmacies sell products that can not only “kill” the acrid smell, but also chemically treat the decaying and smelling waste. One would find ones self between a rock and a hard place, to quote that typically American expression, if what one needed was a toilet to pass stool. This is because most public conveniences are intended just for people who want to make water. And if questions are put to the “tenants” nearby about what they do when they want to go to stool, they throw up their shoulders nonchalantly. The bold ones say they go to the nearby bush, while the philosophical ones tell you that while at work, they do not feel the need to go to stool.
Normally, one would have expected that since the trend nowadays is for “food women” to sell in an Off License, so that people who come there to drink (and drinking in Cameroon is always bizarrely the first consideration over eating food) can also “eat something”, adequate steps would be taken for customers to feel at home when easing themselves. But that is not the case. And so what one finds is that as “eating out” as such gains ground, the amount of filth gathering momentum is also on the rise. To be fair to the trend, food sales in drinking places in Cameroon is a relatively new phenomenon. One would recall that some twenty years or so, these make-shift “restaurants” were largely unknown in Cameroon. At the time there were only Off Licensees, and heavy drinkers who left home serene could spend such a large part of the day drinking that when they returned home in the evening stinking of alcohol and cursing their wives, or out rightly drunk – or at least tipsy- but starving. Today, with the mushrooming of “eating places”, they can order something to eat while drinking. In fact, some observers have reported that as a result of this unprecedented availability of food out of home, Cameroonian men now look healthier.
No place too high to be touched
So widespread is the phenomenon of “public filth” in our country that even the political capital Yaounde and the economic capital, Douala have not been spared. In fact, there are times when they seemed to compete with each other for the top position on the filth league table. It is common to find heaps of refuse lying around uncollected by the Local authority. Actually, there used to be a time when inhabitants of Yaounde gave descriptions to their homes to friends and relatives by citing the number of refuse heaps one had to pass by on the way to the destination. Nonetheless, to be fair to the authorities, the national Refuse Disposal, HYSACAM, which has for months now been cleaning up the South West Regional capital of Buea, is doing its best. But then, that best is not good enough. HYSACAM alone can not clean up the whole of Cameroon.
The adverse effects on us
Such unhygienic living conditions undoubtedly pose a health threat to everyone, the vulnerable such as children and old people included. That is not all: free for all dirt also greatly tarnishes the image of our country in the eyes of foreigners who are visiting either for new business opportunities or one of our many tourist havens, especially when one considers that Cameroon has a lot to offer the world, being what has come to be known as “Africa in miniature”.
What way forward?
The solution to this problem lies in collective effort. All of us are involved and must put our hands to the plough. All of us. Cameroonians overseas can provide refuse collection equipment and tools, notably to local Councils. They can also set up an NGO that can work here in Cameroon permanently. Local authorities such as the Municipal Councils and the City Councils should tighten the rules for refuse collection and water drainage and ensure they are observed to the letter. Each Cameroonian should wake up to the need to refrain from throwing litter indiscriminately and actually get in the habit of picking up rubbish when they spot it anywhere. “Food women” who sell in public and Off License owners who act as their landlords and landladies should get in the habit of cleaning up at the start of the working day and at the end of it. Those who sell food could even go the extra mile by pausing once in a while during sales to eliminate existing dirt before carrying on with the job.
Where is the old sanitary inspector?
Over and above everything else, the age-old but now long-forgotten “sanitary inspector” should be made to come back to the Cameroonian environment and make it “breathe” properly again. I knew the sanitary inspector in my very early years on earth. It seems to me that sanitary inspectors were the creation of the erstwhile state of West Cameroon who later on lost their place in society as the two sub cultures (Anglophones and Francophones) gave up their respective Federated States to form a single Republic, strove to adjust and readjust. But the sanitary inspector was a powerful and unavoidable man in society. He was both feared and revered. If any compound was informed that the sanitary inspector would be visiting, all hands immediately went on deck in a bid to spruce up the whole place before he arrived for his inspection. Of course, if a compound “failed the test”, the penalty was heavy. So everyone fought hard, very hard not to fail it. That led to the prevalence of a clean environment. I advocate that not only should we reinstate the sanitary inspector, we should actually go further and appoint enough of them so that in the towns, each quarter can have one and in the sub divisions, each village should have at least one, depending on the size and population of the village.