Thursday, August 15, 2013

General Health Clinic

Way back in Bokito, I found it bizarre and amusing that my host family-- like much of Cameroon-- was addicted to soap operas.  Night after night, the boob tube pandered to a fixated nation: first Coeur Brise, where Rodrigue convinced everyone that he was his own twin brother with the careful application of a fake mustache; then some weird Bollywood one involving a family curse and a fated love triangle; then one where the main character, for inscrutable reasons of her own, wore a metal Phantom of the Opera-style half mask.

In Mandama, people make up for the lack of television with actual, home-brewed drama, and I am beginning to understand why my host mom found the convoluted plots of Coeur Brise believable: Mandamans could give the writing team of Days of Our Lives a tip or two.  Truth, it turns out, is far more dramatic than fiction.

Unfortunately, this is directly affecting my work at the health center. I returned from my month of leave in July to find tensions at the already dysfunctional clinic running dangerously high.  Our sole nurse Benjamin, it transpired, had gotten into a fist fight with the president of the volunteer health mobilizers.  Depending on whose version of the story I listened to, my Choose Your Own Truth options were:

A. The president of the mobilizers, Santos, attacked Benjamin, because Benjamin would not give him extra nutritional supplements on the sly to take home to his (not malnourished) wife.  Turn to page 3.

B. Benjamin attacked Santos after Santos confronted him because there are no prices posted anywhere at the clinic (this is true) and Benjamin has been systematically gouging patients and pocketing the extra (wouldn't surprise me, but this is the first I've heard of this accusation). Turn to page 7.

C. Santos caught Benjamin loading up a moto with boxes of UNICEF-donated supplements, which he was taking to Guider to sell on the black market.  Turn to page 12.

D. Santos attacked Benjamin after discovering there were secret liasons between Benjamin and Santos' wife.  Benjamin wooed her with (you guessed it) nutritional supplements. Turn to page 15.

PAGES 3, 7, 12, and 15: However we wound up here, this was the situation as I found it: All but 4 of the volunteer mobilizers had resigned in protest.  Benjamin was refusing to work, also in protest, and had lodged a formal complaint against Santos at the prefecture in Garoua.  Tilirou, the alcoholic chief of the health center, decided the best way to avoid taking sides would be to absent himself altogether by tooling off every day to Mayo Oulo, where rumor has it he holed up in a bar.  Average health services provided on a daily basis: 0.

Although I wanted as little as possible to do with this whole situation, I did take over the distribution of the infamous nutritional supplements, with the help of the 4 stalwart remaining mobilizers.  There was a certain vigilante feel to the otherwise deserted health center, me crouched over boxes of Plumpy Nut with my pocket knife, ripping them open for the mobilizers to give out to mothers and tiny, undernourished babies-- but Tilirou was fine with it, as long as we expected nothing of him.

Then the crisis hit: Benjamin's complaint worked its way through the system.  Police showed up at Santos' house and arrested him, because in Cameroon irritating details like investigations and habeas corpus are dispensed with.  "I saw Goody Proctor with the Devil" is about all that's required.

Now with the arrest, public opinion turned.  Until now Mandama had been feigning indignation, although actually titillated; now Benjamin had crossed a line, and people got angry.  As an outsider and a Southerner, Benjamin is already mistrusted.  In the days after the arrest I heard dark mutterings against him, and wondered if I was actually going to watch him get driven out of town.  There are no pitchforks here, but I'm sure hoes would do in a pinch.

Meanwhile, Santos had been taken to a holding cell, where there was a 3-day window before he was to be transferred to full prison, where he could spend upwards of 20 years in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic purgatory, waiting just to go to trial.  These 3 days were officially to allow the accusation to be rescinded, if Benjamin were suddenly smote by conscience or brotherly goodwill.  The unspoken subtext was that the 3 days were to allow family and friends to put together enough money to make the problem disappear.  As your average gendarme has a moral center that would make Boss Tweed blush, the question on everyone's lips was not whether Santos could pay his way out, but rather who was footing the bill.

The third day, to collectively bated breath, El Hadji Ibrahim-- Mandama's uncontested Don Corleone-- made a dignified departure for the prefecture.  That night the news made its way around  town: "El Hadji gave Santos justice."  I was told this sincerely, with no trace of irony, no indication that anyone realized what a mockery of justice this entire circus constituted.

The Santos Affair seemed to have blown over, but revenge is a dish best served cold, and Benjamin's gloriously public destruction was far from through.  A week later I was back at the health center, again distributing Plumpy Nut.  Suddenly a moto roared through the gateposts, its rider an avenging angel in purple weave and lurid orange pants painted onto thunderous thighs.  My four mobilizers stopped what they were doing and stared, stricken.  "Benjamin's wife!" one whispered hoarsely.  Pulling my village idiot act as usual, I was puzzled-- why should this strike terror into all and sundry?  Why was her demeanor so grim?  How nice of her to visit, all the way from the Littoral; was Benjamin not expecting her?

Several things happened in rapid succession: the mobilizers sprinted off to warn Benjamin, who was in the office.  His wife headed straight for the house next to the health center that Benjamin and the chief, Tilirou, share.  Benjamin came barreling out of his office, the mobilizers hot on his heels, as screams erupted from the house.  The Plumpy Nut was totally forgotten, as the crown of women there for the distribution shifted en masse to have a better view.  All they needed were tubs of popcorn and 24-ounce Cokes to make this a perfect afternoon matinee.

The one mobilizer who had stayed behind explained the situation to me as it played out before its rapt audience: The house is split between four people, he informed me.  Tilirou and his second wife use one side, and Benjamin and the village chief's daughter Rafiatou use the other.  Seeing that I still wasn't getting it, he hinted, "Rafiatou? Benjamin's... fiancee?", the more respectable term prudish Mandamans use to mean "lover".  Santos had threatened to call Benjamin's wife and spill the situation, but everyone thought he was just angry, no one thought he'd really tell on Rafiatou.

As though on cue, the chief's daughter appeared, barefoot and being dragged by 2 mobilizers with the help of hastily fashioned cloth handcuffs.  I half expected to see a scarlet "A" emblazoned across her chest.  Feeling that this was taking things quite a bit too far, I told the mobilizer next to me to at least fetch the poor girl's shoes, and to drop the pointlessly dramatic fake handcuffs.  He did so, and she was bundled offstage to the chief's compound, leaving the spotlight trained on Benjamin, cowering beneath a rain of shrieks and blows.  Hell hath no fury like a wife betrayed, and fury hath no more emotive actor than a Southern Cameroonian.

I had no intention of getting involved in the fisticuffs, but the undisguised glee of the rubbernecking crowd appalled me.  I snapped at the health mobilizers that this was none of our concern, asked them to please act professional, and began reading names from the register in an unnecessarily loud voice.  I was largely ignored.  Eventually the purple-haired wife made a stormy exit, leaving Benjamin to take out his anger by alternately throttling and drop-kicking an unlucky goat.  This might have been stand-up comedy, the way the women laughed, but animal abuse is apparently slightly lower on the public entertainment scale than the death throes of a troubled marriage.  Everyone gradually turned their backs on the hapless goat's bleats of pain, and I was able to finish the distribution.

Benjamin made himself scarce that afternoon, and I have not seen him since, which I thought was his choice.  In fact, I was later informed, his wife lodged a complaint, and Benjamin was arrested, on what grounds I'm not sure-- infidelity? spousal abuse? Both happen so routinely I assumed there were no laws against them, although maybe there are, it's just culturally unthinkable for women to hold their husbands and masters accountable for domestic violence.

As of this writing, I have heard Benjamin payed his way out of jail, but is not planning on returning to Mandama anytime soon, and has requested a transfer to a different health center, preferably far away from the Grand North entirely.  This will leave our health center with 0 nurses and a single absentee chief.

Top that, General Hospital

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