When I hear the terms “Africa” and “shithole” together, as I have for the past few days, I picture my bathroom in Njinikom, Cameroon. It was one of the best outhouses in Njinikom, and it scared me to death.
I lived in a three bedroom cinderblock house (pictured above) with a tin roof. Behind the house was a smaller building, a cinderblock kitchen with a cookfire. And about ten feet behind the kitchen, up a dirt path, was the bathroom. Tin had been hammered onto a somewhat sketchy wooden frame that sat on a concrete slab. There were two wobbly doors. The door on the right led to an eight inch hole cut into the concrete. That was, um, the potty. The door on the left led to a stall with a floor that sloped toward the other room. I’d carry a blue bucket full of hot water into this room and wash, using a tin cup to pour water over my head and body. The excess water would drain towards the hole in the floor on the other side.
I had an opportunity during my two year stay as a Peace Corps volunteer to try other people’s outhouses. There was an off-license (bar) that had a pretty nice one too, but generally speaking, most were a mere hole in the ground with a couple of ancient boards of questionable strength to stand on, and very little privacy.
Even though I had one of the best ‘shitholes,’ still, as someone who had always grown up with a flush toilet, I had issues. Cameroon is the home of the dreaded Black Mamba, one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. And, for some reason, for the entire two years that I lived in Njinikom, I needed to get up in the middle of the night to pee. This was not a problem before I lived in Njinikom, it was not in a problem after. But somehow the knowledge that the Black Mamba was out there somewhere, as was my latrine, made me desperate. I’d light my kerosene lamp, hold it low to the ground in front of me, and make my way up the dirt path to the latrine at about 2 a.m. every morning.
Needless to say, I never did encounter a Black Mamba. I’m here to write this blog post.
So yes, there were a lot of adjustments to living in an African country in the 1980’s. And some of those adjustments had to do with shitholes. But once I began to settle, I noticed something odd.
I had grown up in an agricultural town of 1500 souls (if you included a random cow or two). I realized that Njinikom, once I got over a bit of culture shock, was the same town. There was the town drunk. There was the postmaster who knew everyone’s business but was somewhat discrete. There was the town mechanic who could work miracles for very little money. There were a number of self-sacrificing, intelligent women scattered about town who made everything work smoothly. (They had supportive husbands who thought they ran things.) There was the town gossip. There were rich families and poor families, all mixed together, all knowing each other’s business. There were the concerned teachers, who worked long hours and sacrificed for their students. The children at the school all played together, regardless of background. It was my hometown all over again.
I had traveled 8000 miles to end up where I started.
It was a great life lesson. People are pretty much the same all over the world. What separates us is our system of government. Does the government provide access to education, health care, roads, trustworthy police, etc.? And, most importantly, does our government protect our basic human freedoms?
I was not a big fan of the president of the United States at the time (Ronald Reagan). Another Peace Corps volunteer in my village was. When I spoke out about one of Reagan’s policies at a party, my friends drew me aside and warned me that I needed to be careful. The other Peace Corps volunteer might report me to the government and then where would I be? I was putting myself and my family in danger.
Wow. Can you imagine living in a country without the right of freedom of speech? That night my home town comparison completely fell apart.
Don’t worry, I assured my friends. I can say what I want here, I can say what I want in the United States. We have freedom of speech. My friends shook their heads and walked away, convinced that I was dooming not only myself, but my parents and my siblings.
At that time I was young and, to be honest, a little smug. Maybe a lot smug. I had grown up in the greatest democracy the world had ever seen. When we erred, and we have erred, God sent us incredible people, like Dr. Martin Luther King, to show us the way.
Cameroon, like many African countries, had an old, corrupt, out-of-touch leader who had no respect for basic civil rights.
In my naiveté I believed that what happened in Cameroon could never happen in the United States.
The year is now 2018. And, once again, I realize how much I have in common with the people of Njinikom. Democracy, as it turns out, is not some huge fortress that withstands the swirling changes of time. And civil rights, apparently, have few protections in a democracy. One leader can be elected to a country and begin to dismantle the safeguards that it took over 200 years to build.
Let’s review those civil rights. The right of free speech (football players kneeling), freedom of press (articles critical of the president), freedom of religion (Islam given the same protections as Christianity), freedom of assembly (our president and I agree on this one, even racists do have a right to assemble), and the right to vote (without undue requirements for documentation).
So I want to get back to that word, ‘shithole,’ as used to describe African countries. (I know that a children’s writer really shouldn’t be using the word. But our president is lowering standards everywhere.)
The amazing thing about Njinikom. The amazing thing about Cameroon, was that despite a repressive government the people were wonderful. They had this ideal, this model to try for: the United States. Looking at our country, they knew what a democracy should be. They were striving, just like we all do, for a better life for their children.
What pains me the most about the Trump presidency is that this light, the world’s beacon of freedom, is being extinguished.
Every freedom fought for and earned by our forefathers is now under attack. The truth is under attack. And our country’s president stokes his followers by making casual racist remarks. And then denies them.