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When We Watch Others Die 

By Clovis Atatah In Vienna, Austria

Last week, some sub-Saharan African delegations present at the G8 Summit in Deauville, France, left disappointed because this time around their part of the world was not the focus of the aid attention of the richest countries on the globe. G8 powers were more concerned about the Middle East, where ongoing political upheavals pose a serious challenge to global economic and security stability.

Although G8 promises of aid to Africa south of the Sahara in the past have not always been kept, it is doubtful that corrupt dictatorships in Africa have used the little money they received well. But that is not even my major concern. I am more concerned about the more soul-searching question of whether the people of Africa deserve sympathy from anybody.

If Cameroon, whose nationals boast about their country being "Africa in miniature", were in fact a microcosm of the continent, I would say that many Africans should be ashamed of themselves for expecting assistance from the so-called rich, industrialised countries. But since my knowledge of many African countries is rather limited, I will focus on Cameroon.

My view is that the comportment of many Cameroonians, especially in the urban areas, complicates the moral imperative of assistance to some of those in need. My reasoning is simple: If you are not compassionate, you should also not expect compassion from others. And my observation is that compassion is in very short supply in Cameroon.

As I write this article, nightmare images of the sufferings of people in need of emergency attention in Cameroon are flashing through my mind. I recall cases of accidents where people formed human rings around the scenes and indifferently watched victims wailing, groaning, crying for help and bleeding to death, as if accidents were theatres for their viewing pleasure.

I recall the case, a few years ago, of a child knocked down by a car near my Cité Verte residence in Yaounde, with onlookers theorising about the cause of the accident, while the child lay on the tarmac groaning and bleeding. It took the intervention of a foreigner living in the neighbourhood for this child to be taken to hospital.

Some years back, I was in the vicinity of an accident in Buea, in which a child fell from a guava tree after he was seized by an epileptic fit. I am proud that I rushed to the child’s assistance and accompanied him in a hired car to hospital.  But I also recall with sorrow that despite the presence of many onlookers, no other person agreed to join me in that car, which would have made helping this child so much easier.

At the hospital, the medical personnel present showed no sign of concern, despite the obvious pain of the child. I was asked to go and register the child elsewhere on the hospital premises and pay some money before a nurse could even take a look at the child. There was a heart-rending case in Limbe involving somebody I knew, which is just one of many similar cases. A young man was involved in a road accident on a Saturday breaking Sunday.

He was taken, unconscious, to the Limbe Regional Hospital where, incidentally, he was doing voluntary work. Nobody attended to him until Sunday evening when he passed away. In a hospital where he was offering his services virtually for free! Who is that Cameroonian who does not know of a relation, friend or acquaintance who died because others in a position to help them in their greatest hour of need refused to do so?

Yet, the same people who know the tragic consequences of such indifference, and who complain daily of poor public services, see suffering people everyday, shrug their shoulders and walk away. I am referring to needy persons in general, not only to those in need of emergency medical attention: the hungry, desperately poor, homeless, AIDS orphans, people with disabilities, amongst others.

While I will always advocate assistance to those in need, I think it is only fair to also expect the needy to show compassion to others. If any person absolutely does not sympathise with the plight of others, as seems to be the case with many Cameroonians, that person surely does not deserve sympathy.

Over the last few years, I have been mystified by the increasing lack of compassion in Cameroonian society. This indifference probably explains why Cameroonians find it difficult to come together for any lofty cause. It probably explains why Cameroonians complain loudly of dictatorship, but are unable to join forces to kick out the oppressors.

It probably explains why holders of public office steal from the public’s purse with impunity. And it is surely the reason why the country is currently unable to produce politicians who look beyond their parochial interests. The Cameroonian soul seems to be in hibernation. I believe that for real change to happen in Cameroon, that soul needs to come to live again.

I am looking back with nostalgia at the time when Cameroonians looked after each other. I firmly believe that world can be recreated. It is not complicated. All it takes is to have compassion. That is not asking too much.