July 14, 2024

Simon Ateba: Long before COVID-19, I learned how unpredictable life could be in a cell in Cameroon

When I was arrested in Cameroon and thrown into a dark cell after I was accused of spying for Boko Haram terrorists while investigating the living conditions of Nigerian refugees in Chad and Cameroon with grant money sent by Ford Foundation in the United States, I met some suspected terrorists in the cell.

Inside there, it was not clear when it was day time and when it was night. We defecated in front of one another. When someone got food, we all shared it. As someone who was now used to heavy fufu, amala or egusi in the commercial city of Lagos in Nigeria, the food impoverished family members were bringing the detainees was like poor man’s food.

It was like drinking water mixed with plants or leaves. It was tasteless but with no choice, I enjoyed it.

I had heard horrible stories about what happens to people in the cell and I could not sleep for days. But the guys there, they had been arrested so many times for other small crimes that they were really at home and cracking jokes.

Inside the cell, we were one. The small, poor man, tasteless food was enough for us. We had a common enemy, the person keeping us inside.

Just before I was arrested, Cameroon had passed an anti-terrorism act that gave broad powers to the military and the presidency in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon.

It’s been five years now. The Radio France International correspondent who was arrested days before me is still languishing in prison after he was given another decade in 2017.

I am not advocating that anyone here should go to prison as you may go there and die, but you will learn gratitude after prison and poverty more than you would ever learn many other ways.

You know, I have lived long enough, and got white hair by the way, to know that whether here in Washington DC where I am writing this, or over there wherever you’re reading this, the truth remains that I am so grateful I had all the experiences that I had and came out victorious.

I learned long before coronavirus that anything could end there and now. I learned to live for days without electricity and I learned to have all my money and assets in my back pockets for years. I thank God for poverty.

I used to think it was a bad thing that I was born in an environment that had little. But now, I realize it was a great experience. I have met people who worship food, who pay too much attention to cars, and other little things that can be here today and gone tomorrow.

They are so selfish that to give someone back home $50 even when they have it, it’s like their lives would just end. They have never been challenged and forced to eat dust to understand that even little food is a blessing. I thank God.

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