The inhabitants of Kribi, a well-known sea resort on the Gulf of Guinea, were hoping that an oil terminal linking Chad to Cameroon would solve all their problems of unemployment, poverty and isolation. But three years after construction began, little has changed.
Between June 2001 and July 2003, with the financial support of the World Bank, 1,070 km of pipeline was built linking the oil fields of Doba in southern Chad to the oil tankers stationed outside the bay of Kribi. The sea terminal, with a capacity to handle 225,000 barrels of oil per day, was inaugurated in October 2003.
The economic boom experienced by Kribi has, however, heightened the HIV/AIDS risk.
According to Cameroonian activists, members of the consortium responsible for the extraction and transport of the oil, had sensitised their employees with HIV/AIDS education, but neglected to extend it to the local population.
"The pipeline! It caused great damage and brought us misfortune rather than happiness," declared Louis Nzié Owona, a professor of accountancy at the Confessional College of Saint Joseph in Kribi, who also runs the college's AIDS committee.
"Large numbers of girls came from all over the country to follow the progress of construction, offering sexual services to the work force. They waited around every corner for them to spend their salaries on sexual favours," he added.
Valery Nodem, Coordinator of local NGO "Reseau de Lutte Contre la Faim" (RELUFA), told PlusNews: "With a project of this magnitude, we were expecting a campaign to prepare locals for such large influx of foreign workers, most of whom were better paid and generally single."
According to Nodem, Kribi's population has increased tenfold in a relative short period of time, with many houses transformed into brothels.
TOURISM: SOLE SOURCE OF INCOME
But contrary to studies undertaken in Chad - which showed a link between the development of the pipeline and the spread of HIV - no statistical data can confirm what most health experts were dreading: an increase of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, particularly among young women.
The small market town and its 50,000 residents are heavily dependent on the tourism industry, which attracts expatriates, wealthy Cameroonians from the capital and other large cities.
At dusk, motorcycles zigzag to and fro between nightclubs and hotels, carrying young girls in search of money or their soul mates. It is in these chaotic streets, alongside women cooking mackerel and cassava, where casual relationships are negotiated, observed Martha, a chambermaid in one of the numerous seaside hotels.
"Girls like the easy life, one day it's one guy, the next it's another one, all they're after is a quick buck ... it sometimes works, especially in the hotels," explained Martha who also admitted to being unhappy with the US $73 dollars she gets monthly for cleaning rooms.
"A woman cannot live without a friend, and while struggling to find money, one can end up doing silly things ... I don't always use condoms, it depends if the man happens to carry one on him when we do it, which is not always the case," she added.
FEW COME FORWARD FOR TESTING
Martha is not alone: very few people in the small market town have come forward to get tested, and the hospital has the only testing facility.
In Cameroon a state subsidised test costs US $1.8 dollars, expensive for most people, although the health ministry regularly sends technicians across the provinces to offer free testing.
In 2005, Kribi's district hospital was able to test 1,731 people, compared to 274 in the previous year. Despite the fact that the infection rate declined from 13 percent in 2004 to 9 percent in 2005, figures are considerably higher than the national average of 5.5 percent.
This is hardly surprising when "no public financing has been made available for the 20 or so local committees put in place by the government's National Committee for the Fight Against AIDS since 2004," Professor Nzié Owona noted.
He added: "In 2003, I received 500,000 francs [US $900] in order to purchase information material as well as to train our peer-educators and to acquire condoms for the pupils. In 2004 I was given another 250 000 francs [US $450 dollars] but I have received nothing ever since."
Nzie Owona acknowledged that countering sexual tourism was difficult when there was so much poverty. "If a girl earns 10,000 francs [US $18 dollars] with a tourist, what kind of job will she want to do after?"
Joseph, a family man who cleans rooms in a small hotel in the city centre, said that girls engaging in sex work were helping their parents, who were struggling to make ends meet "because of inflation caused by the arrival of the Oil Consortium".
Kribi is surrounded by infertile land making it hard to cultivate. Consequently all products are shipped from other parts of the country making basic daily necessities more expensive, even before the inflationary impact of foreign oil workers and tourists.
"Everything is expensive here. The solution is to cultivate our own food but to do so you need to get far out of the city, and that requires time, effort and resources. Nowadays the teenagers want an easy life, the one the tourists have," explained Joseph, whose 14-year old daughter just gave birth a few months ago.
"We know we live in a tourist town. I told her school should be like her first husband, but she does not listen. She knows she will find foreign tourists in the nightclubs and no work in Kribi. The oil is not helping. We only see it from afar and then we see it leave."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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