Lambert Mbom

Of the many booths, I did not visit during the Aid and International Development Forum last July 2010, the Standard Bank of South Africa was unfortunately one. Given my initial attraction to this event namely to meet potential employers and make a pitch or better still to discover the topography of International development, in my wild dreams, this booth was then a wild cat. With no qualifications to serve even as a security guard at a bank, this was no match for me. What would a “broke” man like me be doing at a bank anyways?

Quite frankly, though there is no minimizing of the fact that my antipathy towards this booth was upped by the rather shocking fact that it was manned by some black folks. Come to think of it, we blacks have been greatly jaundiced. We seem to enjoy a bad press, if I may be colloquial here, especially in managing banks and financial institutions. Think about the many scamming schemes hatched and executed from motherland, or now commonplace money-doubling business to name but a few. They are nothing to compare with money laundering and other financial white collar crimes that are rife in our world. Yet, if you are like me, you would also have wondered whether these were not just a bunch of scammers, some con men with sweet as honey tongues to lure the unsuspecting.

My hesitancy was also greatly fuelled by the fact that I imagined the target audience for this bank was more for donors and aid agencies in need of a standard bank even if not chartered to vouchsafe the financial sustainability of their agenda. Prejudice got the best of me and I missed savoring an African pudding.

My search for “Africanness” in the development game after the Aid and International development forum brought me to this 148 years old banking institution – The Standard bank of South Africa. I was quite enthralled reading its rich history.

For all my thirty-some years in Africa, I never had the pleasure of banking. My dad surrendered to me a Post Office Savings’ Account he had opened for me while I was young. I cannot remember how much was in it but know I did not try to grow it; a decision I have never regretted for before long this savings scheme collapsed. This is just the fate of many such institutions which rise today and fall the next day.

As a matter of fact, the few times I visited a bank was with my beloved mum to pick up her salary which was to serve for groceries as we would matter-of-factly then go ahead to the market. Regrettably, I enjoyed the safari tours to the bank but failed to draw the lesson she meant to impress on me. By the way, I have never understood why she moved from the Treasury to BICIC then SCB – Credit Lyonnais and I think wound up with National Financial Credit. This is surely not unconnected to the familiar poor customer service wont of some of these institutions. Those French acronyms should also have something to do with it. This is only my poor guess. Sad enough, it has been a labyrinthine journey just to be able to get the paltry sum given to teachers as salary. 

As I grew older, I remember the few times I went to the bank was to visit friends and either beg or borrow or expressed more politely, curry for some favors. These favors were not from the bank but from my friends working there. After all, if they keep all that money, they too cannot but be cognately “moneyee” or in some jargon “casheous”.  As to whether I ever repaid them what I borrowed, that is a topic for another session and your guess is as good as mine. Then Christmas of 2003 gave me an opportunity as I went in to the Western Union to cash a gift a priest friend of mine had sent to me. You can imagine the airs I put on and the majestic way I strolled out of that bank with everybody around me being suspect. The whole world seemed to be rotating around me with the meager 250.000fcfa I had bagged.

My first real bank transaction was in the US where I had the privilege of a checking account and a savings account. I was also able by some stroke of luck to land a credit card two years later which I soon maxed out, got burnt out and today credit now is niet. Clearly, excitement got the better half of me and it sure will take me a long time for me to bounce back. Credit without proper education in personal financial management is a recipe for disaster. The disastrous effect of this is felt when one needs to rent an apartment, buy a house, buy a car etc then the hydra-headed monster of credit score rears its ugly head.

One thing which is clear is the fact that my story is not an exceptional fairytale. The banking culture in many African countries is no different. I cannot help but recount the story of the famous Nigerian comedian – Chief Zebrudaya whose wife bugged him for a new mattress so much so that one day he decided to treat her to a pleasant surprise. He discarded the old mattress and put it to flames and replaced it with a more comfortable sleep-luring one. When Ophelia, Chief Zebrudaya’s wife, came home, the husband was all smiles and broke the good news to her. Instead of celebrating, Ophelia was restless and frantically searched around for the discarded mattress. When she was told that this had been burnt, she almost collapsed as she recounted that she had hidden her life’s savings in this mattress.

The pipe smoking old man who got up in the morning to discover that the paper he had rolled for his tobacco and piped off was his lone two thousand fcfa bill. This surely strikes a familiar chord.

There is no denying it that banking in Cameroon is reserved for the few rich barons especially business gurus. Most civil servants also receive their salaries through banks. Banking itself became a vibrant “business” in the insatiable “bush-falling” industry as “dokimen” eked a living from “waxing” bank statements for unsuspecting clientele to take to the embassy. When embassies started calling banks to verify the bank statements, some bank managers made a big scoop as they welcomed many in desperate demand for these statements.

The history of banking in Cameroon is a sad tale. The recent Ponzi scheme in Kumba that hit the news waves last year where a coterie of Nigerian con men duped Cameroonians in Kumba to a luscious savings scheme with windfall profits. Many fell in to the deal and soon and very soon in deed K-town and its notorious feymania had been beaten in its own game on home turf as the entire  town was reeling.

In the wake of the post financial meltdown, fueled in large part by the banking sector, increasingly the argument is being made every day in the US that banks should be able to lend to small business entrepreneurs so they can grow their businesses and a fortiori the economy. It is a key, in fact, a master-key in growing jobs in America. Yet we cannot forget the sad truth that the sub-prime mortgage scandal where many people got approved for mortgages they could not afford led the banks to the cataclysmic meltdown. And talking about mortgages, there is an interesting pattern amongst immigrants who have not learnt to cut their coats not according to their sizes but according to their cloths. High foreclosure rates are the sad repercussions. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon.

Southern Cameroonians revel and regale in stories about Cameroon Bank – a typically Anglo-Saxon bank that thrived before the coming of the francophone. One major cause for bank failures is undoubtedly poor management of the loan scheme. Loans given to a government run by a gang akin to the legendary Ali Baba and the forty thieves or to people not because they are credit-worthy but because of their status in society, or because they know people who know people. Risky loans saw the demise of this financial juggernaut Cameroon Bank and today Southern Cameroonians can only hanker after the fleshpots of the past.

In our time came Amity bank born amidst great promise and fanfare. It sailed tall for a while and then bedeviled by the personality feuds between Tasha and “smooth criminal” Bongam among others, it fell from glory. Today, it is a mere shadow of itself.

There is no doubt that one of the major drawbacks to formal banking in Cameroon is  the popular “njangi” – the most basic form of which is the pooling together of people who together agree on a fixed amount to contribute in a given time frame with monthly being most common and on the basis of a random system mostly balloting, one person is given the contributions of the other.

If there is any classical example of the truth that history repeats itself it is the recent instance in DC of a group of unsuspecting economic brokers who got together for a njangi with the famous Bongam, or notorious maybe. He is said to have flooded the list with his own names unknown to the others, most of which by some rather intriguing mafia came up early so much so that after the others had contributed month after month and given to him when it came to his turn to contribute he began defaulting. Then the lid was taken off the pot much to the chagrin of the others who realized they had just fallen into a scam. I hear some people lost as much as $16.000. Wonders shall never end.

A formal form of this “njangi” is with the popular credit union. They have left their marks in serving especially rural communities. Proof of their success story is the creation of the credit union bank called Union Bank. One rightly wonders whether other retail banks can stand the finesse of these credit unions which are more credit accessible, have record low-interest rates on loans and more people friendly.

It is against this backdrop that the story of the Standard bank of South Africa stirred my sixth sense. I am no expert in financial matters but still reserve the privilege to be able to showcase a good financial institution such as the Standard Bank of South Africa. Among the many things that fascinated me about this bank, the most distinctive was its sustainable development portfolio. It is a compelling blueprint and quite transformational.

(To be continued)