This Christmas is far from merry for some in Cameroon. Traders are grumbling over lagging sales, families say inflation and lagging wages are stifling their holiday and religious authorities complain the season has become too commercial.
Christmas is one of the most popular holidays in Cameroon. In good times, it accounts for upswings in household spending on clothes, food, toys and electronic appliances.
Not many Cameroonians use the Internet for shopping. So, from the busy shopping districts of the country’s hyperactive economic hub, Douala, to the teeming hinterland flea markets, consumers are making last minute purchases in the countdown to Christmas day. Roadside speakers have been blaring from the first week of December, and shop windows, churches and beer parlors are specially adorned for the occasion.
Typically, traders begin planning in November, importing supplies for large crowds of buyers.
Shopping generally gets its biggest boost on Christmas Eve. In rural areas, many wait for the last “market day.” In urban Cameroon, the trend is similar. The week before Christmas is the peak of holiday spending, with wealthier consumers leading the way.
Over half of Cameroon’s close to 20 million inhabitants live in poverty. Many don’t shop until they’ve received their share of the funds from informal savings groups, or “tontines.” But a few wealthy Cameroonians shop well in advance; some even travel abroad to buy Christmas goodies.
But traders are reporting lagging Christmas sales; they complain that singles, childless couples and non-Christians are trimming their budgets.
Nana Alphonse, a Douala-based importer, says he will likely incur losses this year and be stuck with left-over seasonal goods for the next 12 months. He says times have changed dramatically. He imported two containers of Christmas goods and is stuck with three-quarters of them.
Economists blame the situation on the failure of wages to keep up with rising inflation and slow growth brought on by the global economic crisis. As a result, the notion of buying Christmas gifts is losing some of its sparkle as consumers watch their pennies.
Many household breadwinners are feeling the pain. Some say their spouses are threatening divorce and their children are on the verge of uprising.
Atem Amos is a father of six in the capital, Yaounde. He says:
“Young man, don’t disturb me. In fact, I’m hard up; so I cannot even answer you. I don’t have money. You know that people had too many problems this time around, so I could not prepare for Christmas. You know we had too many family problems – illnesses, death celebrations and so on. You know Christmas [is a yearly event], so [there is always next year]. “
Most of the Christmas goods for sale are foreign.
Economists predict that once again, Chinese traders will wind up with bigger smiles on their faces than local competitors. Sources at Cameroon’s biggest port in Douala say containers from China far surpass those from France and Nigeria. And on streets across the country, hawkers are brandishing mostly Chinese clothing, artificial Christmas trees, electronics and decorations.
Jean Christian Akam, a journalist specializing in economics, says:
“Of course, we notice that most of these imported products are Chinese. So it’s like Cameroon is becoming day by day a hundred percent market for Chinese products. Everybody can see that in the market, we have mostly products that are imported. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have [a manufacturing sector] that can compete with imports.”
But not all sectors are suffering from an anemic buying season.
Cameroon’s public transport sector is ready to welcome thousands criss-crossing the country for family reunions, weddings and funerals.
Breweries are preparing to receive revelers on drinking sprees at beer parlors, nightclubs and other entertainment venues. And hospitals and clinics are preparing to receive indulgent drinkers and eaters, and as well as victims of road accidents and robberies.
The religious community is reacting to what it sees as the corruption of the holiday.
Rev. Philemon Nfor of the Cameroon Baptist Convention points the finger at those he says are behind the holiday’s creeping consumerism – pagans:
The commercial aspect is so [strong] that there are people who actually get indebted because they are trying to celebrate Christmas. It must be because the world has entered a lot into the church, and also capitalism.
Nfor says pagans are joining the church and bringing their materialistic influences with them. He says the only answer to that is better preaching. He thinks Cameroonians should focus on the spiritual renewal that he says the birth of Jesus implies.