A few thoughts regarding children, and running: The other day I went for a run after training. I saw my host sister Nanou before I left, and told her I was going to “faire le sport”, the ubiquitous term that covers running, playing soccer, working out, or otherwise engaging in exercise. When I got back 45 minutes later, Nanou came running out of the house to meet me. She had changed into a full soccer uniform and told me that she, too, was fairing le sport. Hiding a smile, I asked if she wanted to stretch with me. Giggling, she clumsily copied what I did, as I gave her tips on stretching different muscle groups that I’m quite sure she has already forgotten. Some neighboring girls, Jamila and Seraphine, ambled over to watch. They are used to me doing weird things, besides which I’m older; but Nanou is their peer, and they kept teasing her, asking her what she was doing and giggling as she lunged and wobbled from one position to the next. Usually quite sensitive to their opinions, this time Nanou could not be dissuaded; so proud was she to be in on what we were doing together that she merely turned her nose up at the other girls and informed them that we were fairing le sport, thank you very much. While I’m sure this is not an unusual anecdote for those with younger siblings or nieces and nephews, it was the first time I’ve seen so visibly the signs of my influence on another person. It was a great feeling to know that I was influencing her to exercise and take care of her body, and teaching her not to buckle to peer pressure, to boot.
|Nanou: a self-portrait (or, why it's counter-intuitively a great idea to give kids cameras)|
Later in the week I had a similar experience. I had taken a long run in the direction of les champs, the fields several kilometers outside of town that people who live in Bokito cultivate. As I was turning back, a little girl in a school uniform started chasing me. I slowed down to let her catch up and asked if she wanted to run with me. Her name was Princesse, and she was six years old. We couldn’t have run more than a few meters before she peeled off, but she had a bright grin plastered on her face. It was a sweet moment. I enjoy that there is no fear of strangers here; children are far more willing to play than kids in a city like New York.
On the other hand, I am not down with the unshakable perception of white people as Santa Claus. That’s the other side of the fearless-children coin: the grubby kids who come running up, hands outstretched, screaming for gifts. “Donne-moi les bonbons! Donne-moi le yaourt! Donne-moi les galettes! Cadeaux ! Cadeaux !” I guess I understand where they’re getting it (the past 200 years of history, for one), but it’s no less demoralizing.
I’ve also had a hard time getting used to the impossibility of anonymity. As much as I knew to expect to stick out all the time, always, it’s wearing me down more than I thought it would. No matter where I’m going or what I’m doing, I can count on hearing “Oh! La blanche!” shouted at me by seemingly everyone I pass. Sometimes it’s a catcall as I’m walking through the market; sometimes it’s a wavering gasp of astonishment, as though my interlocutor, cutting his grass by hand with a machete, had glimpsed the last unicorn. Most of the time it’s just a simple statement of fact, meant as a form of greeting. Cameroonians are, after all, the masters of statements of the obvious: “You’re here? I’m here.” So maybe I’m being more sensitive to it than I need to be; maybe I need to take more care to see things from another perspective than my own.
In other news, we did a segment on malnutrition this week and actually went into schools to measure kids’ height and weight and check for edemas and anemia and a couple other things. I loved it. It was a great experience to actually interact in French with Cameroonian children other than my host sister and the neighbors. Even though we were doing pretty cursory measurements, it felt like we were doing something more substantial and concrete. I am also pretty sure I gave myself conjunctivitis, as I was manning the eye exam table (I’m mostly joking, but partially not. And now paranoid of crusty eye boogers.) At any rate, I'm looking forward to working with health clinics to do this kind of campaign.