Monday, January 28, 2013

The General's Last Stand

As a Peace Corps regional meeting required me to go out of town this weekend, and I am too shamefaced to ask a Cameroonian to petsit my rooster, I had determined that Wednesday—market day—would be The General’s Day of Execution.  The timing was perfect.  I would buy what vegetables I could fresh, prepare the bird, have a lovely cross-cultural eating experience with my neighbors, and leave town Thursday with a clean larder, yard, and (hopefully) conscience.

To this end, Monday I marched across the street to El Hadji Ibrahim’s compound and collared his youngest wife, HadjaKultchimi.   Kultchi is a beautiful woman with liquid eyes and a prominent gold tooth which, taken in combination with her headscarf, give her a roguish air, as though she were a pirate who got stranded in the desert.  I think she speaks a smattering of French, but she always addresses me in Fulfulde, and is one of my sternest critics if I don’t reply in kind, so I plunged right in, refusing to let my lack of vocabulary be a limiting factor.

“I prepare” (this in the present tense, as I don’t know any others) “chicken flesh, at house of me, tomorrow, no, tomorrow tomorrow” (although as I think back, I’m pretty sure I actually said “yesterday, no, yesterday yesterday”, which might account for what followed) “and—I, me, chicken flesh, house of you” (lacking any relevant verbs such as bring or share, I opted for no verb at all, always a sign of strong sentence construction and clear communication) “and I, you, the children, eat” (although I might have said “drink”), “yes?”

To which, miraculously, Kultchi laughed and nodded.  I took her nod to mean, “I have somehow made sense of the gibberish you are spouting, and would be delighted for you to feed an inexpertly-butchered chicken, which will probably be tainted with gore, to my children.”

In fact, what I now perceive it to have meant was, “Oh dear, the white girl’s trying to talk again.  Maybe if I treat her like a gentle lunatic, she’ll foam at the mouth a little and go away.”

Laboring under the delusion that we were on the same page, I roped the lamido’s son into helping me do the deed.  A 17-year-old who drops by my house most evenings that he’s not playing soccer, Yusufa was scheduled for English tutoring Wednesday afternoon.  “We’ll conjugate verbs while we clean the carcass,” I magnanimously promised.  I clearly have a future in education.

Unfortunately, égorging a chicken is neither quick nor clean.  Like the lamido and his senior wife had shown me when I asked for a tutorial last week, I put one foot on the General’s wings and the other on his legs, twisted his head all the way around, and opened the major artery in his neck.  This required significantly more sawing than I was entirely comfortable with.  He let out one deflated squawk before the blood began to run, and I relaxed, foolishly thinking the worst was over.  It wasn’t.  Horrifyingly, he started beating his wings and twitching after his eyes had fallen closed.  One wing escaped from under my foot and wrapped around my arm, so like a feathery hand grasping for pardon—or revenge—that for a terrible moment I irrationally expected him to whip his head around, eyes flying open accusatorily as he breathed “Et tu, Laure?” at my treason. 

But Yusufa held him down, and soon enough he went limp.  I had boiled a pot of water to scald the carcass and loosen the feathers, and we plucked him between the two of us, Yusufa tentatively forming simple sentences in English.

Then came the butchering.  I had watched this, too, when the lamido’s wife did it, but hesitated, unsure how to proceed.

Yusufa pointed to the breast.  “Cut him open here,” he indicated.  I poked with the blade and succeeded in puncturing the stomach, letting loose a stream of undigested soybeans. 

“Umm… not quite like that,” Yusufa murmured, trying to be polite.

Under his amused tutelage, I sawed, hacked, and pulled the General into Purdue-worthy condition, if Purdue started leaving in all sorts of bits the average American consumer wouldn’t recognize, let alone eat. The next several minutes consisted of a repetition of my bemused “Wait, you eat that?” followed by Yusufa’s puzzled “You don’t?” For the record, I drew the line at the feet.

Finally taking pity on me, Yusufa offered to skin and de-bone the meat (which struck him as an odd wish on my part—didn’t I know you could eat the skin? Why was I wasting it?) while I chopped onions and carrots.

Unsure of the finer techniques of barbecuing or deep-frying a bird, I fell back on what I know and prepared the chicken the way I would tofu, in a vegetable-heavy coconut curry.  Yusufa, who would not enter the kitchen while I was cooking in it—gender roles here are nothing if not strictly defined—desultorily flipped through my magazine collection and played with my camera, then, finally bored, melted home.  Evening had fallen by the time I lugged the heavy iron cauldron across the road, feeling victorious. 

Ibrahim’s senior wife, Hadja Manga, received me.  She has a face like a crumpled autumn leaf, often speaks only in Daba, and intimidates me to no end.  I bravely launched into my broken Fulfulde script—“I, me, chicken flesh, etc”—but withering under her gaze, beckoned an older daughter to translate. 

Hadja Manga stared suspiciously down into the pot, poking at it with the ladle I had brought and sniffing deeply.  “Who prepared this?” she demanded, via Habsi, or maybe Hafisou. “I did,” I cried, eager for her approval.  “No, no,” clarified the girl, “who égorged it?” She acted this out quite theatrically with a finger across her throat, shoulders shuddering.  “I did,” I repeated, thinking maybe it was disbelief on their part that I was capable of such. 

Hadja Manga, walnut-shell face a mask, clamped the lid firmly on the pot’s contents.  “We cannot eat this.  Chez nous—the Muslims—the chicken must be killed by a marabout.”

In my defense, it is not entirely clear to me that halal rules on this point are either codified or consistently followed here.  The lamido is as observant a Muslim as most in the village, and if his wife’s a marabout, I’ll eat the General’s feet.  Either way, I think the butcher needs to at least be Muslim—a.k.a. not me. 

And so I slunk home, tail between my legs and pot of curry hanging ponderously at my side.  Determined that the General’s sacrifice should not be treated lightly and that someone should enjoy him while the curry was still hot, I gorged myself that night, taking the leftovers to my friends the nuns the next day.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dust to dust

The day started gently enough.  I slept in and skipped my morning run, instead making a Starbucks instant mocha from my slightly-delayed Christmas package (thanks, Ma! You’re the best!) and enjoying the cool morning air and the solitude.  Which lasted for all of a minute and a half, before three girls from the Mongol horde—excuse me, El Hadji clan—appeared, little noses pressed against my screen door in an attitude that I find alternately endearing and obnoxious, depending on my mood.

But this morning they were being sweet, and as there were three (and not twenty), I let them in and set them to coloring while I worked on Fulfulde, using them to check vocabulary now and again.
And then my translator, Baigovor, appeared, and things got a little hairy.

We were slated to go up into the hills to some of the more isolated villages in my health district to do interviews and consultations.  He had insisted that we borrow a moto so that he could drive, rather than going with my friend Moussa, who is my primary means of transportation. I had assumed he was taking care of those arrangements.  He thought I understood that he wanted me to.  As such, neither of us had, necessitating a last-minute scramble, which finally turned up the least encouraging machine I’ve seen.  If it had been furniture, it would have been described as “antiqued”.  The seat was tied on with a red-and-white checked keffiyeh.  This might have been bearable, but that the road, which wound steeply up into the hills, had been torn apart by Sodecoton trucks barreling through to collect the cotton harvest.  After the second time the moto tipped over, I declined to remount, walking the rest of the way and meeting Baigovor at the top. 

Towards the end of my interviews in Ndouzeng, I was shown to the village’s main midwife.  We spoke for half an hour or so about birthing, malnutrition, and traditional healing.  As I stood to leave, she called me back into her compound, where she gifted me a rooster. He made a terrifying journey back down the mountain clamped firmly under my arm, thrice being almost thrown into the bush as I was forced to leap off the moto, or risk falling off. He is now hobbled under a tree behind my house.  I have named him The General. 

As we were pulling into the final stretch home, Baigovor abruptly confirmed that I wanted to see the cadaver, right?  Communication not being one of his natural talents, I probed further to figure out what on earth he was talking about.  Turns out, the lamido’s father-in-law died, and we were in the three-day period during which the body was displayed before burial.  Wanting to get the distressed and panting General back home, I reluctantly agreed, assuming this would be a villageoise version of an open casket, minus the formaldehyde and plus a baking African midday sun. 

Boy, was I wrong.

Imagine, if you will, a rag doll of enormous proportions, twice the height of a man and infinitely broader, arms and legs like couches, swathed in every kind of fabric—a sort of tribal fetish Michelin Man, the part representing the head bristling with porcupine quills, the lap littered with woven bowls, calabash gourds, and iron-handled knives.  This, propped up against the compound wall, was what greeted me as I walked up, having left Baigovor and the moto a respectful distance away, the General hanging by his feet from the handlebars.  I thought maybe the figure was a sort of giant gri-gri, a larger-than-life homunculus made to represent the dead man’s spirit, or something.  I looked at it curiously, then assuming the body was laid out inside the concession, I turned to enter.

The deceased’s daughter was standing in the doorway.  “Would you like a closer look at the body?” she asked, gesturing at the monstrous doll.

That was when I realized: this didn’t represent the dead man. This was the dead man. Somewhere deep inside the layers and layers of fabric—onto which a child was now clambering, reinforcing my couch metaphor from earlier—there was an actual cadaver, wrapped into oblivion, into an almost grotesque parody of a chief or warrior. 

It was a strange moment of cultural navel-gazing.  I was almost repulsed, but found myself immediately probing why: is it less grotesque to want to view an actual corpse, albeit powdered and made nice and surrounded by lilies?  It bears no more resemblance to the living counterpart than this fetish did to the man within; at my grandmother’s funeral, I remember thinking she looked like a wax model made by someone who had had her described to him but had never seen her in person.  They’re only different ways of obscuring death.  What lies wrapped in that rag doll is no longer the chief’s father-in-law, any more than the chemically altered, lipsticked form in my grandmother’s coffin was, in any significant sense, her.

That night that tamtams rolled for this man.  I could hear the drums and the shrilling cries of the dancers all the way from my house, late into the night. 

Ashes to ashes.

Allez, allez, allez!

Having spent a week and a half away from post for Christmas and New Year's (I intended to go home between the two, but withdrawing my salary from the bank took days more than was expected, and then my friend Shane invited me to a fete in his village for the coronation of a new chief, and then two friends were playing truant as well, so between one thing and another I consigned my compost to getting moldy in my absence and moved into the Garoua Peace Corps case somewhat indefinitely), I'm not sure quite how to approach blogging about it. A blow-by-blow seems boring, and a little overwhelming from my end; so instead I think it might be best to highlight things that stood out over the next few posts.

For the first subject: transportation in Cameroon. Having spent considerable time in transit from one volunteer's post to the next, I had some time to reflect on the subject over the last few weeks. 

Method the first: the moto. Motos are rapidly becoming my favorite way to get around.  Ensconced behind the driver, letting your thoughts expand to meet the horizon, enjoying the rush of wind in your face and the warmth of the sun on your arms: it's a much more enjoyable way to experience the savannah than being packed into a bush taxi like clowns in training.  In a city like Garoua, they're the only way to get around, and as it costs more to ride solo, you quickly become accustomed to sliding two or even three behind the driver, settling everyone's weight and adjusting helmets before signaling to the driver with a grunted "C'est bon" that he can pull into traffic.

As with most things in life, however, there are occasional downsides.  The taller and more heavily-laden the passengers, the greater the chance that someone will end up perched behind the seat on a metal luggage rack, which can be a harrowing and painful experience.  My friend Grant and I split a moto to the town of Ngong the day before New Year's, where we were to spend the night with another PCV, Bryant, before all heading to nearby Lagdo for the festivities.  Grant and I had spent the previous several days in Garoua and Gaschiga, and had been sharing motos with no problem, generally having space to comfortably turn and carry on a conversation while navigating the packed streets around the Grand Marche.  Now, however, we were burdened with backpacks and bulky market bags.  As we were coming in from the regional capital, it was contingent upon us to bring anything deemed necessary for a successful New Year's party but unavailable in village (namely, guacamole fixings and champagne).  Grant settled behind me and the driver took off-- but this time, all was not bon, and the three of us spent the next hour taking it in turns to squirm and shift our weight, trying to ease forward enough to give Grant some relief. The driver and I edged closer and closer to the handlebars, but apparently not enough, for after we flew over a particularly large hump in the road and landed hard, Grant leaned forward and announced that he thought he might have just joined the club.  “Joining the club” is Peace Corps slang for losing control of one’s bowels, an act that would be disgusting, humiliating, and ostracizing at home, but which is fairly common—even a perverse source of pride—in a country where typhoid, dysentery, amoebas, and worms are as common as a runny nose on a playground.  Still, it’s not something you want to hear from someone with whom you are in full body contact, so it was perhaps lucky for me that between the wind and the combined layers of helmet padding, I had no idea what Grant was shouting.  Assuming he was commenting on the landscape, or perhaps pointing out the magnificent sunset that had begun to bleed across the sky before us, I responded to the news that my friend might be sitting in his own filth with a thumbs up and a bellowed, “Great!”

(Spoiler alert: as it turned out, Grant had not joined the club, so we were both spared the sure-to-be-awkward clean up and recovery… for now.)

Method the second: cars. Whether you’re taking a bus or a bush taxi, you can be certain that one seat is intended for at least 1.65 bottoms.   This sounds horribly uncomfortable, but while I won’t say I relish the prospect, it ain’t so bad.  The body, it turns out, is pretty malleable, and once everyone has been slotted into place and sat on the appropriate laps, you find yourself relaxing into the framework of  human Tetrus. 

The one downside is luggage.

Amazing amounts of furniture, personal belongings, agricultural produce, and live animals can be strapped onto the top of a vehicle; where development has not proceeded sufficiently to bring overpasses, the sky (and not physics or the center of gravity) really is the limit.  However, leery of being the lone whitey on the bus, I tend to be overly cautious and keep my bags out of the car-top Jenga tower and on my lap.

Which is not a problem. Until I spend a week and a half being lured down the road to financial ruin by the glitz and glamour of my regional capital (apples! Oats! Chew toys for my neighbor’s teething baby! Fabric of all prints and patterns, including totally incomprehensible ones! These things must be mine!).  Overloaded market bag between my feet, backpack on my lap, moto helmet on my backpack, shoulder bag on my helmet: it was all I could do to hold a book aloft at an angle above my head, as though I were tendering the back row a view, or invoking the blessing of the Eucharist on my David Sedaris short stories.

The kid beside me, onto whose lap my water bottle kept rolling, tried to strike up a conversation.  This was the penultimate leg of my journey around the North, most nights of which had involved cramming three Volunteers to a bed.  I was exhausted, and really didn’t feel like explaining myself, my life story, and the U.S. government, yet again.  I kept my answers to a laconic minimum.  Yes, I lived in Cameroon.  No, I was not a teacher.  I worked in a health center.

He frowned at the book, Me Talk Pretty One Day.  “So… that’s a book for doctors?”

I should explain that leisure reading as a concept does not exist here. I thought about trying to explain the book, a collection of essays about the author’s life in New York and France—you don’t learn anything, see, but it’s fun—and gave up before I started.  “Yep,” I lied. “For doctors.”