Thursday, March 14, 2013

All the World's a Stage

My introduction to the East region of Cameroon was an aggressive one. A colleague, Jon, and I took a car to Mvan, the area in Yaounde where agence buses congregate, fill up, and take off-- a sort of rowdy watering hole for badly abused vans and overcrowded buses.

As soon as the car stopped, my door flew open. A man reached in, grabbed my wrist, and pulled me out; meanwhile, his friend had popped the taxi trunk and was hoisting my backpack with one hand while hefting Jon's suitcase with the other. Cameroon has taught me nothing if not how to fly into a towering rage at a moment's notice, and I let the two have it, screaming back as they yelled at me and manhandling my backpack off his shoulder and firmly onto my own.

Jon was not so lucky. Still caught up in trying to pay the driver, and burdened with more bags than I, he did not move quickly enough, and his suitcase vanished across the street without him.

We took off after it, yelling, only to find the culprit calmly putting the bag into the luggage space below a bus.  Far from being thieves, as I had first imagined, these were employees of the bus agency, their job to convince customers by force to choose them over the competition. It's a form of persuasion, I suppose.

Our decision made for us, we got on the nearly empty bus, where we proceeded to spend four hours in the stifling heat waiting for the bus to fill up and leave.  When it finally did, the departure was a garrulous one.  Passengers yelled at the driver and each other, almost coming to blows over whether or not to open the window, or if the crackly sound system should blast Bob Marley or Trance Top 40 (to my delight, Bob Marley won out).  I thought wistfully of the polite, quiet Fulbe in the North, who seemed almost orderly in comparison.

A bit of backstory, to give some context to this departure from my normal state of affairs: due to security concerns in the wake of Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram kidnappings of French nationals in the Extreme North, I ended up with  an extra week away from post while I await a final decision about my status. As I was already in the Grand South for a training, I fell in with friends whose posts have been closed and who are awaiting reassignment and spent several days at the beach in Kribi.  Our vacation finished, I headed out East to visit two friends at their posts and do a little proactive post-shopping.  The timing worked out for me to celebrate International Women's Day with my friend Laura at her post, Diang.

I had heard Women's Day hyped for the last few months at my post in the North, but was unsure what to expect in the East, given the vast differences in culture between the two regions.  In some ways, women in the Grand South are much more liberated than women in the North; they can wear jeans, leave their compounds, hold jobs-- in fact, the mayor of Diang is a woman, an unimaginable feat in Mandama.  In other ways, though, women in the East are still just as subject to social forces that actively suppress them.  While they may not be married off at fourteen like girls in the North, they often begin bearing children that young; in fact, my friend Laura explained, for a woman to land a good marriage before the age of twenty, she should have one or two children already (paternity irrelevant), as a sort of test run to prove her fertility.

All this information swirling in my head the day of the fete, I settled into a seat on the dias-- reserved for grands, an uncomfortable position, but one that I've had to accept-- to watch skits being performed before the parade.  The women who walked out to perform were diffident; once the show began, however, they transformed, throwing themselves into their roles with a determination that was hardly amateur.

The first skit dealt with an abusive husband.  A young woman cross-dressed in a man's suit swaggered across the clay patch of a stage brimming with unmistakably masculine bravado.  It took a moment to register that her borrowed shoes were clownishly large. She treated the actress playing her wife cruelly, punishing her arbitrarily before stalking back across the stage to harass and catcall the other actresses with an accuracy that brought howls of laughter to the audience.  The wife's neighbors arrived and clothed her in International Women's Day pagne, helping her to her feet in a corny, but effective, show of solidarity.

The second skit was less cheesy, and if anything more bold, as it lampooned local officials.  In Cameroon power is often arbitrary and subject to a strict hierarchy; unelected officials demand and receive unquestioning allegiance, despite the fact that they may be corrupt, inefficient, and downright lazy.  Political appointees in Cameroon can divert enormous amounts of public funds for personal use and generally turn the law on their lathes without any fear of repercussion, or even loss of face. Given the cultural context of blind submission, these actresses were doing more than fishing for a cheap laugh; they were staging an audacious protest of the system as it exists.  Adopting immediately recognizable accents and patterns of behavior, they mercilessly mocked the mayor's harsh verbal abuse of her hapless assistant, Jean-- appearing in the sole male cameo as himself-- the police commissioner's alcoholism, the school board director's womanizing.  I glanced over at Laura, who knew and worked with all of these officials. Her face registered shock, but as she turned to me, her eyes were shining in delight.  "This is brilliant!" she whispered gleefully. "Although I think Jean might get an earful on Monday."  I glanced down the line of notables on the dias.  The mayor's face was a carefully composed mask; the commissioner looked thunderous.

The actresses wrapped up the skit by opening beers and toasting themselves, then scampered off, laughing, to roars of approval from the crowd.  The requisite parade began, village women tottering by in perilous formation, their would-be military precision hampered by Jersey Shore-worthy stilettos and Women's Day uniform pagne dresses.  Their eyes straight ahead, they swung their arms slightly out of unison as they sang an anthem to the country's Orwellian dictator: "Paul Biya, Paul Biya, notre president!"

So change comes slowly; but it does come, even if the Jeans of Cameroon have to be its scapegoats. 

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