Friday, May 31, 2013

Little House in the Sahel

Next to my house stands a small, single-room hut.  The door opens onto the front of my compound, only recently transformed by rain and errant okra seeds from looking like the business end of a broom to something greener, a little less like the ravaged vista of a battlefield.  In a wealthy family's compound or in a city, this house would be the guard's shack.  Out here in village, it's mostly used for storage by my landlord, El Hadji Ibrahimou.  This incidentally includes the Dickensian storage of surplus children.  Having worked through four wives and spawned, like his Biblical namesake, children as innumerable as the stars, he is presumably running low on space in his own compound across the street, so several boys of the double-digits crowd have taken up residence.  For them, it's like living in a backyard fort; they sleep, as far as I can tell, on unsold bales of cotton, and get to stay up late whispering and giggling.  If you thought teenage boys didn't giggle, you thought wrong.  Dry season, during which we all slept outside, gave me ample opportunity to ponder this, in between calling over the fence to shush them like an irritable elderly relative.  (See all this valuable life experience I'm getting?  I'm now forewarned, and any child of mine who wants to have a sleepover will be summarily banished with tent and headlamp to someone else's property.)

Occasionally, this hut serves a second purpose: as a last-minute guesthouse for my landlord's business acquaintances. El Hadji is a construction kingpin who has snatched up about every building contract between here and Guider, as well as running some sort of vaguely defined "import-export" operation, and if that makes you think of the Mafia, well, your words, not mine.

The first time the shack was transformed into a guest lodging was a few months ago, sometime in mid-February.  A few Chinese contractors had come into Mandama to do something related to the electrification that has been promised every month since my arrival (and since the time of my predecessor's predecessor; I'm not selling my stock in candles just yet).

There is a well-established Chinese community in Cameroon, mostly here to work on infrastructure; as is the case in many developing African nations, it is only through Chinese government assistance and French enterprises that roads are paved, dams are built, and rural electrification achieved.  Their presence is viewed by Cameroonians with suspicion and hostility, if not open racism.  In my market town of Guider, where there is a Chinese hospital and therefore a disproportionately large population, even I cannot walk down the street without hateful children running after me, pulling their eyes into sideways slants and yelling "HEE haw, HEE haw, HEE haw!"  I would understand their confusion were I not six feet tall with blue eyes and sun-bleached dreads; as it is, I am forced to conclude that these kids are just ignorant and xenophobic.  Side note: a boy tried this once here in Mandama.  Furious at being so accosted in my own town, on my own stomping grounds, I wheeled on him and thoroughly chewed him out in every language I could call to mind, threatening dire imprecations against the next child who dared to greet me with a donkey noise instead of a respectful salutation.  While I never would have imagined myself as the kind of person who gets into shouting matches with 10-year-olds, losing my temper does seem to have been effective; at least, it has not happened again.

But getting back to our sheep: for some reason, after inspecting whatever it was they were here to inspect, all the contractors but one left Mandama.  The unfortunate crew member who drew the short straw spent the night, and the hut in my compound was duly evacuated of its juvenile population.

I went out to greet him that night, my everpresent shadow Yusufa in tow.  The guest had dragged a woven plastic mat onto the sand, and was seated cross-legged and bare-chested, his erect posture and impassive face (fine, call me racist, too) irresistably recalling statues of the Buddha.

I called out a "Bonsoir!", but his Cameroonian driver, seated in shadow, answered for him: he spoke no French.  I switched to English, and although a flicker of recognition crossed his face, he merely nodded in reply.  Uncertain, I turned to his driver.  "Does he speak English?" I asked in French.  He shrugged, unconcerned.  "How should I know?"

After a few more unsuccessful conversational sorties, I beat a retreat to the darkness of my porch.  "How terrible for him, not to be able to communicate with anyone here," I remarked softly to Yusufa.  Perhaps because of his age, but more likely because he's never been in the position of an alien before, Yusufa did not share my sympathy for the man's isolation.  "Most of them are that way," he replied carelessly, with the unfounded authority of teenagers the world over.  "They don't bother to learn to speak before they come here, and they don't learn while they're here."

The image that remains from that night was aesthetically striking, and has stayed with me: the Chinese engineer, bringing with him the knowledge of infrastructure and development that 50 years of independence have been unable to achieve but whose cost, depending on who you ask, may have been a devil's bargain; this man, starkly outlined in moonlight, folded into himself in complete isolation, his Cameroonian lackey literally lurking in the shadow behind him, as unknowable to his boss as the Chinese are to Cameroonians.

The second guest visit was last week.  I was chopping onion for a mango-avocado salad when the soft music I had playing was overwhelmed by a burst of radio static right below the kitchen window.  I was so irritated by the unneccessary volume that it took a moment for me to register the voice that had resolved out of the crackle: it was a British voice, speaking crisp Queen's English, informing me that Manchester United had played someone or other-- and now turning to the international desk, the volatile relations with Syria--

It was the BBC World Service.

If this doesn't seem like such a big deal, allow me to explain.  Radio waves are the one type of technologial emission that successfully penetrate over the river, through the woods, across the mountain range, and into the isolated enclave of Mandama.  People here have radios, although more often than not they insert a USB full of music pirated from God knows where-- a cousin's brother with access to a computer in Garoua?-- before hoisting their radio-turned-speaker onto a shoulder and swaggering around Members-only style.

Upon my arrival, I almost ran out and bought one, eager for any connection to news and the outside world.  I became dissuaded, however, after experimenting with my postmates'.  We spent a frustrating evening hunched over her radio by candlelight, Becca practically pressing her ear to the side while I slowly turned the tuning knob and adjusted the antennae, breathlessly waiting to hear anything resolve out of the static.  The best we could do was a single, poorly received French-language talk show-- ultimately too crackly to tune into for long-- and two channels bleating the aggressively nasal traditional horn music particular to the North region. 

So I had given up the radio idea-- until last week.

Laying down my knife and wiping my streaming eyes on a dishtowel (onions here, not having been selectively bred for sweetness, pack a punch), I ran outside.  Resisting the urge to simply snatch the radio out of the hands of the traditionally robed man holding it, I began inquiring in French: what station was this?  He haltingly tried a few words of English, so I switched to that language, but it quickly became clear that he was an old-school Daba, fluent in neither.  "Please," he stammered, "I speak English... poor."  Then why on earth are you listening to the BBC?  I wondered, but, sparing my breath, eschewed unanswerable questions.  Lacking any of the requisite vocabulary in Fulfulde or Daba, I felt the hot rush of desperation, and began miming for him to hand me the radio, unconsciously mimicking the motions of Cameroonian beggars.

And finally, success was mine.  A glance confirmed the station; I mentally noted the time.  At long last I can join the ranks of every good expat in the postcolonial world, and tune in nightly to the BBC.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A NY Yankee in the Lamido's Court

Last week the preschool in Mandama had its graduation ceremony for those tots who will be matriculating to l'ecole primaire next fall.

I'll go ahead and start with the positive: it was cute. Really, the kids were sweet, and they had little mortarboards made out of pastel-colored construction paper, and despite the fact that it was interminably long (even on paper, it was scheduled for four hours; I'm pretty sure my NYU graduation was shorter), I'm glad I was there.

Unfortunately, it also rubbed my face in one of the aspects of Cameroonian life to which I most strenuously object: the despised, classist system of protocol (hence my alternative title for this post, "Why I Hate Fetes and the Fifteenth Century").

"Les invitees", those notables and grands who had been issued actual invitations to the event, were seated under a thatched awning. Everyone else-- including the bulk of the parents, the people for whom this event is theoretically intended-- stood massed behind and around, craning to see the very small subjects dancing and shouting memorized skits in front of the rows of chairs.

About halfway through the ceremony, an abrupt gust of wind swept a sheet of dust across the audience. With only that harbinger as a brief warning, the skies grumbled open, and rain began torrenting down. Anywhere else I have ever lived, this would have been the following scene:

Thunder claps. Rain blows sideways in stinging sheets. Collective shrieks from ensemble.

Extra in the back row: Everyone run for cover!

Chairs are kicked over as entire crowd rushes for covered colonnade, stage right.

But not here in Cameroon. No, before this universal fight for self-interest could be enacted, the M.C. began calling through the loudspeaker. "Will les invitees please pick up their chairs and settle themselves in a seated formation in the colonnade before anyone else takes their places-- make room for les grands!"

I should explain that this was utterly absurd.  Had everyone stood and squashed themselves like sardines in an oil-packed tin, the space in the colonnade might have sufficed to give cover, but it was certainly not large enough to seat 50 comfortably and then squash 100 or so in the remaining liminal crannies.  Spatial reasoning aside, this caused a complete bottleneck, as those who had begun to sprint for cover before the M.C.'s orders paused uncertainly in the opening to the colonnade, only to be plowed into from behind by men hiking up their calf-length boubous with one hand and swinging plastic chairs with the other.  Children, ignoring the priority system altogether, ran pell-mell, tangling themselves into the legs of all involved.

Thinking that this was just stupid, I ignored the M.C.'s directions and avoided the colonnade altogether, joining a group of 12-year-old boys huddling for cover under the overhang of the preschool classrooms.

But this plebian move on my part was not to be. "Madame Laura!" the M.C. barked through the loudspeaker, ensuring that the entire crowd noticed my defection. "Madame Laura, will you please take your place among les invitees so that the protocol can proceed in an orderly manner!"

I shouldered my way bitterly among the crowd of parents who were still milling about in the rain until I found a seat by the lamido and his court.  Who cares if a few pregnant women and grandmothers got soaked through? The important thing is that the grands, the upper classes, those who really matter for undiscernable reasons, are comfortable and dry.  Let the proletariat squash their grubby noses against the windowpanes! We, the notables, will drink our champagne out of crystal glasses and dance the night away! (Okay, fine, that happened in Dr. Zhivago, not in Mandama, but the similarity to pre-revolution Russia-- to any feudal class system, really-- is striking.)

The storm picked up quickly, threatening to blow the corrugated roof off the colonnade altogether.  The rusty shriek of nails being pulled out of their sockets was mostly drowned by the machine-gun spatter of hard rain bulleting the tin sheet.  At this point les invitees were ushered into the safety of a preschool classroom.  We settled ourselves-- in the lamido's case, with comical dignity-- onto toddler-sized chairs, as the Catholic sisters who run the preschool circulated the room with plates of peanuts and bottles of Coke, overdressed cocktail waitresses at our snobby invitation-only party.  Meanwhile the parents huddled against the walls outside, wet and unrefreshed.

I began complaining about all this sotto voce to a friend, a Southerner who is far more educated and exposed to progressive ideas than most in village. He usually takes my side in this sort of grumbling. In this case, however, he shrugged off my outrage.

"It's the same all over," he pointed out. "Even in your United States!" If the president gets shot at, he challenged, who does the Secret Service hustle into the SUVs? The important people. Not the citizen shaking hands with Obama.

I drily countered that rain, albeit torrential, was hardly an assassination attempt, and that however self-important les grands of Mandama considered themselves to be, they could not quite be compared to the Commander in Chief of the United States of America.  But I have to begrudgingly concede his point. Wherever people exist, class systems arise; what was the point of Occupy, if not to point out this discrepancy in American political and economic life?

And I get the lack of incentive to change things from the top down. In some ways, it's nice to get special treatment.  Objectively speaking, I have done little to nothing for Mandama.  Sure, I give health talks a few times a week, but I haven't brought money into the community (nor do I plan to), and I haven't set up any permanent or sustainable projects yet (although not from lack of trying). There's really no reason for me to be honored; I haven't earned the respect of my community by any professional standards.  And yet I got to shelter from the storm and eat peanuts, and it was nice not to be pelted by hail and threatened by thunder.

But the distinction that I just drew-- the idea of earning respect, of deserving special treatment for some superior work or service (e.g., Obama deserves more security because he does a very important job for the country) is not a distinction that I think Mandamans are capable of drawing.  Many of the grands in that room with me have not earned their place there, either. They are hereditary notables, who may or may not do much actual work for the community; or else they are appointed bureaucrats, who often as not merely view their positions as a way to siphon money into their pockets and squeeze the populations they are meant to serve.

But the average farmer gives them unquestioning respect, because there is an unspoken belief that in some way they are inherently deserving of seats, and of shelter, and that the farmer is not.

And it is this underlying assumption that drives me crazy.  Not to get all Marxist class-consciousness on everyone (although I will point out that I wrote my senior thesis, all 50 pages of it, on late 19th century French socialism, so I am predisposed to this line of thinking), but THIS is why I hate living in the fifteenth century. This is what I know I will never change about Mandama, but long to: the lack of dignity and worth afforded to the subsistence farmers, and the brazen assumption of authority by those born into relative wealth.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Notes from the Peanut Gallery

D'abord, let me thank everyone who responded to my last post, either by comment, email, or Facebook.  I was overwhelmed by the kindness of people who immediately reached out with love and support.  It was incredibly encouraging, especially as blogging sometimes feels like unspooling the thread of your thoughts into the faceless void of the Internet-- so thanks, those who picked up that thread and gave it a tug.  I was also interested to see that I seem to have touched a chord in more than one fellow PCV.  I'm glad to know I'm not alone, and would love to continue the dialogue my frustrated ranting has opened.  If we're all beating our heads against the same walls (and have been doing so for 50 years...), it would seem some re-evaluation of what we're doing and the way we're doing it might be in order.

On a lighter note: two things happened in the last few days that made me happy.  The first was the long anticipated arrival of The Rains.  Not to keep hammering this dry season business, but seriously, I was starting to feel like Simeon awaiting the consolation of Israel, or something-- Lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for after 87 years of waiting mine eyes have finally seen thy salvation. (Or, in this case, a solid torrential flash flood, which seemed pretty Messianic yesterday afternoon when it arrived.)  Thunder had been grumbling petulantly in the distance all day, but the last three times it threatened to rain, it was just a fake-out, so I didn't have my hopes up.  I had walked out into the square in front of the mosque next to my house, hoping to catch Idi, my all-purpose handyman, on a matter of my screen door latch.  Suddenly, and with no warning, the heavens were rent asunder (and yes, this dramatic language is fully justified; it was a dramatic business) and water bucketed-- poured-- thundered-- language gapes uselessly to describe the action of the water that was released as some celestial floodgates swept open.

The square had been buzzing with its usual mix of children selling beignets, other children harrassing their working friends, the men who perpetually lounge outside the mosque, the men who lounge around the moto stand, the men who lounge around Idi's boutique-and-abattoir, and probably some more men lounging somewhere.  Men in village lounge quite a bit.  Suddenly, though, even dignified elders were hiking their boubous to their knees and making tracks.  Cameroonians, like cats, seem to hate getting wet, and there was much shrieking and shoving as the knots of people scattered around the square all tried to shove into the same small sheltered overhangs.  The square turned into a pond before our eyes, the sheer force of the rain after so many dry months totally overwhelming the ground's capacity to absorb that much water.  One child clowned around for a moment under the deluge before losing his footing entirely and faceplanting into the swelling stream; this brought a bigger laugh than any of his previous antics, and he ran off, unharmed and grinning.

In ten minutes it was over, and by this morning the roads were once again dry.  They tell me in village it will be a few weeks still before the rain becomes regular.  Still, to feel the downpour drenching my skin beneath my clothes was a primal sort of release, and I am happier for it.

My second happy moment was this morning, hitching a ride on the peanut truck to my market town of Guider, there to catch the bus to the regional capital, Garoua.  The peanut truck leaves once a week from Douroum, which gave me an excuse to spend the night with my postmate, Becca, and our friend Maimouna. This morning I woke before dawn, dressed in the dark, and slipped out to make the early departure of the truck.  Even with my care, I almost missed it.  The truck, a beat-up Renault, was fully loaded with enormous sacks of peanuts which were in turn covered with two tiered rows of villagers; the whole thing was lumbering into motion when I jogged up. "Guider?" The driver hooked a thumb towards the back irritably. "Climb up, if you're coming!" he shouted back.

As always in Cameroon, there seemed to be no possible room to fit another person; and yet, as always, everyone shifted imperceptibly in turn, and a spot opened above the back right set of tires. I ran around the truck, passed up my backpack, then putting my hands flat against the side of the truck, mounted with one leg onto the enormous tire.  Hands appeared to take my wrists, and between my upward momentum and a judicious heave on the part of the wiry arms that held mine, I popped up on top of the mound of bagged peanuts.  I settled myself the right way around, facing out with my legs dangling over the side a good eight feet in the air.  Someone handed me my backpack, which I strapped on to my front, and with a fug of deisel fumes we slowly lurched on our way.

For a few moments I chatted with the man to my left, a potato seller who knew me by sight from the weekly market in Mandama.  It had not been a good season for potatoes-- he shook his head-- but he did all right.  People in Mandama knew him.  They trusted him to sell them good produce, not to fill the bottom of the bag with half-rotten potatoes like some farmers would.  Having exhausted the conversational possibilities of root vegetables, we settled into companionable silence. 

Rolling through the bush al fresco affords all sorts of advantages over conventional travel.  The press of bodies, usually accompanied by heat and odor, is mitigated by the cool morning breeze.  Instead of falling into the usual half-dazed stupor that envelops me in an overpacked bush taxi, I felt alive and alert to the world we were passing through.  To the east, the last strains of dawn echoed faintly, like violin strings bowed at a distance.  I watched attentively as we rolled through hamlets: here two men were holding a cow down while a third prepared a knife for halal slaughter; there a child squatted behind an acacia to take his morning toilet, doubtlessly spreading cholera or typhoid or some other water-borne illness.  I watched as a baby goat landed feet first in a pile of ash, and sneezed; later we startled a bird out of a tree, and it winged swiftly away in a flash of sapphire wings and forked tail.

The ride was over soon enough, and I made my way to the bus station in Guider, where my early arrival allowed me time to savor a cup of chai, the hot, sweet, milky tea children sell, before boarding for Garoua.  It was a pleasant morning, and a pleasant change from the normal stress and chaos of travelling in country.  I do believe I'll be buying my ticket for the peanut gallery from now on.

A boy expertly pours chai (no relation to chai as we think of it, just tea) from one glass to another to cool it before handing it over to his customer.