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.

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