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.

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