Monday, October 21, 2013

COS Season

September has turned to October, and November will soon be upon us.  For a PCV in Cameroon, this means it’s Close Of Service (COS) season.  The volunteers who began a year before me are now wrapping up projects, packing their houses, and trickling back to the United States to start the next stage of their lives.  It’s a bittersweet time, as I’m losing many of my friends.  Between evacuations back in March, voluntary requests for site reassignment, and early terminations of service, the North region is hemorrhaging volunteers; after this group COSes, we will be the few, the proud, and the lonely up here.  We’re slated to get replacement volunteers from the most recent training class come December, and having met the trainees, I’m sure it’ll be a good group; still, it’s hard to see people I already know, care about, and have worked with move on.

Watching my friends prepare to leave is a reminder of just how transient our services are.  It’s an impetus to work harder and faster, as in a single year, it will be me giving away clothes and boxing up books to take back to the transit house library.  In the last few weeks my mind has been turning frequently to thoughts of what comes next.  One night, in a frenzy of productivity, I drew up a spreadsheet of grad school programs, although I won’t be entering for another two years at the soonest.  When I let my mind wander, I find myself thinking about jobs, wondering if I’m nervously jumping the gun.

But mostly I wonder about repatriation.  Every volunteer has heard the apocryphal story about the RPCV who, their first week or month in America, starts crying in the toothpaste aisle because there are just so many choices, and what the hell’s the difference between Brilliant White With Breath Strips and Advanced Oxidation With Bursting Mint?  Can’t we just be happy that people care about dental health at all?  I’m excited when people in my village chew on sticks.  A volunteer who recently left Cameroon posted that he started losing it in the grocery store because the ginger was so large and clean (I mistakenly read his update as “a ginger”, and thought he was panicking over an uncommonly tall and well-groomed redhead, which would also be reasonable after two and a half years here).  Reverse culture shock can be a doozy.

More than the physical adjustments of America—paved roads; parking lots; said parking lots being hosed down with cleaner water than is available here to drink—I worry about adjusting back to Americans.  Someone told me before I left for the Peace Corps that all the RPCVs he had ever known were socially awkward.  I thought this was an odd comment, and wrote it off, but now it makes total sense.  We’ve been through an experience that has changed us in ways that can’t really be explained—and to make things worse, very few people will have the patience or the interest in what inadequate explanations we will try to give.

I started to experience this when I was home in June.  It was hard enough talking to family and friends who were genuinely interested in my service; I didn’t know how to fairly convey what life and work here are like without being reductive, or cynical, or overly flippant.  Volunteers become inured to certain elements of hardship—you have to be, or go crazy—so we fall into the habit of speaking casually, even jokingly, about the facts of daily life.  Death happens.  Diarrhea happens.  We’re all habituated to this.  For friends back home, death in the Third World is an unmitigated tragedy, and talking about your poop in detail is disgusting.  Thus we become socially inept. 

It was worse talking to strangers.  A few times while visiting old roommates in DC and in New York, I was swept along to happy hour or an apartment party with these friends’ current colleagues, none of whom I knew.  Things would start well enough, and then I would be asked, “What do you do?” or, “Where do you work?”, the social qualifiers by which we Americans group and rank those around us.   Reluctantly, inevitably, I would explain that I was home on leave from the Peace Corps.  I don’t doubt that these young urban professionals were mildly interested, but “mildly” is the key phrase here: they didn’t know what follow-up questions to ask, and didn’t really care about the answer.  What I was doing was different, and they felt obliged to make some recognition of this—but it came out in sweeping questions like “How is it?” or “What’s Africa like?” (What’s it like?  It’s the world's second-largest continent, made up of 54 sovereign states with over a thousand spoken languages.  It spans ecozones from desert to equatorial rainforest to snow-capped mountains to highland steppes.  I’ve never been to about 98% of it.  Saying anything about “Africa” as a whole, other than “It’s between South America and Southeast Asia”, is bound to be reductive and probably patronizing.) 

This came to a head in a bar in D.C.  I wound up in conversation with a girlfriend somehow attached to my old roommate Sruti’s social circle.  As the two of us walked to the bar to get a second round, she asked some vague question about Development and Aid.  I began to try to give a thoughtful, honest, comprehensive answer—but I should have known better.  These are not qualities we value, least of all in a casual social setting.  As soon as the bartender pushed our drinks across (an IPA for her; seasonal draft beer for me, a revelation after months of lukewarm 33 Export), she picked hers up and walked off, leaving me mid-sentence with my mouth hanging open, feeling foolish. 

We in America live in a soundbite culture.  We like our ideas in neatly compactable, polished catchphrases, even if in so doing we sacrifice the truth and nuance of reality.  “Peace Corps: The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love!” “The Developing World: You Learn So Much More From Them Than They Learn From You!” “Africa: They Have So Little, But They’re So Happy!”  This, and this only, is what is expected of me—and never mind that these are hopelessly pat answers that do not ring true with my experience.  Keeping it simple, keeping it surface level, is easier for everyone.

I realize I’m beginning to get preachy and holier-than-thou, and that’s not fair.  Perhaps I’m being too hard on IPA Girl.  For all I know, she’s fully aware of the complex nature of intervention in non-viable economies, she just (understandably) didn’t want to get too deep into the weeds with someone she didn’t know, on an evening when she was trying to relax with her boyfriend and his friends.  Fine.  But I—we, as volunteers—need to be prepared that this is not an anomalous response.  Somehow, we have to stifle our need to explain, because we can’t. 

And then there’s the other side of the coin: do we volunteers want to get into deep, sincere discussions about feminism, Islam, and family planning—or addiction to foreign aid, and how it stifles community initiative—or what our Biggest Challenge was—with everyone we talk to at a bar or in line at the grocery store for the next six to twelve months?   Probably not, which threatens to transform these indignant paragraphs to hypocrisy: I lament the fact that no one wants to listen, and all the while I don’t want to talk.  It’s exhausting to plumb the depths of this experience daily; what’s more, I had the nervous feeling every time I opened my mouth that I was now expected to be an expert on the subject.  On the contrary, most of the things I have to say aren’t that deep or original, and I’ve lost certainty about anything at all since coming here. 

This is an emotional, critical diatribe, and yet it lacks any resolution.  Since I just acknowledged that everyone’s in the wrong, I’m not even sure what point I’m trying to make, other than that going home again isn’t easy, and social re-integration is likely to be bumpy for everyone involved.  On the bright side, I have another year to ponder this, to prepare myself, to figure out what comes next and to try to pre-formulate digestible, bite-sized explanations for the Top Ten Most Commonly Asked Questions.

COSing friends who have weeks or mere days to think about all this: Ashia.  Du courage; my thoughts, sympathies, and jealousies (coffee shops! Public parks! Yoga classes! A job with a boss, clear expectations, and deliverable goals!) are with you.

Meanwhile, I’ll be here, nervously working on this spreadsheet.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Rural Electrification

Subtitle: How Lyndon Johnson Won Texas, And I Taught Children To Yodel Like Tarzan

In my free time I am currently plowing through The Walls of Jericho, a ponderous but well-written history of the battle for civil rights legislation in the U.S. Senate.  Historian Robert Mann notes, concerning then-Representative Johnson (who I’m starting to loathe; is it common knowledge that he went on to scrape his Senate seat through deliberate electoral fraud? But I digress): “The crowning achievement of his congressional tenure had been the acquisition of electrical power.  Nothing had meant more to the forgotten rural people of the hill country than the electricity he brought them with a loan from the Rural Electrification Administration in 1938… Electric power had brightened and simplified their dreary, rugged lives [and] won him their undying gratitude.”

I bring this up, although a passing remark for Mann—who goes on to detail Johnson’s time in the Senate and relationship with progressive Hubert Humphrey—because it proves a remarkable parallel to my life as a forgotten rural person in the hill country of Cameroon in 2013.

That’s right.  Two days before the legislative elections, written about below, the RDPC pulled a Johnson and brought SONEL, Cameroon’s REA, to my tiny village of Mandama, as well as to several other towns in the Mayo-Louti arrondissement.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have electricity.

True, this stunt achieved its intended purpose; Mandamans remembered upon which side their bread was buttered and solidly plumped the RDPC into the mayoral office in Mayo Oulo.  But more to the point: we have power!

I should temper this heady excitement with a dose of reality.  Electricity is only available to those who can pay for the installation of a meter box and counter; as these expenses are beyond the capability of most subsistence farmers, the number of houses on the grid remains, as far as I am aware, in the single digits.  In theory, the appropriate Ministries should have assured that the health center and schools got hooked in to the system as soon as SONEL installed it.  In practice, it will probably be years before any of the schools get lights, or the health center gets a refrigerator for vaccines (currently stored in room temperature Styrofoam lunch coolers). 

My landlord El Hadji, He Who Is Richer Than God, ensured that his was the first compound to be connected.  Since I moved in, there has been an empty meter box attached to my house—a hopeful and very premature investment on El Hadji’s part—but as there is still no counter, my house cannot yet be wired.  However, one of El Hadji’s older sons, Idi, trooped over a week or so after the elections with a solution.  He took a look at the tangle of wires that had been installed and declared that he could hook me up to draw from his father’s meter.

The electricity was all anyone was talking about at that point, and even a week after the fact it was still exciting news, so the feat of wiring a house attracted a small gaggle of onlookers.  I mixed a pitcher of lemonade, carried it out to the front porch, and we sat around sipping our drinks and watching Idi work, commenting on the probability of success.

As dusk fell at long last, after sending a child into my rafters, bringing over a younger brother to consult, and twisting every wire into every other wire at least twice, the magical—the impossible—happened.  The single fluorescent tube that Idi had installed in my salon flickered into life.  I leapt up, whooping, and a cheer went around the remaining bystanders.  The twentieth century had arrived.  I celebrated by screening Tarzan the next night for an exponentially expanding crowd of children; by the end of the movie, there were kids outside my door with their noses pressed against the screen in an impromptu standing room.  When the credits rolled and I shooed them all home, they wandered off in a happy daze, letting loose with Tarzan’s signature jungle cry.  The next day I was hearing yodels from the other side of the quartier.  I may live to regret my choice of films.

It’s been a little over a week now, and it’s incredible how electricity has changed my life here.  Robert Mann, although presumably extrapolating rather than speaking from experience, was not far off.  I haven’t had the chance to buy more light bulbs, but even having one means I can read, or write, or generally do things after 6:00 p.m. without hunching over a flickering candle or a single solar lamp, straining my eyes to see text.  I find I detest fluorescent light (the glare and the light temperature feel industrial), so I alternate between leaving the light on and voluntarily going back to candles if I’m not trying to read.  Call me a Luddite. 

At first I felt conflicted being part of the grid again—it assuaged my constant carbon-footprint guilt to know I was using no fossil fuels in the home—but being able to charge my computer, which I was never able to manage with my small solar array, is an undeniable benefit.  In the space of a week I went from inwardly scorning those volunteers who spend their service hunched in front of a screen watching hours and hours of television to being one of those volunteers, eagerly drinking in the second season of Newsroom and half a season of Firefly (incidentally, fellow nerds, why did no one ever tell me how good that show is?  How tragic that it only lasted 14 episodes).  Now that I’ve given myself a week of gorging, I’m trying to pull back from the edge.  Television can be great, don’t get me wrong, but it was also kind of nice to be screen free for the only time in my life.  I painted much more and read dozens more books in the past year than I ever would have had movie nights been an option, and I don’t want to lose that creative inquiry the minute I can re-glue myself to the boob tube.

I also find I’m more inclined to communicate when I can pre-write blogs and emails in word documents, rather than scratching them out by hand, only to be re-typed later.  I’m more organized about work when my thoughts about projects can be put into formal plans and spreadsheets, rather than jotted on stacks of loose papers and sticky notes.  Like many volunteers, I definitely get a perverse pride out of living in hardship conditions—but technology is progress, and progress is good.

It’s amazing, too, to observe how Mandamans react to this new and incredible resource.  I feel like I’m watching rural development happen on fast-forward; the excitement of electrification was the impetus that was lacking to spur local entrepreneurs into action.  A moto driver from the quartier traded in his helmet (figuratively) for an apron (literally, which I find totally endearing); he sold his moto, used the money to set up a little omelet shack with an electric burner, and is rapidly establishing himself as the go-to spot for hard-boiled eggs, omelet sandwiches, and hot, sweet tea.  As he’s set up across the street from my house, he even delivers, wearing his apron and a jaunty hat.

Next door to him, a sign has gone up: PHOTOCOPIES MADE HERE.  Upon closer inquiry, the sign is step one; step two, obtaining a copier, has yet to be carried out—but the shopkeeper is enthused, and I don’t doubt that it will happen.  His other neighbor has already sunk an enormous amount of money (by village standards) in a small refrigerator for soda.  I’ve asked if I can pay him to cool bottles of water for a few hours; he accepted immediately.  The one bar in town is talking about getting a fridge for cold beer, which would be a godsend during hot season.  Every day I see someone trundling by on an overloaded moto with the newest purchase from Nigerian electronics dealers: a television, a fan, speakers.  I wonder how economical these purchases are, given that everyone is constantly complaining to me about their shortage of liquid funds; whatever the wisdom, though, I can hardly deny the impulse.  I also bought a fan at the first possible opportunity, and fully expect to be stationed in front of it from February 1 to April 30, the parameters of hot season.

My favorite response to the giddy sense of possibility charging the atmosphere came from my best friend in village, Howa, several days after her family’s compound had been wired.  She and I were crouched outside around a wood fire, over which she was preparing fried beignets to sell across from the mosque, a daily informal employment she takes on to try to make ends meet.  Her husband Moussa’s youngest wife observed that the light bulb in Howa’s room had been left on, and advised her to turn it off if she was outside.  Howa raised her eyebrows and shot back: “Am I the one paying the electricity bill?  I seem to remember that meter box being set up in Moussa’s name.  When was the last time he bought clothes for the kids?  When was the last time he gave any one of us money for his food?  He says he’s too poor, but he just bought himself a television.  So I’m running up the bill.  Let him pay it.”  And waving a contemptuous hand, she turned back to the beignets bobbing up and down in their bath of oil.  I felt like cheering: the Industrial and Feminist Revolutions had peeked around the corner hand in hand.

Thus change happens.  I doubt it’s entirely good; despite my best efforts, I’ll probably end up watching more movies than I intend to (it’s just so easy!), and I’m guessing there’s more than one family that will rue that television purchase when the frugal months between harvests come.

But it’s mostly good.  And that’s enough.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Blog: Internet Sorcery Writing

As a traditional agricultural language with a severely limited vocabulary, Fulfuldé tends to be easy for the non-Fulbé speaker to pick up.  There are areas in which, like the Inuit and his famous 100 descriptors of snow, Fulfuldé soars to linguistic heights I had not imagined were necessary; for example, the verb “to harvest” can take one of many forms, depending on the crop, the season, the amount of rain at time of harvest, and exactly what’s being done to which part of the plant, and by whom. Religion has taken as its own a fair number of words from Arabic; folding clothes and folding a prayer mat use different verbs.

In most ways, though, Fulfuldé is pretty basic, borrowing any vocabulary that was not relevant 500 years ago from French—thus “fork”, “airplane”, “school”, and “bureaucrat” were sewn on whole cloth.  Sometimes, though, Fulfulde uses what common words exist to create remarkable talk-arounds, which make perfect sense, but still amuse me.

Fruit: bukkoy lédé, “tree children”

Puppy: bikkoy rawanduu, “dog-child”

Caucasian (straight) hair: gasa basgojé-basgojé, “okra hair”… because it’s slippery.

Market bag: waaka dada, “the thing that mamas put on their heads”.  This is disingenuous; mamas put everything on their heads.

Mean, cruel: nyadi, “bad meat”

Complain: wolwugo be holo, “talk noisily”

To cook meat: wulugo, “burn”.  This is the same verb used to describe burning trash, or burning the fields after the harvest.  Well done indeed.

Ink: dawa da’ché, “charcoal-tree sap”

Drown (sadly this happened a few times when the rains started; suddenly there was a river to bathe in, and no one knows how to swim): mayugo nder ndyam, “die inside water”

I should note that Fulfuldé varies pretty widely by region.  The joke goes that it was born in the Extreme North, grew up in the North, got old in the Adamaoua, and went to die in the East—where it’s so slangy and mixed with languages coming in from the CAR and the Congo that I had a hard time understanding much more than basic greetings.  By the standards of Maroua, where Fulbé intellectuals speak the Northern version of Queen’s English (Lamido’s Fulfuldé?), villageoise language is childish; there may be actual words for smooth hair, or ink, but here they’re explained conceptually (black like charcoal, runs like sap…)

I recently began organizing weekly French classes for women with a primary school teacher, Gertrude.  One of my first friends in Mandama, Gertrude and I had talked frequently about barriers to development and education in the North.  We recognized that women’s illiteracy and lack of dominant language skills is a huge impediment to their involvement in the workforce and their entry into higher education—in short, it is one of the primary factors keeping cyclical poverty in place.  Although neither of us are native Fulbé speakers—Gertrude is from the dirty South and loud enough to leave no doubt of the fact—she has been in Mandama for 6 years and is more than competent in Fulfuldé.  We decided it would be better for us to teach, as living examples of women’s empowerment, than to enlist a Fulfuldé speaking male teacher.  If all goes well, we will begin the classes in November, when the peanut harvest is over, using Fulfuldé as the language of instruction to teach French.  I’m sure this will vastly improve my Fulfuldé fluency—and I’m sure I’ll run across more charmingly literal word-chain descriptors.  Look out for them in the months to come.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Lessons in Zoological Anatomy

Even before coming into the Peace Corps, I had accepted that being polite and culturally sensitive in the context of Central Africa would probably mean breaking my several-year vegetarianism.

I never anticipated, however, whipping up a batch of fried intestines on a daily basis.

First, a word about intestines: people here eat them.  Not washed and stretched and turned into sausage skin, just straight, grilled on a skewer.  They’re a cheaper piece of meat, like liver, so they’re sometimes mixed in with better cuts; but if you want to save money, or just prefer the taste, you can request them at any streetmeat stand. 

I’ve tried pig intestine, once.  While out for beers in the regional capital with a few friends, one colleague ordered a plate from a pork vendor.  They were heaped into a pile, folded in on themselves in shiny pleats, like flowers made of dirty rubber. My Swiss friend, Alissa, speared a piece with a toothpick.  She chewed thoughtfully.  “I’m trying to tell if I can taste poop,” she remarked, a question one might argue should never be asked of food. 

Although I generally avoid meat when I’m the one directing my diet, I was intrigued, and felt compelled to try.  After all, I thought, when am I ever going to be served intestine again?  My friend Jeff, grinning widely, selected a massive lump from the remaining pieces, and handed it to me along with a plastic bag—“in case you want to spit it out,” he warned, hardly encouraging words. 

Deciding to go all in, I popped the entire chunk in my mouth.  It was the consistency of an inner tube (which makes sense, really), and had a strong flavor—not of poop, nor of grilled meat, but something all its own.  It tasted squiggly, somehow, to risk allowing my description to slide into synesthesia.  I suppose my face must have mirrored my ambivalence, because Jeff and Alissa started laughing, and Jeff urged me to use the bag if I needed.  I shook my head, chewing steadily, determined to force the unfortunately large piece down.  I finally managed to finish it, and washed the taste out of my mouth with beer, glad to think that that was the end of the intestine experiment.

How little did I know what awaited me in the days to come.

My dog, Scipio Africanus, has almost doubled in size in the two months that I’ve had her, and should get about twice as big again before she stops growing.  In some ways, this is good; as she gets larger and stronger, she can accompany me on longer and longer hikes and runs without becoming exhausted, as she did as a small puppy, requiring me to carry her in my arms the last mile or so. 

On the downside, her caloric needs are rapidly increasing, and the diet of milk, scant eggs, and occasional sardines that I fed her as a pup is no longer sufficient.  I got by for about a week allowing her to gorge on rice and beignets, but felt guilty that her diet was hardly equilibrated—so I bowed to the inevitable, and visited the butcher stand across the public square from my house. 

Despite the heat, flies, and charnel stench, this is for some reason a popular hangout spot for teenage boys and young men, who spend afternoons slouching around the stand, blasting a radio and tinkering with their motos.  With Skip at my heel, I made my way to the bloody table, where two young men were hacking up meat with long, dull knives.  I asked if they could save out any of the bad bits—the parts not fit for human consumption, which is a much shorter list of parts here than it would be elsewhere—for me to feed my dog.  They laughed at this, as my devotion to my dog (normal by the standards of any dog owner I know, but bizarre and unwarranted in Cameroonian eyes) is well known in my quartier, and the subject of much mystified headshaking.  But after a little ribbing, they agreed.  Just then, one of the butchers started shouting and shaking his knife at something behind me.  I wheeled to see little Scipio with her teeth buried in a cow hide that had been laid out to tan in the sun, trying absurdly to drag the entire thing, many times her weight, in the direction of my house.  Realizing that she had overstayed her welcome, and all too aware that the butcher probably intended to send her packing with a dent in her skull, I quickly gathered her up and made tracks for home.

But we have an understanding now, these butchers and I, and every day or two a child arrives at my house bearing a greasy brown paper parcel.  Inside is a disgusting mélange of bovine anatomy, which changes slightly by the day; some days it’s almost all gristle and fat, other days stretches of lightly furred skin feature heavily.  Once I’m pretty sure there was a cow nostril, although out of the context of a face, I can’t be sure.  A few times it’s been intestine—although those days I pay more dearly, as this, again, is a legitimate cut.

I tip whatever’s in the package into a pot of oil and fry it all up.  Although I don’t often eat meat, I am able to recognize that a steak on a grill, or a roasting chicken, objectively smells good.  This fry job never smells good.  The odor of the abattoir, along with floating particles of grease, lingers in the kitchen air even after I’ve cut off the gas.  It also doesn’t cook the way an actual cut of muscle would: gristle turns into hard lumps; connective tissue curls in on itself; intestines, studded with microvillae, pucker and become almost floral in shape.  The whole mass tends to turn grey, giving me the strange but vivid illusion (particularly with batches heavy on the fur) of stirring up a pot of baby mice. 

Scipio is happy with whatever I put in front of her, though, gnawing on lumps of gristle, pieces of hide, and the rare bit of actual meat with equal abandon.  Despite her bumpy start with the butcher, I think he might have developed a soft spot for her; every now and then she goes trotting out of the concession and returns with an enormous bone, which she proceeds to drag around the house in fits of deeply contemplative chewing, depositing these prizes in corners and under furniture.  I’ve never seen this happen, but I suspect during her jaunts the butcher is quite literally throwing her a bone. 

I’m getting less squeamish, too, as the days go by.  This whole past year has been an extended lesson for me, forcing me to rethink what and why and how we eat, not to mention the fairly picky standards I held myself to back home.  This is another lesson for me, in humility and practicality. 

I do go through fits of guilt—despite the low quality of her food, is my dog eating better than my neighbors’ children, who only get meat once a week, if that?  But even if she is, is systemic poverty any excuse for negligence on my part?  Dogs need protein; I could afford real meat daily, if it came to that, and certainly can afford a few pennies’ worth of offal; and in accepting a puppy, I took on a responsibility to care for her.  These are all questions that probably never haunt dog owners back home, who I assume buy enormous bags of Purina Puppy Chow with a clear conscience and no second thoughts. 

And who also, presumably, never have to visualize what a nostril would look like flying solo.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Governments Don't Have To Shut Down To Be Dysfunctional

Forgive me if I am flogging a dead horse, as I know I have mentioned this in previous posts, but the pace of work here in Cameroon is much slower than anything I was used to at home, particularly in New York.   Take this past week, for example:  I recently got back to Mandama after several weeks in the South training the new group of 54 volunteers who arrived in country in early September.  It was a fun assignment, as I recently celebrated my one-year anniversary in Cameroon—seeing the new trainees discover and respond to food, customs, and language allowed me to re-live that excitement, informed by a year’s worth of field experience.  Green and untutored, they thought me knowledgeable and integrated (which I’m not particularly; no more than they will be in 12 months), and I enjoyed taking them to a cabaret to dance, introducing them to 30-ounce Cameroonian corn beer, and hazing them with the curiously flaccid, sour baton de manioc.

Fellow PCV Katie Ouimet and I meet the new training class at the airport at midnight.

Night out in Yaounde: the trainees show off their moves at the cabaret.
Buoyed by their infectious enthusiasm, I got back to post ready to jump into work.  The whole first week, however, turned out to be something of a wash—this is election week, and anyone who’s anybody is working on the campaign.

I should pause to explain something about Cameroonian “democracy”, or what voting looks like under a dictatorship.  There are two levels of elections that will take place this Monday, legislative and municipal.  President Paul Biya’s ruling party, the RDPC, is on the ballot for all open seats, and there’s really no question that they will win.  In the absence of term limits, a party pick wins a seat and holds onto it indefinitely.  

Furthermore, there are no candidate’s names on the ballot, only the party.  Once the RNDP secures their victory, an appointed board of counselors chooses who will become mayor, or representative, or senator.  The voter can have no idea who he or she is supporting; the cult of personality is such that I have been told several times that someone is voting for Paul Biya, or that Paul Biya will win.  That the presidential elections won't take place for several years seems an irrelevant fact.

This does not mean that the party forgoes the pageantry of campaigning, however.  This whole past week, the RDPC has been using its considerable war chest to hold rallies, distribute shirts, and plaster the village with banners and posters.  Like Mussolini in Fascist Italy, Paul Biya’s benevolent (albeit 30 years younger) face beams down at us, from trees and boutiques and the sides of houses.  Illiterate women who understand politics tenuously at best sport cheap LEGISLATIVES 2013 T-shirts, which remind the wearer and the viewer that the RDPC is “The People’s Choice”.  The fledgling opposition party, the UNDP, also held a rally last Wednesday; by all accounts, it was a poor showing, with a skeleton budget (“There wasn’t even a megaphone,” scoffed an unexpectedly elitist observer in my quartier, “they just had to yell.  Quels villageoises!”), and definitely no T-shirts.  Come the indubitable RDPC victory on Monday, a celebratory fete will be held—but only for those with demonstrated loyalty to the party.  Thus the absence of the majority of educated adults in town, who took a week off to work the campaign trail.  Many of them have been hired by the RDPC to be “election observers” on Monday, a vaguely threatening title with more than a whiff of Tammany Hall. 

I have been invited to several of these campaign events, but motives would be read into my presence, even as an impartial spectator.  Political involvement of any stripe is a dicey proposition, not to mention morally reprehensible (depending on the party), so I have been absenting myself from public life this week.  Instead I’ve been spending time with my friends who are too poor or illiterate for the parties to bother with them—that is to say, women and children.  The end of September has brought the red millet and peanut harvest periods, so “spending time” means working in the fields.

Saturday I spent the day in my friend Asta’s peanut fields, harvesting alongside her sons, Ilyasou and Youssoufa.  We left shortly after sunrise, and for the first hour we worked, a cool breeze wafted over the hills to our northwest.  As the sun climbed higher in the sky, however, the air stilled, and soon we were sweltering in a dead heat, the sweat rolling down my nose bringing sweet whiffs of sunscreen.

The peanuts were not planted rows, but instead scattered about at random.  The fields were poorly weeded, complicating the task at hand; at first I had trouble discerning which plants I was to pull up, and dallied behind, pulling up everything and examining the roots for clusters of groundnuts.  I quickly learned to identify the characteristic clumps of thick-stemmed, oppositely leaved peanut plants, cropped low to the ground by Asta’s goats.  It had rained most of the day Friday, so the plants came up with no resistance.  Ilyasou and I divided the field roughly into rows, doubled into a crouch, and worked our way steadily forward, tossing the peanut plants into piles every few meters.  Youssoufa began the task of laboriously sifting through the turned earth we left in our wakes by hand, searching for any peanuts that had become detached when we yanked the plants out of the soil.  When we reached the end of our rows, Ilyasou and I turned back and helped Youssoufa with his painstaking labor. 

Around mid-morning, a group of girls from the lycée sauntered by, returning home from working in their own fields.  I recognized several from nutrition classes I have given, and they stopped, startled and amused to see me hunched over and drenched in sweat.  They teased the boys, and me, then set down their baskets and joined us in our work.  This spirit of communal responsibility, labor, and ownership is something I’ve come to admire here—although nebulous ideas of personal property do have their drawbacks. 

As we settled back into our rhythm—pull, beat twice on the ground to shake off clods of earth, toss onto the pile; pull, shake, toss—the girls began to sing.  This startled me, as music is not an important part of culture in this region, and I have been continually disappointed by the lack of songs or dance, even during festivals. 

We paused around 11:00 for a meal; more women had arrived by that time, bringing with them thermoses of corn gruel, or bouille, corn couscous, and stewed okra.  Youssoufa and I threw ourselves on the ground gratefully in the shade of a spreading tree, gulping water and letting the dappled light play over our eyelids.

Then back to finish the last field, before heading home in the heat of the day.  I crashed for a nap that afternoon, only to be roused by clapping outside my door.  It was Youssoufa, bearing a woven plastic market bag of raw peanuts from his mother—the payment for my labor.  They are still wet and green-tasting, the shells difficult to crack; I will dry them in the sun for several days to make the nuts drier and the shells more brittle, then tote them along to someone’s concession and spend an evening sitting, talking, and shelling peanuts.  Once shelled, I will roast them and grind them into homemade peanut butter, because Africa makes foodie hipsters of us all.