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.

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