Friday, December 6, 2013

Same Shit, Different Toilet

I often focus in these entries on differences between my expectations and those of the Cameroonians I work with.  This is primarily because it is often these cultural differences, these misunderstandings and assumptions on each side, that lead to the most revealing, or frustrating, or comedic exchanges.  It’s also interesting for me to realize how much of my behavior is dictated by my country and culture, rather than by some objective human standard of normalcy.

At the end of the day, though, people are people, and I’ve been equally interested to note what instinctive behaviors stay the same across the board.

I present, Things That I’m Finding To Be Universal:

1.              That doofy face people make at babies.  One of my favorite things to do when I lived in New York and took the subway was to watch people’s faces when someone pushed a stroller onto the car.  The most hardened of riders, whose studiedly expressionless masks seemed likely to withstand anything from an earthquake to a zombie apocalypse, would suddenly soften.  Their faces would open dramatically, eyebrows shooting towards the hairline, mouths gawping into exaggerated smiles, as though trying to show a dentist all 28 teeth at once.  People here do that, too.  Why is this an instinctive response to seeing small pre-formed humans?  You tell me.


2.              The smell of a preschool.  I’ve only been into the école maternelle here a few times; other than handwashing, the toddlers are a little young for the health and nutrition education classes I normally give.  Each time, however, I’ve been struck by the smell, and how evocative it is of every kindergarten class I’ve ever walked into.  I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is—crayons? Disinfectant? Child-sweat?  It is also worth noting that the preschool is run by Polish nuns; maybe it’s the corresponding increase in resources that makes it smell a certain way, because the vastly underfunded and understaffed primary school sure smells a lot worse.

Graduation at the ecole maternelle last spring

3.              Shouting at people who don’t speak your language in the misguided belief that sheer volume will overcome linguistic barriers.  This surprised me the most, as I assumed this was a dumb American thing, but it turns out it’s not only the Texans.  For several months I thought the president of one of my women’s groups, Djanabou, was slightly deaf, as she always roars at me in Fulfuldé or Dabaré as though trying to call cattle home from several fields away.  Then one day I went to her compound to ask about scheduling and watched her talk to her son in a totally normal tone at regulated volume, and realized she reserves her outside voice for me.

4.              Complaining about The Kids These Days.  For a while I didn’t want to say this because I was afraid of sounding elitist, but let’s call a spade a spade: most of the conversations I have around here are repetitive at best, and inane at worst.  Without any access to media, people can’t complain about Congress’ most recent buffoonery or gossip about First Lady Chantal Biya’s new and ever more clownish hairstyle.  Instead, they stick to the following subjects: the weather; the crops; some wild and totally baseless “fact” that, lacking Internet or a library, is stupidly difficult to disprove (“There are no black people in America” is one I run into all the time. Obama “doesn’t count”, since, I’m told, he’s not an American citizen); and the kids these days.  I have had ample time to consider the specifics of this last category of complaint, as I am subject to it practically every time I sit with older men waiting for a meeting to start.  This waiting period can take hours, so I’ve gotten an earful.  The content of the complaints is the same as what you’d hear in any barbershop in America; it’s the context that differs.  According to my sources, the Kids These Days:
a.     Are weaker than they used to be.  Why, these days, some young buck walks five miles out to his field in the morning, works in the sun, and he’s tired by noon! Tired! Can you imagine? In MY day… (I did ask my interlocutor if, in his day, he walked uphill both ways to get to his field and back.  He looked confused and ignored the question; I guess some things just don’t translate.)
b.     Are wastrels.  You take an old man to the market, he’ll buy a used shirt from the Goodwill cast-off pile for 200 CFA (40 cents USD) and be happy.  These kids, though, they want to buy their own fabric and have their own clothes made like they think every day’s a fete day!  And where is this money coming from?  They’ll all be driven to a life of crime, you mark my words! (In my experience youth wear traditional clothes far less than old men, actually, and are more likely to be sporting an Ann Arbor Michigan 5K for Leukemia shirt than a boubou, but there’s no gainsaying an elder with a grudge once he’s on a roll.)
c.      Are sybaritically self-indulgent. “Avant” (“before”, the vague descriptor of the Good Old Days), women made sauces with tree sap and leaves and peanut butter.  It was simple, it was good, and it was wholesome.  Now, they all want their Maggi cubes before they’ll even think about cooking! And at what cost? (Answer: very little cost, and much less work than boiling tree sap to get an extract to flavor food.  For my American audience, Maggi Arome, literally translated as Maggi Brand Flavor, is pure MSG.  It’s sold in liquid or powdered form, and used widely by all Cameroonians to flavor everything.  It also costs less than five cents a cube, so it’s hardly a drain on the family finances.)
d.     Get AIDS more easily.  It’s like they do it on purpose! (This complaint just confused me.  I tried to point out that the AIDS epidemic didn’t hit crisis levels until the 80’s, and that as more people are overcoming the stigma to get tested, it may just be that more young people know their HIV status than they did thirty years ago, but again, I got nowhere.)
e.     Are impatient.  You tell some kid to wait under a tree for you, he doesn’t even stick around a full hour before taking off!  (This is so very African, I have no commentary to make.  Imagine telling an American of any age to twiddle their thumbs because you’re two hours late for a rendez-vous.  I’m pretty sure marriages have ended over less.)

So there you have it.  The world over, we find babies to be cute, don’t know how to deal with foreigners, and think this generation’s the worst one ever.  Goal 2 achieved.

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