Friday, April 25, 2014

National Girls' Forum

Some of you may know, from talking to me or via the Facebooks, that I recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia.  After a whirlwind few days of traveling, I am at long last back up in Mbang Mboum.  It’s been a busy first few days back; my mud brick house crumbles a little more every time it rains, and it’s been raining daily, so sweeping the pieces of my wall off my floor took some time.  The puppies weaned in my absence, and as I still haven’t been able to make myself give them away, I now have four dogs and a duck to feed—no mean task. 

Cassius and Jonas Salk the crippled duck face off over the last scraps of sardines.

There will be several blog posts to come dissecting my trip, telling tales and making observations about Ethiopian culture—but in the meantime, I have not yet posted a blog I wrote about this year’s National Girls Forum at the beginning of the month, so for chronology’s sake (and because my scribbled notes about the trip are not yet in presentable form) that will come first. 
I don’t know that I would have considered myself an unusually impatient person before coming to Cameroon, but it is uncontestable that being here has greatly improved my capacity to wait.  It is a trope, but “African time” and normal, chronological time rarely align, and getting just about anything accomplished requires a commitment to digging in your heels, turning off your brain, and waiting. 

Still, there is a limit to even my improved tolerance for indefinite uncertainty, which is how my postmate and I found ourselves spending midnight of my 24th birthday confined to the grounds of the Protestant hospital of Douala, trying to incite a busload of Cameroonians to rebellion.

This might require some back-story.  Alizabeth and I were among thirty volunteers selected to bring a professional counterpart and a high school girl to a four-day conference on girl’s empowerment held in Limbé—the annual National Girls Forum.  I was particularly excited, as I was allowed to bring a teacher and a girl from my first post, Mandama, and couldn’t wait to see them again, catch up on each other’s news, and maintain my relationship with a community I had come to care deeply about. 

The other twenty-eight volunteers and all of the counterparts had traveled down to Limbé during the day on the 7th or 8th to be there for the beginning of the conference the morning of the 9th.  Unfortunately, Aliz and I are both members of the committee that manages Peace Corps Cameroon’s USAID Food Security budget, and had meetings all day in Yaoundé the 8th.  As soon as we could leave, we booked it to the bus station and caught a coaster bound for Buea, anticipating that we’d get from there to Limbé around 9:00—just in time for a beer and a late dinner by the beach.

Everything was fine as far as the port of Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital and a giant, sprawling hellhole of a city.  It took almost an hour to drive through, but that kind of traffic is to be anticipated; finally we careened down an off-ramp onto the highway, and were on our way, flying through the night.

I was dozing sitting up, but came instantly awake when the bus reverberated with a loud, metallic thwack.  I spun around in my seat as the other passengers began to loudly contest what had happened.  I looked to Aliz, two rows behind me with a child asleep on her lap.  Her face was drawn and ashen.  “We just hit a moto,” she whispered. 

The driver pulled the bus onto the dirt shoulder and leapt out, fishing under his seat for a small emergency med kit.  He and several of the passengers (ostensibly wishing to help; undoubtedly wanting to gawp) ran back to where the moto was lying in a tangle on the side of the highway.

Twenty minutes later the group trooped back, assisting the moto’s four passengers, including a small girl who could not have been more than seven or eight years old.  No one was too seriously injured, although everyone had enormous patches of road burn covering their left sides, and the driver in particular looked like he might need some stitches.  I watched blood begin to run down one woman’s leg, pooling in the heel of her shoe, transfixed by that particular grisly detail.  The passengers, even the little girl, were silent, but the driver—undoubtedly hopped up on adrenaline—strode back and forth gesticulating and shouting.  His raw, skinless shoulder glistened redly against his dark skin in the orange glow of a halogen street lamp.  

While this was going on, the bus driver had clambered back into his seat to turn the vehicle on.  Nothing happened.  Cursing, he got back out, came around to the passenger door, and removed a section of the floor of the bus, revealing an underbelly of wiring.  He groped around for a bit, his arm disappearing to the shoulder, then called to someone else to key the ignition.  He whipped his arm up just in time; a shower of blue sparks chased it out, scattering on the floor of the bus. At this point I climbed out onto the shoulder, on the assumption that if an explosion were imminent, distance was key to survival.  As the sleeping boy was still draped over Alizabeth’s lap, she didn’t follow.  This whole time traffic continued on the highway, trucks whipping around the bend and rattling past us, a touch too close for comfort.

The driver, explaining obliquely that there was a problem with the battery, assigned a passenger to stand in the hole in the floor, on top of the tangle of exposed wires.  He then put the bus in neutral, allowing it to roll backwards into oncoming traffic to build up momentum as he keyed the ignition repeatedly. 

I felt paralyzed, standing on the shoulder beside a clutch of bloody accident victims, watching—unable to act—as my friend and a busful of strangers slowly eased into harm’s way, other cars and trucks honking as they swerved around.  Finally the engine caught; the other passengers and the wounded moto riders boarded, and we U-turned to head back to Douala and to the hospital.

Five hours later, we were still there.

The patients had been treated, stitches given where needed, topical unguents applied, bandages liberally wrapped.  But then came the question of payment, and thus the interminable delay.

The driver claimed (probably correctly) that the bus company’s insurance should pay.  The father of one of the injured women, who had showed up drunk and boisterous, loudly argued first that he was the victim in this situation, and second that the bus driver should pay.  The moto driver blamed everyone else, throwing wild accusations in order to exempt himself from any financial responsibility.  The hospital didn’t really care who paid, but wanted the money on the spot, not trusting the bus driver’s affirmation that someone from the bus company would show up the next day to settle the matter.

This being Cameroon, everyone—people who were involved, people who weren’t involved, people who had just walked into the hospital—had something to say about the matter, and said it in a shout.  “I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON, BUT I HAVE AN OPINION ABOUT IT,” could be a national motto.  Aliz and I spent the next few hours alternately diving into the ruckus, trying to moderate it, and then retreating in despair to nap in a heap on a stone bench beneath a fragrant flowering jacaranda.  I paid 10,000 CFA to the pharmacist, willing to absorb the cost of a child’s stitches in an attempt to move everything along, only to inspire my goodwill and open wallet an exorbitant and entirely fictional list of other medicines and treatments that, the nurse claimed, had to be paid for before we could go.

During this purgatorial time, we got to know the other passengers, our fellow travelers having come to resemble the cast of a Camus novel.  There was Nkem, my seatmate from Yaoundé to Douala, a considerate and sensible shopkeeper from Buea.  His sister Anne, a hospital nurse in Massachusetts, was visiting from Boston with her 2-year-old daughter.  She was good-natured, laughing ruefully at this welcome on her first day off the plane and back in her home country (“This is Cameroon, all right!”) There was a pair of engineers, recent university graduates working in offshore oil and in copper mining, respectively.  Aliz and I had a remarkably informed conversation with them about mountaintop removal, tar sands, and fracking; I was chagrined to realize (as I have seen in various iterations all over the world) that the two of them knew far more about American energy policy than do most Americans their age.  Aliz even found a suitor, Jerome, a Dutch- Cameroonian pastor who asked for her hand at least three times.  Trying, I supposed, to win my support for his suit (I could have told him it was a lost cause), he oddly began proselytizing to me, literally shaking a Bible in my direction as he urged me to follow God’s word and change my ways.

Normally, I try to avoid religious conversations, either changing the subject with intentional gracelessness or claiming Judaism, which is an unknown entity in West Africa and therefore gets me off the hook—it’s a religion, which is better than agnosticism, but one that local evangelists don’t know how to broach.  Engaging honestly in the question of what I believe is bound not to end well; everyone leaves that conversation unhappy.  But this time around, I was tired and frustrated and ready to be anywhere other than where I was, and Jerome’s arrogantly paternalistic tone rubbed me in all the wrong ways.  So for once, I engaged.

“Look, pal,” I said, my head snapping up like a hunting dog catching a scent.  “I was willing to leave this alone, but if you wanna dance, we can dance. Open that book you’re thumping.  It tells you that you should live a godly life?  Fine.  You know what else it tells you?  That you shouldn’t eat shellfish.  That you shouldn’t wear clothes of mixed fabrics.  That women who wear pants are an abomination.  That disobedient children should be stoned.  The Laws and the Prophets are full of inexplicable rules that the most religious Christians choose not to apply.  Think about that before you start cherry-picking verses and applying them—without invitation, I might add—to other peoples’ lives.”

Aliz had her hand on my shoulder at this point, murmuring for me to step down.  But to our surprise, this was unnecessary.  Far from being angry, Jerome was thrilled.  “You, too, are a godly woman!” he exclaimed, joyously missing my entire point.  “I am so discouraged that many Christians don’t even know these verses and have not read Leviticus! But in my church, we follow them all.  I do not eat fish without fins or scales, and I only wear 100% cotton!”  He began pulling out his clothing tags to prove his point, and as he contorted his arms behind his back, Aliz and I shared an alarmed look, put off by his zealotry.  I had intended to ask how, then, if he rejected shrimp, he interpreted Peter’s dream of the clean and unclean animals in the Acts of the Apostles, but the more he spoke, the heavier the whiff of fanaticism he emitted.  His church, based out of Texas, appeared to be more along the lines of a cult, and it seemed tactically expedient to disengage.  We studiously found reasons to be elsewhere (“… should probably go check on the driver… bathroom…”).  Despite our best efforts of evasion, Jerome tracked us down again, and spent several minutes crooning hymns to Aliz, a strange combination of wooing and lullaby.  He had a nice tenor, and seemed severely misguided but harmless, so my postmate and I let it happen, relaxing into each other as his voice floated up into the balmy, humid night. 

By 1:00 am, we were becoming delirious.  Speaking with clumps of other passengers, we picked up on discontented mutterings, and began trying to stoke these into a revolutionary fire.

“They can’t do this to us!” Aliz shouted, gesturing grandly.  “They’re holding us hostage!”

Finally Nkem, by now our fast friend, called the police.  “Someone needs to sort this out, and it’s not going to be those inside,” he remarked, shrugging.  We had come to trust his judgment—on his and Anne’s advice, we had stayed at the hospital rather than leaving the compound to find a taxi and go to a hotel (“Two white women with big bags, in this neighborhood, at this time of night?  Too dangerous.  You will certainly be robbed, even in the taxi.”).

The police force in Cameroon is nothing if not corrupt, but also capable of almost comedic hypocrisy.  The officers that arrived laid into all and sundry for soliciting bribes, fraudulently price gouging, and generally holding up the due process of law—never mind that these are all things each of the officers undoubtedly has done.  Soon enough, everyone was browbeaten into submission, and we were back on our way.

Aliz and I arrived at the hotel, exhausted, at almost 3:00 in the morning.  Unable to wake her roommate, Aliz crashed with me and my roommate Kalene that night, the three of us piling into the room’s single bed.   Kalene tried to wake us in the morning for breakfast, but we mumbled and rolled over, still asleep.  She gave up and left us to slumber through the first session. 

Once we joined it, refreshed enough to think coherently, the conference was great.  I had the pleasure of watching the girl I invited, Aissatou, blossom: she went from being big-eyed, shy, and clingy the first day to romping around confidently on the beach with her new group of friends by the last day.  During a session on goal-setting, she and I worked through a five-year plan to get into the University of Buea, and a ten-year plan to become the headmistress of a bilingual high school.  She took the advice about choosing realistic and attainable goals to heart, and tried seriously to think in advance about confronting obstacles, like the almost certain opposition of her family.  Having spent a year and a half in a culture where girls are disempowered, undereducated, and unaware of their own rights and resources, it was a privilege to sit in on sessions where the moderators spoke frankly about sex, love, and personal achievements. 

I found myself inspired by the conference, particularly a panel of strong women put together to speak to the girls about their lives and act as positive role models.  Two of the women, Nafissatou and Martine, I knew; Nafi works for an NGO in Garoua and Martine is a friend.  To hear them speak honestly about their struggles to achieve higher education and the hostility they faced from family members and boyfriends who disregarded their professional aspirations, knowing all the while what phenomenal and accomplished individuals they are, brought tears to my eyes.

I know it will be hard for Aissa to bring all of this back to Mandama—sixteen years of an embedded culture cannot be undone in four days—but I hope she will stay inspired, and begin to think critically about her place in society.  All we can do is plant seeds, and hope that one day they will grow.

Aissatou and Abbo at the National Girls' Forum

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