Monday, October 27, 2008

Goals 2 and 3

Neighborly integration at the expense of my gastro-intestinal system

Hallelujah I’ve finally met the neighbors! I’ve been here over a month and been craving a little more neighborly interaction.

Normally in the US I’m not timid or self-conscious. That’s a whole ‘nother ball game here. I’m constantly asking myself “Am I being offensive? Or Stupid? Is this showing too much upper arm!?” Questions like that get in the way of the most basic marching to the compound behind mine and introducing myself. I also have no idea if my neighbors speak French or not, and whether I’ll be greeted with blank stares and foreign gurglings.

At night I can hear the neighbors speaking in I-have-no-clue-what language, and laughing. Families laughing seem kind of rare here, which makes me doubly curious to meet them. A little wall separates our two compounds, and sometimes I peer over the wall from my front porch to get a peek at the other side. Literally, my bed must be 20 feet from their kitchen. During Ramadan when they would wake early to prepare the pre-dawn meal, I’d inevitably wake up to the 4am clanging of pots and women’s voices.

Today, a Wednesday, I just did not want to go to work at the MC2. I can only take so much of watching people foible through Excel spreadsheets and not having enough time to answer my questions, before I want to bang my head into a wall. So I decided that instead, I was going to stay home and work on goals 2 and 3 of the Peace Corps, aka, neighborly integration. The three goals of the Peace Corps go something like this:

1—Share technical skills and competencies

2—Learn about Cameroonians and help other Americans learn about Cameroonians

3—Help Cameroonians learn about Americans

So any time not spent constructively imparting Excel knowledge, or otherwise revolutionizing the country, I can chalk up to Goals 2 and 3. It makes me feel a little better about being here when the going is slow on Goal 1.

I was determined to see who the family is that is probably hearing me snore! I walked out of the compound and plopped down on a pile of rocks. I share my compound with a wrinkled old lady affectionately referred to as Grandmere, and a teenage girl, Martine. Martine and Grandmere were sitting outside on the rocks as well, and a gaggle of ladies was sitting across the street. I started asking Martine names. There are more snotty-nosed and naked-bottomed kids running around than I will ever be able to remember.

It turns out the Grandmere is a real hoot. I hear a lot of laughing from their part of the compound at night, too. Martine says it’s cause people come over just to listen to the Grandmere and her commentaries. Grandmere speaks strictly no French, limited Fulfulde, and has about four functional teeth. Her native language is Mafa, one of the local languages with lots of guttural mushakahrashaka sounds. Grandmere informs me that she must be 150 years old. Martine’s mom is roughly 50 years old. I see why Grandmere is so amusing. It’s market day again and a constant stream of people are passing by, from which Grandmere buys some guavas. She doles out guavas to the five congregated kids and me. No way has this little citrus seen the Peace-Corps-recommended contents of a Clorox solution. I will certainly be hosting an all-night amoeba dance party in my stomach.

Martine invites me to go see a friend of hers in the neighborhood. Martine’s dad, who lives in another village, says he doesn’t have the money to send Martine to school. So she doesn’t have much to do during the day but hang out with Grandmere and some of her friends. Martine is 19 and I think she’d be in the equivalent of about freshman year of high school.

Arriving at Martine’s friend’s house, we somehow start talking about marriage. Martine has already said no to a couple of marriage proposals—she’d rather finish school first. One was from our neighbor across the street, a crazy old man with a long beard who already has two wives and kids of all ages. She said that when he last came over to her house she had hid inside while Grandmere told him she wasn’t there. Universally functional strategy. Apparently, he wants to marry me too, and Martine reports that he’s inquired with Grandmere about my availability. I plan to tell him that I already have a couple of husbands. Dad, what do you think?

Additionally, Martine doesn’t want to get married because she says in her village men beat the women too much. After drinking bilbil, (the local millet beer) they come home and start knocking the women around. “Ma mere a trop souffert,” she tells me. “My mom suffered too much.” What can I say? She’s surprised when I tell her that people go to prison in the US for beating their wives.

Martine’s friend’s brother is about 6 years old. During the course of the wife-beating conversation, he’s been dancing and hiding behind a wall, intermittently poking his head out, making a growly face complete with eyes rolled back in his head, and holding up claw hands. I tell him he looks like a dinosaur. Realizing it’s way too complicated to explain what a dinosaur is, I decide to go with “a large hungry lizard.” The Hungry Lizard takes a break from dancing around the room to run outside and steal some green beans from a neighbor’s plot. When his older sister scolds him he giggles, dances, munches on the green beans and says, “They can send me to prison! I’m going to steal some more green beans!” and he giggles back out the door.

After we leave the friend’s, another friendly old grandma in the neighborhood calls us in to drink bilbil. This is the stuff of Peace Corps Medical Office nightmares. Who knows what fillers gets added to the bilbil, and what critters are living in that water. Today it’s my stomach, as opposed to the lower right leg, that is gonna take the hit in the name of integration. At least my moto burn is almost totally healed by now!

The ubiquitous bilbil shack—a traditional mud hut with a thatched roof—is the Extreme North’s answer to America’s Starbucks. Martine and I sit on a log on the ground and sip bilbil out of calabashes that the grandma doles out. A skinny old man wearing the teal high school uniform decides to take a break from the bilbil and do a little dance for us. “Fifty CFA!” he says, “I’m not dancing for nothing!” We laugh (although I don’t even understand what’s going on at this point) and he jigs his way out the door. No dancing old men in Starbucks last time I checked. After we finish and exit, Teal-Uniform Dancer is still outside, and upon seeing me, breaks into another little jig. I respond with a little tap-dance of my own. The neighborhood cheers.

We get back to our compound, and I decide to pull out my Fulfulde flashcards while Martine sits in the shade, and Grandmere takes a nap. I think I’m going to offer them some of my next creation from the kitchen. I’ve been getting pretty good at banana bread. I just hope it doesn’t scare them off permanently.

So I’m encouraged at the progress on goals 2 and 3 today. Let’s just hope my stomach shares that sentiment, in the name of integration!

1 comment:

Booyataa said...


I have friends who used to work in Cameroon. I'd love to visit but it's a long way away ... Would any of your Fulfulde-speaking friends like a free paper in Fulfulde? See

We mail them free of charge if specifically requested.

Thanks, Jane