Friday, March 13, 2009

Wake-up call

Hi all,

I haven’t written in a couple weeks—sorry about that. The reason is that the last entry I drafted was so angry, it was… let’s just say, entirely un-publishable if I wanted to stay in the Peace Corps. Since that moment two weeks ago now, I’ve taken a step back, gotten more perspective, and done a lot of editing to that original entry. Normally, I’d rather write minimally about my frustrations, but I feel like this can potentially give an interesting and realistic view of some of the challenges of Northern Cameroon. So, voilà!

February 25, 2009

What the ****?

Tonight was a five sachet night. That means, yes, five shots of whiskey and frustration. I haven’t done that in a really long time.

Thea and I are in the process of doing what’s called PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action.) It’s a chance for us to get to better know the community of Mokolo. We start at the top of the hierarchy, meeting first with the lamidos, (the local traditional Muslim authorities,) then the neighborhood chiefs, and finally larger scale meetings with the general populations. We have a lovely local friend, Jean, who comes with us and helps with the protocol. We ask questions about life in Mokolo: their daily and seasonal activities, their difficulties and the constraints that keep them poor, how problems of the population are resolved, how local politics work, etc. It’s incredibly personal and informative, and probably some of the most grass-roots level work I’ll ever do. Yet the grass roots thrill doesn’t come without its tears and reality checks.

Let’s just tag this entry under the I love Thea category. We were there together tonight and she really helped me keep my cool. We went to visit one of the two lamidos in town. After our meeting with him, I was so mad I only wanted to go home, do some sit-ups on my dusty-ass floor, write a raving mad blog entry, and maybe just foam at the mouth some.

But Thea and Jean insisted I go out with them for a beer. On the way to the bar, Jean told me “Back at the lamido’s I saw your whole demeanor totally change all of a sudden! What happened??”

“What if someone told you,” I asked, “‘You are Cameroonian. I am American. Therefore I am superior to you. There’s really no discussing it.’” Jean was a great friend as I spelled out my reaction to the meeting. Never in my life had I been told to my face, “You are inferior. The woman is inferior to the man. She should subjugate herself to him.” The lamido told us this at least three times during our meeting with him.

The lamido seemed literally no older than 30. He’d been lamido for 18 years he told us. Upon shaking his hands, I realized they were the plump squishy hands of those who have never worked. I had a multitude of questions about life in Mokolo, and his roles. He told me his main role, among others, was to be the guardian of tradition. He also said that he was “an auxiliary of the state administration.” That means he’s the intermediary between people who don’t have their formal papers and the government. He solves disputes over land ownership, marital problems, and inheritances, to name a few. If people actually do have birth certificates, land titles, or marriage certificates (which is not common in rural or poor areas) they can bypass the lamido, and go straight to the government authorities. This is the ideal, and women have a slightly better chance at a favorable outcome. Under the law of Cameroon, men and women are on equal footing, unlike the traditions the lamido upholds, which include unequal inheritances (if any) for women, women not being allowed to leave the house, and polygamous marriages, with the view that the woman’s worth and role is to make babies, cook, and clean. In the most traditional households, since the woman is not allowed to leave the compound, her husband basically controls all elements of her life.

The lamido was full of contradictions. As an auxiliary of the state, which recognizes the equality of the sexes, how is he also responsible for guarding the tradition that goes in the opposite direction? I don’t understand how or why the state endorses his role and his authority. “Girls should go to school!” he says! They should get an education and then marry, never leaving their compounds again. When I pointed out these contradictions he giggled and changed the subject.

I’ve always known that these attitudes exist. Usually as the white women though, we are somehow exempt from this thinking. It’s sad, but true. Cameroonians see our education, hear us pick up their languages, and realize we as women didn’t come all the way over here just to pick our noses (although that is quite a common practice here among both men and women!) Somehow today, that exemption was not applied, and I got the tiniest dose of what it feels like to be a Cameroonian woman, every day of her life. La femme est l’inferieur à l’homme. C’est ça la tradition. C’est ça que le Koran enseigne. “Women are subjugate to men. That’s the tradition. That’s what the Koran teaches,” is what he told us. The statement was blanket and all-encompassing, including and directed at… me. The lamido could sense, likely by the painfully stoic stares I gave him, that I was not in agreement. He asked, “Et madame là, vous comprenez bien?” “And Madame there, do you understand?” This was truly the most infuriating part, to be spoken to as if I were too stupid, too blind to see the most basic truths of how the world works. I responded only, “Yes, I understand very well. But I do not agree with you.” In trying to bite my tongue, I’ve never felt so powerless in my entire life.

After about an hour, the lamido had to exit briefly to take a phone call. I turned to Thea and said, “I am about to lose it. Please poke me with a pencil if I say too much.” She said, “Let it roll. I’ve heard this so many times, in so many countries, I’m used to it.” I, on the other hand, was hoping it wasn’t obvious how red my eyes were getting. My game face was slowly failing me here.

Then lamido then insisted on showing us all his pictures. He’s quite fond of working with Americans, he told us. He had multiple photos of him with the American Ambassador, Janet Garvey. It was all I could do to keep from saying, “And her, she’s inferior to you too, right?”

When Thea, Jean, and I ended up at the bar afterwards, two of my biggest frustrations came tumbling out:

Wasted Impact. One lamido who pushes, fights, or even sees his role as slightly larger than “the guardian of tradition” can have SO much impact on the entire community. This lamido has influence. The majority of the town will assemble at the snap of his fingers. He is, literally, their spiritual guide, and his word goes. Working in development, it’s eye-opening and mind-blowing to confront people who have such clearly different values from my own. There are so many questions I would love to ask the lamido, “Have you never thought twice about what you are defending? Or is it just that much simpler to let your money roll in from resolving traditional disputes and never thinking twice about long-term effects? Are you really trying to drive us backwards? What are the alternatives if you unleashed the creativity and energy of half of your population?” For him, ignorance is bliss, stability, power, and material comforts. The lamido made clear to us that he couldn’t even be bothered to attend the March 8th festivities of International Women’s Day. (He actually asked when was International Men’s Day, to which I responded, “It’s the other 364 days a year.”)

Meritocracy. I don’t think there is a translation for that in French. I tried to explain to Jean the expression “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” And while I don’t believe that concept is fully a reality in the US yet, there is a certain ring to it. But here? The idea of holding power because one merits it, based on competence and the support of the public, does not exist. I could equally categorize this frustration as “Democracy. (lack there of.)” There’s almost no accountability of “elected” government—let alone local traditional leaders. Jean and I got into the idea of “checks and balances,” the basics of any high school civics class. I’m not sure how it exists, if at all, among the traditional authorities. They will rule til they die.

Thanks to Thea’s diplomacy, and my putting a lid on it, we got out of there without saying anything to get us kicked out of Mokolo. The lamido even invited us back anytime we want, giving our names to his guards to let us “enter his palace freely.” Lucky me.

It is so much easier to blow, to yell, to say what I really think, and to feel a bit better afterwards. Because fortunately I, unlike any Cameroonian woman, could mostly get away with that. But then, I’d be written off as another aggressive Western woman, who just “doesn’t understand us,” or “how we do it au Cameroun,” and thus loses credibility. It’s so much harder to bite my tongue, try to be smart, and slowly work with these difficult characters, demonstrating competence by example, within the bounds of their willingness to understand. If I push the line too far, and blow their minds with ideas too radical, yeah, they just might explode and then I have to start over from square one. It’s harder than I thought; I don’t always know if I have the patience for it. Especially when it’s so personal. Behavior and attitude change is a long slow process, and I like to see results, results that in this domain will not likely come to fruition in my mere two years here.

Although frustrating, I never would have understood the realities on the ground so well if I hadn’t dove in myself. It’s not fair that I am going back to the US in two years, and that Cameroonian women have umpteen number of years of struggling ahead of them. I’m humbled by and grateful for the insights. Although I didn’t come to Cameroon to defend gender issues, this was a wake-up call, and it’ll be hard not to react at this point.

March 12, 2009

Back to the present: it’s easier to write now from retrospect. Since I first wrote the above, Thea and I have met with other traditional authorities, and those meetings have been informative, less provocative, and put us closer to being in touch with the wider local population.

Yet, only the day after our meeting with the lamido and still a little raw, Thea and I went to the planning meeting for the week’s events surrounding March 8, International Women’s Day. It seems to be celebrated in developing countries around the world. Cameroonians are surprised when I tell them I’d never heard of it before coming here.

The positive side is that our current prefet, or departmental governor, is very involved. The previous prefet barely acknowledged the event. However, there is so much room for improvement in how this week was managed. During the planning meeting, the prefet decreed to us that he wanted us to play a soccer game. He enumerated the specific list of foods he wanted the women to cook for the gastronomical day. He lectured us to behave, not to get “drunk in the gutters,” and to thank our husbands for the nice things they’d done for us. (How fortunate that I only have myself to thank!) I turned to my friend Zamba to ask if this was normal. She only shrugged her shoulders. Thea initially debated participating in the activities of “social investment” day, which initially sounded like neighborhood clean-up and litter patrol—not bad! Then the prefet specified that the “social investment” was washing the windows of the prefet’s office, the vice-prefet’s office, the police station, and the court. He insisted all women should participate; it was an “honor” to do so. Luckily for me, I had legit meetings scheduled that day, though I wouldn’t have hesitated to honor myself with a nap instead.

I participated in a round table discussion on the subject of violence against women, which was incredibly interesting and highlighted a whole gamut of views among the folks of Mokolo. It was moderated by a microphone-loving man, who also selected who could ask questions and who wouldn’t. And yes, some of the ideas I presented were first laughed at, then applauded. “Take a deep breath, count to ten, relax, think, discuss, before you hit your wife.” Doing the round table, I was excited to work with a lot of the women who are movers and shakers in Mokolo. I’m still hopeful that some of the ideas we generated last week can pass from flowery talk into concrete action.

I was thrilled to play in the all-women soccer games! Afterwards, my friends told me I played like a boy—a compliment, for sure—but also a chance for further discussion. “It’s not a question of gender as much as education and training. When girls start playing soccer at age 10, instead of cleaning and helping around the house...”

If anything, the week surrounding March 8 was a fabulous moment for discussions. I think many men felt at ease to ask me questions that they never would have otherwise, outside this context. I had a two-hour late-night chat with a neighbor where I outlined the jobs of each of my sisters. He was shocked, smiling and shaking his head, “Feré feré!” he kept saying, “Different different!” Another in-depth conversation about why I’m not yet married took place on the back of a speeding moto on a bumpy dirt road.

Next year, I definitely want to stay involved in March 8 activities, and to the extent possible, work more at a high school level, where I think young girls and boys are more receptive to new ideas, not yet locked into traditional patterns of marriage and baby-making.

I’ll leave you with some pictures of the final March 8 celebrations—a parade in front of the prefet. For nearly every event of the week around Women’s Day, we’d waited at least two hours for our man the prefet, before we could even begin the event. This time, however, I showed up three and a half hours late, finally, even later than the prefet himself, and still right on time. :)

With Fleur and Thea. We find out only later that grandmothers wear the green pagne—moomoo style. And of course, us…

Thea’s neighbors, Thea, My grandmother’s sunglasses.

These happy ladies marched in the parade with their banner, “Femmes soyez soumise à vos maris comme il convient dans le Seigneur. Col. 3:18” “Women, be subject to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.” They let me photograph them when I said, “Wow, your banner is so original, it’s the only one like it out here!”

With a few of my less submissive new soccer teammates and Fleur :)

No comments: