Sunday, July 26, 2009

Be nicer.

The mid-service resolution.

My mid-service conference felt a little like New Years—time to get philosophical and take a look at what I want out of Peace Corps. Am I getting it? And what should I do differently in the second half of my time here? (note: “philosophical” means this is going to be an exciting blog entry. Promise. :)

Returned PCVs had said to me, yeah you don’t even really hit your stride until after your first year. I’ve been busy in year one (except whenever the power goes out) with a nearly constant hodge-podge of activities. On the work front, I like the way things are going. One thing that I would like to do differently, though, is completely outside of work, on a personal level. Here, I think the voice of that RPCV rings true—you hit your stride one year in.

Dealing with people here sometimes really tires me. Your typical example: my friend Michelle and I got out the train the other night to walk around when we were stuck, broke down in some lost part of the jungle in the middle of the night. Three different guys came up to us in 10 minutes, each equally intent on having a conversation with us. Why? Only cause we’re different. Sometimes I just don’t want to deal with it. I want to talk to Michelle, not some rando. Finding a way to nicely get out of it every time requires creativity and patience (which I don’t always have enough of, especially in the middle of the night.)

In general here, I like to operate on my time, my schedule, and am not Miss Spontaneous or loving of surprises.

Yet, somewhere in June’s travels all around the country, and through talking with other PCVs at my mid-service conference, I was reminded of something I said before I ever set foot in Cameroon. If I can have a couple of close Cameroonian friendships, I would feel successful. I did come here to learn about Cameroonian people.

But being friendly, up to the African standard, requires DAILY Conscious Effort, and I normally even consider myself a pretty nice, sociable person. It’s the endless amount of shaking hands with strangers and friends alike, and the string of greetings you’re supposed to say everytime you see someone. (I have to ask “Noy saaré,” “How is your house?” again?? We haven’t had any hurricanes to knock it down since I asked you at this time yesterday!!) If an unsuspecting Cameroonian landed in New York City, he would be floored by our relative unfriendliness. The American pace, our lack of greetings and idle chit-chat, or our lack of that African generosity—it’s all so different. (The generosity thing: like sharing one’s food with anyone in the vicinity, strangers included! I’ve eaten a lot of random people’s food here, when offered on those long bus rides! If only the New York subway worked like that…) I don’t think even friendly South Louisiana could keep up the Cameroonian standard of greeting the **** out of everyone!

I’ve got my handful of good Cameroonian friends, but it’s true that the conversations we have sometimes are so wildly different from my American-friend conversations, that it can require some patience on my part. For example, one day I’d spent nearly the entire day stewing about and researching grad schools. That night, I was out with some Cameroonian friends. We spent hours over drinks, just shooting the shit. I mentioned at one point that I was considering continuing my studies. “It’s good to continue your studies. It’s good to go to school,” one girl responded. That was all, end of discussion. Next topic. I could have talked about that for HOURS! So no, I don’t get to talk about everything I want to here, but I did come to Africa for something different, didn’t I?

So my mid-service resolution is to ratchet it up a notch. Be nicer. Greet people more. Be more available, and not need to have everything on my terms. I was speaking with a volunteer who told me he couldn’t go to the market in his village in less than an hour. Not because of distance, but because he has to greet everyone. But as he said, “I like to put myself in the place of opportunity.” Being constantly friendly and available is exhausting, but it’s those volunteers who learn the most while they are here. I only have one year left. And I get to sleep as much as I want to in this country. So I might as well get what I came for and exhaust myself.

Today was an example of what I’m looking for. When I arrived home at my compound, my neighbor is standing outside under a tree. Instead of getting off my bike and hauling it in for the day, I take a minute to park the bike and greet him. As we’re chatting, (he’s telling me how many kids I should have) one of his wives, Aïssatou, calls to me from inside her house that she needs me. She sits me down, feeds me a cup of bouie, a soupy beverage made out of millet, and goes back to pounding something. Being the twitchy, ADD 27-yr. old that I am, I leave my assigned seat to wander over and see what she’s up to.

She’s pounding away with a pestle that is up to her shoulders, into a mortar the size of which could hold a small child. I tell her I want to pound the leaves. I am not nearly as good as she is, although her arms have about half the muscle on them as mine. She takes back the pestle to show me how it’s done while I lean back against the wall of the narrow entryway where we are. She gets her rhythm going, as I watch. It’s entrancing. Then she starts a combination of click noises coming from somewhere in her throat, accompanying the rhythm of her pounding. In between pounds and clicks she tosses the pestle, claps her hands, keeps pounding, never missing a beat. She keeps the rhythm, adding additional taps to the side of the mortar into the routine. It’s downright musical. Click, tap, POUND, clap, click, POUND. A green dust rises up from the crushed leaves, giving a swirly surreal effect to the whole scene. “C’est comme ça que les Fulbé le font,” she tells me with a smile. This is how the Fulbé do it. I try to make the click noises and she only laughs at me—the one grown woman making mouth noises laughs at the other grown woman unsuccessfully trying to make mouth noises. The neighbor kids are watching too. Honestly, it’s for silly little moments like this that I joined the Peace Corps—all of which happen when I take the extra minute to be nicer.

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