Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Heard around town

You never know what you’re going to hear around town… what people say to you, about you, or for you keeps life entertaining.

So, here are some of my recent favorites:

1. A Cameroonian told a friend of mine, who in turn told me, “Those Americans must be Secret Agents! Have you ever seen their calves? You can tell they’re Secret Agents by their calves—they’re so developed! They must receive special training from the government.” (…orrrrr just have access to more protein than the average Cameroonian!)

2. I’d tossed several old magazines out in my garbage. Without fail, they resurfaced throughout the neighborhood. “Fleurange!” my neighbor Aïssatou calls me over excitedly, “I saw a picture of your mother! Come see!” (I’m pretty sure I hadn’t tossed any pictures of Mom recently.) Sitting on her porch, Aïssatou opens a copy of one of my old Economists and points to a picture of Hilary Clinton. “Look, it’s your mom! Look at her hair!”

3. I get a knock on my door one night after getting home from teaching business class. I’m tired and not up for random visitors. So I tell the eager young man on my porch that maybe we can make an appointment later to talk about his project, but I ask, what is the basic idea of it? “I’m building an airplane,” he tells me, “Maybe you could call your friends who have factories in your country and tell them!”

4. A Cameroonian commented, “Barack Obama must be the richest man in America! How else could he have won the elections?” Ouch—but a telling commentary on how to win elections in Cameroon.

5. When my sister Barrett was here, she’d scolded me for making a little slurping sound when drinking my hot tea. “Sorry! I hadn’t even realized I was doing it!” Then I went to a meeting out in the bush recently. I sat around a table with about six men before the meeting started, sipping hot tea. I felt overwhelmed by a surround-sound of constant, enthusiastic slurps. Ahhhh, I realized, some things are cultural. I was the only one blowing on my tea or slowly swirling it around to try to cool it off. I attempted a few hearty slurps for the sake of camaraderie, but they mostly sounded puny and unconvincing.

6. People always comment on my marital status, but here’s a new one. After we left that same meeting, Koda, my collaborator, told me that the men had told him I was not tall enough to be married. This is curious. I am 5 foot 9 and a half inches. I have met about two Cameroonian women who are taller than me. This could at least serve as a useful excuse in avoiding future marriage proposals, “I’m sorry to decline your kind offer, I’m afraid I’m just not tall enough!”

7. Finally, there was a death in the neighborhood, a neighbor I don’t know. The first night was filled with the most wretched wailing sounds I’ve ever heard. Women’s shrieking cries are a part of the mourning process. Then, out came the drums. For five straight nights there was constant pounding and vibrations, from about 6pm to 3am, about 50 feet from my living room. Aïssatou invited me to see the drumming, but I had been busy. Eventually, I got curious enough to investigate on my own. One night after dark, I threw a scarf over my head (I didn’t want my white skin to give me away) and turned the corner near my house to mount a pitch-black, rocky slope to the clearing where the drumming was. I crouched off the path and just watched and listened. No one ever saw me. I could barely see the outlines of figures dancing in the night, making singing noises and turning in circles. The drums pounded constantly. It was a beautiful night under the stars, that perfectly captured my feelings—at ease with the surroundings but still at times only a spectator, the comfortable outsider.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Look at me, I'm getting hi-tech!

Here is the Extreme North of Cameroon's answer to a shopping mall. I'm in Maroua, and today happens to be a market day so I took this video on the way in. You can see piles of oranges at the end of the video.

Feeling inspired, I whipped out the camera again on our main form of transportation (as you might recall from the last post...) the moto! No collisions today, but a bit more of Maroua. You can see the riverbed below the green bridge is almost completely dried out. On the right, you can see a gas station (Oil Libya) but also the more standard places people by gas--out of plastic bottles from a table on the side of the road. Also is a row of boubous (man dress!) for sale at the end of the video.

Woops, don't think that worked... will try next time!

If you're not bored yet, here is an area outside another of Maroua's main markets. I like the guy carrying a table on his head on the moto, on the wrong side of the road, at the beginning of the video. Also interesting, the huge stacks of mattresses on the left, near the end of the video. You get a good view of some of the traditional clothing.

And lastly, I thought this one was interesting. My friend Fleur filmed these traditional musicians at a recent festival in Makala. Hope you enjoy!

PS--It's February 14th. When I checked the temperature at 5pm, it was 100 degrees. Happy Valentines Day!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Not so fun with motos

Sometimes I’m reminded of just how fragile and precarious our lives are. Only earlier this month, we were all reminded of that in Haiti. Today my example is more local. I’m not particularly morbid, but sometimes when I’m riding my bike around Makala or taking a bush taxi, I think of how easily it could all be over so quickly, with a wrong twitch of the steering wheel or a careless driver just not seeing me. And we hear so many stories of motorcycle, car, and bus accidents here, that you can’t be oblivious to the realities of the road—it’s dangerous.

I got really lucky today. Let me just say I’m not seriously hurt, but I had my first moto accident and it’s left me more shaken and angry than anything else. I was leaving the MC2 on my bike, and coming down one of the major central roads in Makala. It’s Wednesday, market day, so even more people were out than usual. In spite of being a central road, this road is terrible—unpaved, sandy and rocky—and in effect it’s only a narrow path, a small portion of it, that’s passable. For those who’ve been here, it’s right in front of several bars, including my favorite, chez Jérémie. (NB: I was coming from work, not the bar.)

A moto was approaching me on the narrow path, and it was obvious there wasn’t enough room for both of us, so I moved to the right edge of the path and stopped, waiting for him to pick his route around me. I had no way of knowing which way he’d go around me—sticking to the right side of the road means nothing here. Apparently, his path of choice was right over me. I couldn’t believe it. I saw him coming closer and closer, certain he would change course or STOP, and somehow—I have no idea how—he didn’t. It happened fast enough that I couldn’t move in any direction, which wouldn’t have helped anyway, since I didn’t know which way he’d go. But it happened just slowly enough for me to realize, “I am about to get run over, he is gonna cut my body in two.” As soon as he hit me, I just started screaming. While he somehow didn’t see me, he heard me, and thankfully was able to stop shortly.

He knocked my bike over and me with it. My shoulder is twisted and hurting, but otherwise I’m ok. There are too many ways it could have been worse—if he’d been going any faster, if I would have fallen on a nearby rock… When I did get up I just couldn’t believe it. As soon as I was up, I could feel my shoulder and another twinge of anger, as it flashed through my mind that Dad had his shoulder messed up in an accident years ago, and it still bothers him sometimes today. The driver got off his moto. He must have been 15 years old. I think I shouted once, “How did you not see me?!” and then somehow I kept my calm. That’s rare for me here. But the crowd was increasing and I didn’t want to turn into any more of a spectacle. I was so mad and shaken that my right hand was trembling ridiculously, like my Grandpa’s used to, back and forth by what must have been two inches—I couldn’t stop it, just stared at it, watched it go. My left arm hurt too much to raise. More and more people were gathering around, picking up my bike, asking if I was ok. When I kept asking the driver, “How did you not see me?” he refused to answer, just looked away. What made me the angriest was his refusal to answer me. You can’t just run over people with your moto and walk away. (Or can you…) My voice was calm, but I asked him, literally, did he have his eyes closed? Even, “Mon frère, I know my skin is the same color as the sand, but how did you not see me?” People around me urged, “Pardonnez-lui,” Forgive him.
“No,” I replied, “He was wrong. He could have hurt someone.” I pointed to one of the small wide-eyed children looking on, “If it had been one of them, a child, you would have killed him.” Such accidents happen too often.

Finally, when I realized that my bike and I were mostly ok, and that there was nothing else I could do—including getting an explanation—I got out of there, fighting back tears of frustration behind my sunglasses. I got hit by a car once while riding my bike in DC and was hurt worse then, but I was angrier today. There is no penalty or punishment for someone who’s reckless. The boy didn’t have a license, which could have been revoked. As Thea reminded me afterward, if I would have gone to the police, they wouldn’t have done anything. I’ve seen what looks like 12-year-olds driving motos. As much as I’ve hated tickets in the past, it makes me grateful that the U.S. has a system to protect us from such carelessness. (I got a ticket once for riding my bicycle on a sidewalk! Pedestrians of DC, rest easy.) It bothers me that many seemed to shrug their shoulders, accept this as normal, and do nothing. It’s true that there are bigger things to worry about here—getting food on the table, keeping your family out of the hospital, paying for school. My inconvenience is limited to a sore shoulder, but it becomes clearer to me all the time why the average life expectancy here is 52 years old. I’m reminded that every day in good health is a day to appreciate—that nothing should be taken for granted. A few extra miles per hour, and it could have been much worse.

PS— Now one week later from when I wrote the above…

…and so I don’t get frantic e-mails from the parental generation of America. The parental generation here in Cameroon has been taking good care of me. My co-worker Adèle, the cashier at our bank, took me to the hospital, and although they’d run out of ibuprofen, they gave me some other anti-inflammatory for 20 american cents. Not bad. In addition to that, Adèle has proclaimed that she has a talent for massage. She does! And she uses it on me! So we bought some weird Chinese menthol balm product off a kid on the street, and she now regularly massages my shoulder, while I’m sitting behind the counter at the bank. Makes for some funny stares from the clients… but I’m used to that!

My co-workers had some thoughts about how the accident probably happened. A lot of the young moto-taxi drivers here are often drunk, or sniffing glues and drugs. It was market day, and so the bilbil, or local millet wine, was out in force, making for a lot of drunk people wandering around. It doesn’t make me feel any better about riding with the motos, I’ve been pretty skittish since last week. But it makes sense… why the driver didn’t see me, didn’t stop, just seemed unperturbed. I’ll get in some good walking in the coming months…