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.

1 comment:

Nate said...

Your brief story about watching the mourning from afar was beautiful: your writing about Cameroon is simply outstanding, and brings back a flood of memories.