Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Peace Corps Blank

I’ve written many things that I’ve never posted on this blog. The entry below was one of them. I didn’t want to sound so impatient, so inflexible, so soon. So I let it sit, so I could come back to it two years later and see if my predictions were true, or if I’d become a better, gentler, more patient and generally more angelic person. It’s dated from November 2008, when I had been at post not yet three months…

November 2008

Several Peace Corps Volunteers have described to me a skill that they have acquired over the course of their two years in Cameroon—an ability to zone out, blank their minds, for hours at a time.

When you first hear this, it seems somewhat shocking. I can’t help but calculate my former hourly wage and ask, really? $XX lost simply gazing into space?

It’s a survival strategy—for dealing with tediously long bus rides too crammed to read, conversations where one insists on telling you a litany of things you are already know (tune back in just in time to laugh or nod, as appropriate), or six hour staff meetings. As one volunteer said to me, “My Cameroonian co-workers have to sit through the staff meeting too, so why shouldn’t I? That’s exactly how you understand how people have to live here—you wait with them. You share their stories, and their frustrations.” And I ask myself, because I happen to come from a culture where time is money, to what extent do I want to use that as an excuse to skip out on the awful moments of waiting?

This morning was a classic example. A 9am rendez-vous with the mayor of Mokolo. He shows up at about 11:30am. I’m trying my dangdest to sit in small-talk solidarity with my Cameroonian colleagues, but by around 11am, my impatience wins over, I break down, find a place to sit, and whip out my book. Reading is one of many things I’d rather do than… just sit. Solidarity takes a hit. Not everybody has a book to read.

To me, that Peace Corps zone-out seems dangerous. One volunteer who is preparing to return to the U.S. laughingly said to me that he’s worried about just how good he’s become at tuning out. I don’t want to tune people out. I want to believe that what they have to say is worthwhile, or that I could at least steer a conversation toward useful and relevant information. People have told me that my patience will build with time, but there is a part of me that laughs and thinks, they just don’t know me. Another part of me says, and why should I allow my patience to grow? So that I can better excuse the status quo? Although I realize that some adapting to the Cameroonian pace and culture will help me, I also think that a complacent acceptance of the status quo is not what this country needs. Complacent people have never changed things. To bring about some level of change, I think strong emotion—be it fear, grief, hope for something better, or maybe even a healthy dose of impatience—is necessary. So for the moment, I’m not yet going to blank out, stifle my impatience, or believe that my time is not worthwhile. Check back with me on that subject in two years!

And so now, July 2010.

I can’t help but laugh because… I was right. Self-fulfilling prophesy? Maybe. I’m no more patient than I ever was. But I know how to better deal with situations now. I know the things to say or the jokes to make that can help me get what I want and put everyone at ease. Yet, whether I’ve got the cool and composure to say what I’m supposed to, when I’m supposed to, is still another question. It’s so gratifying when it works. I make a joke that helps me get the price I want while bargaining in a market, or a knowing comment that generally convinces everyone that the nassara is not that much of a cold-hearted foreigner.

But it’s true—I still can’t and won’t do six-hour meetings. I will sometimes steer conversations toward what I think is useful, after I’ve gone through the minimal and required greetings and pleasantries. And maybe I’m missing out on something there—that which other people think is important—that’s what I’m here to learn, right? I’ll never be as patient and kind as some other Peace Corps Volunteers. But I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate and spend time with those volunteers, and they’ve taught me invaluable lessons. I think the key is to channel the impatience, the desire for change and for not settling, and to seek something useful out of it, instead of a festering frustration at the systems that create these situations. Some people are capable of blanking out. For better or for worse, I am not.

Truly, my closest Cameroonian friends are those that can and do work on more “American time,” who are busy, who don't like to settle. They fuss at me if I show up late for a meeting. An interesting anecdote. My best friend in town is Jacques. Last year we were out having a drink when he let slip that his birthday had just passed. “Jacques!” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?! Your birthday! We would have celebrated! What did you do?!”
“I cried,” he responded. “Because I set certain goals for myself to have attained in that year, and they didn’t happen.” Jacques is one of so very few Cameroonians I know who would ever say that.

So what to do? Support and encourage the Jacques who are out there? Plant seeds, just show a different way of doing things? And what about the situations where I just have so little control, the waiting for mayors and other people deemed more important than I? Those are the moments, with quiet resignation, that I am grateful to return to America. I don’t know what to tell Cameroonians to do, as important people determine their future while they… wait. I’ve felt the frustration, and at times I’ve run from it, deemed it not worth my time and effort, but only in feeling the frustrations have I learned and understood, if only for a moment, the struggles of other people. I wish I could say I struggled and waited in solidarity at all times; I didn’t. I’m grateful I had the opportunities I did to learn, and I’m humbled that so many people here are so very much more patient, persevering, and determined than I am. Cameroon demands it—both for survival, and to make the changes we hope to see.

I’m grateful to a friend who recently sent me this quote. It’s the type of thing I need to tape to my wall, stick in my wallet, and keep in my heart as a reminder of who I want to be, as I forge on into other future work such as this, in places such as Cameroon. I leave you with this, from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 speech, entitled The Man in the Arena:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Two Years Later: White girl still strugglin to dance.

So Thea and I had a little going-away bash the other night. You really never know which way these things are going to go.

Mamoudou here, responsible father of seven and pillar of Mokolo's civil society, reported it was the first time he had drunk wine in ten years. I don’t know whether to be proud or concerned as I encourage my Cameroonian friends along the wayward path.

My parents did raise me to be classy.

I just like how happy our favorite moto driver, Sangenis, is here at the prospect of that boxed wine!

Somehow, the party evolved into a dance-off around a centerpiece of… a bowl of whiskey sachets. Interestingly, the accompanying music was provided by our friend Roger. He whipped out his guitar and played what he knew everyone could sing along to: Jesus music. And you don’t need to be Christian to know your Jesus music. I have some Muslim friends with great voices!

A little video of the sing-along:

Awkward white girl trying to dance. My partner here is Antoinette, Thea’s neighbor who never fails to boost my ego with her commentaries on my attire. When I showed up at Thea’s in a dress, she said, “Oh Fleurange, you’re pretty today!”
“Ah, Antoinette, I was ugly yesterday?”
“Yes, you were ugly yesterday.”

Keep trying!

Antoinette shows us how it’s done. Here, she has the entire bowl of whiskey sachets on her head.

I have so much to learn from her. :)

Illustrative: That is the whiskey sachet in action.

The after-after-party. Here, my postmate and dear friend of two years, Thea, shows us that unlike me, she has in fact learned to shake it.

Can I just add as a side note that a few nights later, at dinner at my house, I learned the traditional dances of the Mafa, Kapsiki, AND Toupouri peoples. Just wait til the next time you’ve got a drink in me. I might blow your mind with my all-new-yet-traditional African bush moves. :)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I will miss

I leave Mokolo in only four days! Since my mama always taught me the value of pro and con lists, I couldn’t help but start noting all the little things I might (or might not!) miss when I leave Cameroon, for better and for worse…

I will miss:
• Random debates that break out among strangers in the middle of a shared taxi ride across town. And even when a consensus is reached, someone says, “Well now we’ve started arguing, we might as well keep arguing until we get to our destination!”
• Being able to lose my cool with somebody and then be best friends two seconds later.
• Wearing the same shirt a few days in a row. And wearing the same three ugly pairs of pants for two years straight.
• Wearing ridiculously loud pagne ensembles, with poofy sleeves, and being told I am beautiful, as opposed to, say, a freak.
• The freedom of my schedule: taking a nap, or a run… or a drink, on a weekday at 11am! Waking up with no alarm, working from home, and going in to an office specifically when I am needed, not just to punch time. Setting my own priorities.
• Gratuitous nose picking.
• 1$ beers. 20 cent whiskey sachets.
• Having time to read good books!
• Designing my own clothes, frumpy as they might be, and having them custom tailored by my tailors who tell me I need to turn black before I leave Africa. And that I am the perfect size. In general the ability to make commentary on anyone and everyone’s bodies that would be completely inappropriate in America.
• Being more than just a tourist in a foreign community.
• Having to wash my hair only once a week cause I live in a desert :)
• Pinching cute kids’ cheeks, spanking cute kids’ butts, patting cute kids’ heads. We’re not supposed to touch strangers’ children in America? That will be so weird!
• Dudes wearing complete ensembles of neon pink, or lime green, or banana yellow… Could be pajamas, could be fine formal wear!
• Finding satisfaction in limited options.
• Baby goats: as cute as they are ubiquitous!
• Random things that just wouldn’t happen in America, for example, getting a knock on my door from a stranger who tells me he is building an airplane, and could I call my friends in my country who own factories and tell them?
• The generosity of Cameroonians—knowing that whomever I’m sitting next to on a bus is going to share with me whatever little food he buys off the side of the road. Or that if I happen to visit a friend near meal-time I’m automatically invited to join them for whatever’s cooking.
• My Cameroonian friends of the last two years who’ve seen me rant, laugh, cry, teach, debate, and grow.
• Being a part of the Peace Corps community here, with an instant friend and open door in almost every city in this country. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in general.

I won’t miss:
• Having to justify at every turn why I am not married, why I don’t want to marry, and specifically why I don’t want to marry you, your son, your brother, or your cousin.
• Having to poop in the backyard of my shared compound cause the water is out… again.
• Unidentifiable bug bites in places that shouldn’t be bitten.
• Having to answer whether I am Madame or Mademoiselle, and explain that I do not like being called Mademoiselle because I am a professional, not a twelve-year-old.
• Getting beeped—called and hung up on for any number of reasons (to say hello, to say yes, to say “I don’t have any phone credit, call me back!”)
• Washing anything that needs to get washed in this house: my dishes, my laundry, myself, while sitting on a stool in the bathroom using the one spigot in the house. Oh washing machines, I will just sit and spectate as you do your glorious work!
• Loooooong meetings where I don’t understand what’s going on in Mafa, Kapsiki or 95% of Fulfulde
• Not being able to sit cross-legged for fear of offending someone—it shows a lack of respect. The best equivalent I can think of in the States would be to rip out a big old burp in the middle of a meeting. Not so tasteful.
• Missing my friends and family in the U.S. and feeling disconnected in general, from phone calls, internet, news, and my culture.

As I’ve added to my lists, I’ve realized how many things that I either love or that drive me crazy about this country are really two sides to the same coin.

• I will miss my neighbor’s freshly prepared, delicious, cheap beans for breakfast every morning. Sitting under the trees on the side of our dirt road eating them together with my other neighbors. I have to cook my own beans in America?
• I won’t miss biting down on a rock in my neighbor’s freshly prepared, delicious, cheap beans.
• I’ll miss the ease of conversation. Asking “how’s your house, how’s your family, how’s your work?” in Fulfulde is enough to have the neighbors thinking I’m a social genius. Sweet.
• I won’t miss the boredom of so many conversations that never go beyond asking “how’s your house, how’s your family, how’s your work?” Deep.
• I’ll miss cheap transport!! 20 cents to take a motorcycle across town!
• I won’t miss fearing for my life almost every time I get on a motorcycle! I ride a motorcycle every day.
• I’ll miss African time: making it work for me when I can’t get my sleepy bum in gear to be punctual.
• I won’t miss African time: waiting indefinitely on others so that by the time a meeting finally starts I’m already exhausted.
• I’ll miss being invited to an event just because I’m the foreigner in town. Popularity made easy.
• I won’t miss the unwanted attention that comes from being different, the foreigner in town. I can’t wait to silently slip into anonymity as I walk down the streets, SURROUNDED by nassaras!!
• I’ll miss feeling connected to nature: the excitement that comes from the first rains of the year, or walking out my front door and within five minutes being surrounded with NOTHING but fields, green, the sun, and the breeze.
• I won’t miss too much nature: like when you’d really like a paved road or a little electricity.
• I’ll miss trippy-sweet mefloquine dreams! (Mefloquine is the Peace Corps-provided malaria prophylaxis with undetermined long-term mental side effects. While at the same time it kind of scares me, I kinda like the crazy dreams it gives us. Just a little imagination on steroids to keep you entertained in the African bush.)
• I won’t miss malaria. :) Did I mention I got it pretty bad?
• I’ll miss bargaining: the feeling of a personal connection created and the satisfaction when you’ve been going at it for ten minutes and you know you’ve finally gotten the best price. Especially when the Cameroonians ask you, “Where did you learn to bargain like that?!”
• I won’t miss bargaining: having to spend ten minutes to get a reasonable price when I am cranky and not in the mood, and just want to breeze in and out. Ha, the luxury!
• I’ll miss when running out in the bush, the adorable four-year old girl with a huge smile that follows me when I pass her hut. She makes fake athletic-y grunting noises in between giggles, until she collapses into laughter about fifty feet later… every time.
• I won’t miss when running out in the bush, fearing getting bitten by dogs that might be rabid. Cameroonians are mostly terrified of dogs. Here, I kind of am too!

Upon their return, I’ve heard several people say that living in Africa feels somehow more “real.” I think of the example of running out in the bush. Adorable little girls chase me, but so do might-be-rabid dogs. I go on a footpath out towards Nigeria. It’s peaceful and calm and sparsely populated, with occasional huts dotting the rocky landscape. When there are people, their reactions to me can be hilarious! (especially on market day, when they’re drunk on bilbil.) One old lady stood in the middle of the path, arms wide open and hugged me before I could pass, then did a little dance to celebrate! Another drunk old man was sitting on a rock with some friends. He had a big stick and made like he was going to whack me in the knees. I was truly scared and had no idea what he was up to! He leaned towards me brandishing his stick as I passed, but then drunkenly teetered off the rock and fell on the ground. His friends loved it, and I just sang out, “I’m too fast for youuuuuuuuu!” and ran past. In between the drunken elderly, so many people smile, wave, and give me a hearty “du courage,” like “good luck! take heart!” Nobody’s ever told me that in America. In contrast, when I think of running in the States, I think of concrete, cars, and the impersonal sliver of a curb of Johnston Street, Lafayette that I’ll be allotted as drivers wiz past. No dewy grasses and Cameroonians hoeing their fields with babies on their backs, stopping to wipe their brows and smile at me as I pass. No scary dogs but also no laughter and courage. Everything in Africa seems notched up, like increasing the brightness on a screen of emotions. America will be easy, convenient, and luxurious in so many ways. But the reality of emotions—from boredom and frustration, to excitement and solidarity—in Africa offer a whole different type of richness that I will miss.