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There are no more days on my countdown. I have scrolled through a calendar, tallying up every sunset I had to wait out, for months now. I’ve seen the numbers roll over from triple digits to double, from double to single, and now to nothingness. A big, fat goose egg.
I’m worried I’ll forget it all. I’m worried the memories will become fuzzy with time. The nuances will be lost like pennies under a car seat, unimportant until you’re desperately searching for seven cents.
Desperately groping for memories of Cameroon.
I’ll lose the gentle breeze pushing the lace curtain that shield the puff-puff shack. The leather pointininis curved at absurd angles, the shoes still spotless as the men dance around mud puddles. The call to prayer as I roll over before dawn. Goats towing ropes. Women towing children. The talking drums, the ceremonial gongs. Home-made racing cars, rain on a tin roof, gleaming Salaa outfits to celebrate a long fast being over. Frogs at night. Four people in the back seat. Thunder so loud it shakes you. The beautiful click of a regulator when power comes back. The joy of a faucet trickling water after weeks of collecting rain.
They are all memories now, and fading.
The volunteer house has exploded with clothes and souvenirs and half-packed bags. Their owners do as I do, staring at the mounds hoping they’ll diminish on their own. It involves a lot of sighing. We’re weighing bags, rearranging the heavier things with the strategy of chess players. I will be pulling 120lbs of nostalgia behind me tonight.
My Cameroonian money has dwindled into almost nothing. My last few CFA goes towards small snacks at the corner store. Every last bit will be counted out, my careful planning finally coming to a head. I’ll end with zero. In its place I have fistfuls of American money. It looks fake still, long and skinny and monochromatic. Stark compared to the flash of color that once took its place in my wallet.
As it is with my service, it is with this blog. What a lie it would be to write under the heading of a Peace Corps Peach when I can make no such claims. I leave here no longer a volunteer and no longer a Georgian. What entitlement do I still have to any of it?
This whole endeavor was never meant to be anything more than a retelling of life in the armpit of Africa. My only hope was family and friends would take a glance every once in a while, maybe during the moments of quiet when I crossed their minds. Instead it has exploded into an identity.
My gratitude overflows for the readers who have made this all so much more than a bored person’s ramblings. The emails, comments, and simple page clicks have served as a bolster for me here. The outpour of support I’ve received is humbling and comforting and my light at the end of the tunnel on the darkest days.
What’s next for me is still shrouded in mystery, the fog clearing a little more each day. But it will be there, and not here. My goodbye is filled with mixed emotions, excitement to begin the next step but a deep pang of sadness that the next step is not, and may never again be, in Cameroon. And it is with that knowledge that I wish it all the best of luck, and good stead in my absence.
Meanwhile I’ll be out doing my best to catch monkeys….small, small.
The simple opening melody begins; soft plinks on a lone piano. I instantly recognize the song playing on the wide-screen LCD behind me. Some friends and I have dug in at one of the classiest restaurants in the country, and as a symbol of its luxury it continually showcases Trace, the Cameroonian equivalent of early ‘90s MTV. On the TV hits of Nigeria and the U.S. take turns sharing the spotlight.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ ‘Same Love’ wafts through the eatery, the same tune I’ve been catching snippets of all over the country, from small villages to big cities. I wonder to myself if the other patrons realize what they’re hearing. The video follows the trials of a closeted homosexual as he finds himself and happiness, despite a rough beginning. The song itself made headlines in America as the first openly pro-gay marriage song to be distributed widely. If the restaurateurs and diners weren’t picking up on it at the beginning, surely they marriage ceremony at the end would give them a hint.
Though America just marked the 14th state to approve marriage equality for all, and my adoptive home of Canada installed truly equal marriage rights for all back in the mid-aughts, Cameroon proves to be a much more hostile environment. Peace Corps advises that any volunteer that might be homosexual or bisexual do their best to keep it a secret, or risk evacuation from their village on grounds of security. Even amongst each other volunteers use the terminology ‘non-trad’ (short for ‘non-traditional) when talking about other volunteers or people they know to fit into any category but straight. To talk openly about others or ourselves using the term ‘gay’ is too dangerous for everyone involved.
Not too long ago Cameroon made headlines due to the death of a prominent gay activist, such an “extreme” stance being verifiable rarity here. The details of his death were grisly, his demise marked with extreme violence. Volunteers were horrified. Shortly after, a movement was held by local college students in the capital, who visited from bar to bar calling for more absolute measures be taken, the only solution they could see for the plague of gayness that had fallen upon the world. They wanted to guarantee that gays knew they were not welcome in West Africa.
Before that, a man was arrested for sending a text to another male saying ‘I love you’. Before that, two men were jailed on suspicions of homosexuality for ordering Bailey’s Irish Cream at a bar. Around that same time three women sat in a prison in Douala, tried with being suspected lesbians.
And all this comes from a place where typically “homosexual” things are the norm. Hand holding among men, even in public, is an
unremarkable fact of life. Hugging is common among the same sex. One of the greatest compliments a man can pay another man is to claim he’s slept in his marital bed, a testimony to how trustworthy he is. Group, nude bathing is traditional.
And yet, the greatest fear of many is the idea of an insipid gay infiltrating their lives on a mission to convert their children, an absurd view with no base in sanity or reality. During the announcement of France’s legalization of nation-wide gay marriage I was parked in a bus station with 50 Cameroonians, waiting to board. A collective gasp sounded as they bore holes with their eyes into the images on television. Two men, right there, kissing. In one swift motion they all swiveled to face me, the apparent local expert on all things gay and white.
And instead of shrugging and claiming I knew nothing, me and a whole gaggle of Cameroonians sat until the bus came, arguing what we knew or thought to be true about gays. With great courage, one woman piped up and announced herself as a seasoned nurse. She’d delivered hundreds of babies, she said, and sometimes…sometimes they’re just born gay. She was straight herself, she clarified, but just as those in the room didn’t choose to be attracted to men or women, neither did these homosexuals choose their attractions. And with that she sat back down, turning her face back to the television, the celebrating men and women long gone. And while perhaps not support in the truest sense, it was progress for me, for other straight allies, and for the LGBTQ community at large. One singular step forward on what seems to be a very long journey for Cameroon.
But, as they say, small small catch monkey.
I had a killer week.
Hugging my trainees goodbye, I slid into the backseat of a beat-up Toyota, heart set on visiting friends near the Nigerian border. Unfortunately, my stomach was set on other things, like keeping down breakfast. As luxurious as it is having three people in a backseat the normally fits four, the extra room does nothing but taunt your equilibrium, sending you careening from one side of the car to another while you navigate the tell-tale curves of the Wum road.
Recovered, the following day we straddled motorcycles on the way to Lake Nyos, the world’s deadliest lake. In the mid-80s a massive low-laying cloud of CO2, prompted by God only knows, crept through the valley, choking everything in its path. Before, it calmly lay at the lake’s bottom, a product of natural means due to Cameroon’s
once-volcanic activity. In one fell swoop made its way to the surface and ended the lives over 1500 people.
The lip of this lethal lake is failing, a fact I only discovered through later research. In an effort to take pressure off the northern end of the behemoth body of water, a natural dam has been broken, allowing thousands of gallons a day to cascade into the valley below. This, perhaps, was why people had been verboten from entering the site or nearing the water’s edge. Money talks louder than legislative mandates, however, and for a dollar each we were granted an exception. We got so close we were able to wash our hands with the lake’s orange water, a baffling chemical holdover from the lethal belch of ’86.
Days later I endured a painful ride to the West region, fighting between the need for fresh air and the desire to keep my nose as far away as possible from the soiled baby between me and the car’s only open window. As my reward for what had to been a championship-worthy relay of breath-holds Kate and I had prepared a day trip to Foumban, a veritable crossroads of culture, known to be the only sultanate in the country.
A towering mansion greeted us, the only building I’ve been to in country that rightly deserves the title of ‘palace’. A happy and humble tour guide led us around the museum, explaining unbelievable artifacts dating back the first sultan’s rule in the 1390s. Here a robe used for crowning, restored but consistently worn for 600 years of ceremony. There, the massive walking stick of Foumban’s largest leader, a man towering over others at a height well above two meters. And in this room, the skull of the Sultan’s enemy, used as a drinking vessel.
Though the first skulls was jarring, the seemingly dozens that followed each dulled the sensation of seeing remains lovingly arranged in a glass case. Through several more complete skulls, a shirt made from only the hair of scalped enemies, guns manufactured by both Europeans and local means, and a calabash lavishly decorated so that the jawbones of the Sultan’s war prizes knocked rhythmically with each movement, my respect and understanding of the enormity of Foumban’s power rose. These people were in the business of kicking ass and taking names, at least until the 1890s when Germans kindly took the business of running Cameroon off their hands.
And now after killer lakes and killer kings, I battle a killer cold. My nose is suffering as I sniff halfheartedly, a useless effort but a habit that won’t die. I’m finally back in my own bed, alone for the first time in over a week except for this sickness sidekick. And sure, it isn’t breath-taking in the most sinister of ways, nor is it a ruthless conqueror hell-bent on take-over, but it it slays me none-the-less.
Look at this cool monkey named Dou-Dou we found in Wum!
“Don’t leave. Just…Just don’t ever leave.”
These were the words of the wise man that I happened to be sharing a seat with on a ride back to Bali-Nyonga. He had just called my bluff when I claimed to like Cameroonian music. In response I laid down the phat lines of Jovi, my most beloved Cameroonian rap artists.
She wan chop bony fish? Put’em fa ma bill.
She wan chop buffalo? Put’em fa ma bill.
She want shock beer? Na, put’em fa ma bill.
Complete with hand gestures and a facial expression that could only be made more gangster with the addition of a grill, I felt I had done my part in proving that I, indeed, owned and listened to Roonies who rapped. The old mami in the back seat agreed, and proclaimed a round of ‘Won-dah-ful!’s in concordance.
But, alas, despite the requests that seem to be flowing in at a rate higher than normal these days, I will indeed leave and go back for ‘ma own side’, thousands of miles from this mami, or this man, who request my permanent residence. The end is not only in sight, it’s practically tangible. It’s beginning to seep into the way I think on a daily basis. With only one week left (and some change) in Bali, my calendar is beginning to get claustrophobically tight, and time alone with my thoughts is becoming a luxury I can no longer afford.
It seems the universe knows, too, that my time is a limited thing and has set out to make the interactions I have parodies of themselves. The market mamis are so market mami-y. I catch the morning calls prayer by the sheer luck of rolling over at 5:15am and hear the clip-clop of Fulani horses galloping their way to the mosque. My seamstress is the sassiest she’s ever been and insists that my father is the world’s tallest man, due to his extra-long ties she’s currently making. My landlord and his wife are determined to teach me Mungaka before I go (a feat that I doubt with come to fruition). The sunsets are more dazzling, the thunder is so loud is shakes me awake from my naps, and the shawarma is so tasty that I’m mournfully sure there will never be another like it all the way across that big, blue pond.
But, it is not yet the end. There is more delicious shawarma in sight, trips to go on, people to see, and things to do. Never one without an appetite, these last weeks are going to be inhaled like a favorite meal. I will indulge and devour. And as I settle into that plane seat in early November I’ll be satisfied and full and probably in desperate need of a nap.
It’s college football season, and I reckon’ there ain’t nothing on this earth that makes me miss a fall Saturday in Athens, Georgia more than knowing the Bulldogs are playing ball more than 4000 miles away from anywhere I’ve been in a long while. That and pumpkin spice lattes.
Luckily, Cameroon packs its own version of the Dirty South. The South region of the ‘Roon is known for two things, mostly: it’s got practically nobody living there, and the people that do are downright ornery.
I was warned half a dozen times en route to Ambam, a friend’s post near the Equatorial Guinean/Gabonese border, that I would need to gird my loins for what lay ahead. In an effort to not mince words, the simple instructions of “do not show fear” were tossed out during a pit-stop in the region’s capital between bites of rice and beans.
We kept a running tally during my visit of how many men approached us to ask for my hand in marriage. Bus depots proved to be the most fruitful, skyrocketing my stock exponentially as the count went from nil to seven in a little under ten minutes, including a brief appeal during a phone call from a man who knew my host from the regional capital and had seen us waiting for our bus transfer. We walked away with thirteen outright proposals during my 48 hour stint, nothing to be ashamed of but still a little low for my liking, as anything less than two dozen makes me feel I’m off my game.
Twerking in a market-place is not typically a light bulb moment for people, I assume. And for those it is, certainly not a moment where they think “I finally know what I’m doing with my life”. But there I was, breaking it down in front of literally hundreds of people as a response to market mamis slinging a constant barrage of insults and “la blanche”s my way. Two years of this place has taught me that the quickest way to a Host Country National’s heart is either buying them a drink or making them laugh. Those same two years have taught me nothing, and I mean nothing, makes a Cameroonian laugh harder than a white person attempting to dance. As predicted, the teasing ceased and instead the calls of “my sister” and “marry my son” trailed me out of the vegetable section.
Somewhere between my second beer of the night by candlelight and yelling full-out about racial relations in my broke-ass French I realized that perhaps the South of Cameroon, much like the Southern United States, isn’t so much backwards as it is misunderstood. Sure, I was literally being screamed at by the man across the table from me, but who wasn’t screaming at the table? How else could we be heard above the din of the darkened bar? And how could you hate someone who, after bellowing for half an hour, offers the entire table another round of suds?
The South and the South would get along well, I suppose. We’d bring the moonshine and they’d bring the palm wine and together we’d sit around a well-built fire as someone’s knuckleheaded uncle made an incoherent point about politics. We’d explain the Dawgs and they the Lions and we’d paint our faces black and silver and red and green and yellow and cheer loudly even when our teams lost. Deer, squirrel and raccoon would pair nicely with snake, forest antelope, and porcupine, though all fall into the category of things I’d rather leave up to others to snack on until they could find a way to smoke ‘em, pull ‘em, and cover ‘em in a vinegar sauce. When it was all done with we’d sit and stargaze and stay up too late. And we’d wash it all down with pumpkin spice lattes.
Evilness cannot be properly gauged by the sneer on one’s face. Nor can it be judged by the deftness exhibited while twirling the tip of a particularly villainous ‘stache. It cannot be found in the number of lackeys trailing behind, nor in the possession of an earth-destroying supermachine. Evilness is a delicate thing, and can only truly be teased out in one place:
I am unsure I’ve ever spent more time in a moving vehicle, publically shared or not, than I have in Cameroon. Hours upon hours have passed watching the road pass below me through rusted floorboards, or holding my breath to avoid the exhaust of an upcoming semi-truck we’re daring to pass on a bend.
And in that time, I’ve been able to come up with a few rules for determining if you’re a good person.
1. If we’re in a taxi, we’re already miserable. If two people are in the back, and none in the front, you need to take that front seat, buddy. If you instead decided to squeeze in with us in the back, you’re a bad person.
2. If we’re on a bus and you’re the aisle seat, your leg room is practically infinite and you should stretch accordingly. Reach for the stars! (As long as it is away from my seat) If your selfish self gets all akimbo on me, the very limited-spaced window seat traveler, you’re a bad person.
3. Baton de manioc (bobolo in pidgin) possesses a gut-wrenching stinky-feet aroma. It’s gelled Birkenstocks, wrapped in leaves. If you decided to pick some up on the way and store it in our vehicle, you’re a bad person.
4. If we’re on a motorcycle together and I don’t know you, don’t rest your hands on my knees. It’s gross, and you’re a bad person.
5. If you’re a volunteer on a motorcycle, and we’re riding together, get your big-ass helmet out of my face. If we’re clanking together the entire ride because you don’t know how to stagger helmets? I’m going to think slightly less of you, though you’re probably not a bad person.
6. If you’re ‘that person’ who refuses to get up so I can get access to the aisle, and instead slightly angles your legs as though that’ll provide me with ample room to get off this god-forsaken vehicle, you’re a bad person. And I’m going to put my butt right in your face as I shuffle by.
7. If it’s 90 degrees outside and you refuse to open a window, you’re a bad person. If it’s raining outside and 60 degrees and you refuse to close your window, you’re a bad person.
8. If you complain to the driver that I’m getting Whiteman privilege because I got a good seat and you did not, despite my arrival at 6:30 am and your arrival at 10 am, you’re a bad person. I will luxuriously eat and drink and sleep in my fantastic seat while you grumble several rows back, a victim of that crappy half-seat they make people sit on.
8. If you randomly purchase five pineapples, hand me one, and then exit the bus after wishing me a good day, you’re a really, really good person. Thanks, random guy, the pineapple was delicious.