Don’t Hold Your Breath

If you had a time machine, I’d invite you to see something. Something that, if you did it just right and rewound to just the right spot, looks a lot like a younger Georgia, cheeks inflated like a puffer fish, staring out the car’s window.

That’d be because it was a younger Georgia, cheeks inflated like a puffer fish, staring out the car’s window.

Growing up I inherited a lot of things from my sister: her laugh, a spot-on impersonation of her dance moves, a substantial amount of size-9 shoes, a similar phone voice, and a penchant for holding my breath while passing graveyards.

While I don’t remember the exact moment she passed on the tradition, I do remember doing in countless times in my life. You spy a headstone and down a gulp of air, hoping it’d last you until the cemetery passed by.

This challenge was taken to the next level when I turned 15. Dad decided that, like my older sister, the best place to learn how to handle a 2000lb hunk of steel was the local cemetery, on account of anything I hit being already dead. It’s where I learned to turn corners, back into parking spaces, and parallel park a big green van like a champ. No amount of practice, though, could prepare me for that marathon of oxygen deprivation and the breath-holding challenge was put on pause, to be resumed when I got out on the open road.

Here in Cameroon I still find myself sometimes succumbing to old habits. It’s substantially harder, though, on this side of the pond. Cameroon has its own traditions, and one of them is to bury your family in your family compound.

This means, if you’re well off, a big shiny grave right outside your front doors. You see dozens of them on any given trip, a tiled headstone marking a loved one who has passed away. Sometimes you see people drying laundry on them. Other times people are relaxing, sprawled out over the tomb. If you’re less well off, perhaps all that indicates the remains is a mound of dirt, subtly piled under the closest mango tree, shovel leaning against the trunk.

It seems morbid to us. We’d rather have our dead far, far away. Cameroon deals with death on a much more regular basis, and your mortality is amplified here. Families boom and then shrink again. The question ‘how many siblings do you have?” is answered in two parts: those living and those who lived.

Graves are still sparkling and white, years after the burial, thanks to the family’s upkeep and scrubbing with the mud and dust that’s destined to accumulate. Just like in America you sometimes see forgotten sites, where families have moved away or lineages have died out. Those graves still have the grime of dry season caking them, despite the rains that have made their way through the country these past few weeks. Those graves manage to be even more depressing than the clean ones.

I didn’t understand the behaviors of many Cameroonians when I got here. Their reckless driving, their disregard for helmets, their refusal to use mosquito nets—but slowly, it made more sense. Death is looming around every corner here. Perhaps tomorrow will be your day, or the day after. You can never be sure. With such odds working against your favor (nobody gets out alive) you accept that death is a part of life, and living is a part of death, and ultimately, the most you can ask for is your memory living on through a gleaming
white-tiled grave parked in the front yard, fresh laundry piled on top.

[picture] A grave I passed on the way into Yaounde.

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